6 reasons the sports world might know Peoria
It’s often asked if something will “play in Peoria“?
Well, over the years, plenty of successful athletes and sports teams have done just that. Literally.
Six weeks ago, we looked at the seven reasons Peoria is famous. Now, we take a look at the six reasons the sports world might know Peoria.
First-ballot Hall of Fame baseball player Jim Thome laced up cleats for the West Peoria Little League before moving on to Bartonville’s Limestone High School and Illinois Central College in East Peoria. The 6-foot-4 slugger played 22 seasons in the majors, belting 612 home runs — eighth all-time.
The list also includes: Charlie Bartson, Ben Caffyn, Mike Donlin, Dan Dugdale, Norwood Gibson, Tom Gilles, Mike Grzanich (Canton), John Johnson (Pekin), Chris Mabeus, Zach McAllister (Chillicothe), Zach Monroe, Darby O’Brien, Emmett Seery (Princeville), Allyn Stout, Lee Thomas, Walter Thornton, Bill Tuttle (Elmwood), Andrew Werner and George Whiteman.
Girardi, a catcher primarily with the Cubs and Yankees during a 15-year MLB career, won three championships as a player and one as a manager. He’s currently the Philadelphia Phillies’ skipper, having completed 12 seasons as a big league manager.
And even if they did not grow up here, Peoria has a notable list of players who suited up in the River City. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt played for the Peoria Pacers of the collegiate league. Other all-time greats like Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols played here with the Peoria Chiefs — as did fan favorites like Mark Grace. Heck, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg even managed the Midwest League franchise for a two-year stretch.
Bradley men’s basketball burst upon the national conscious in a big way during the 1950s.
In 1950, led by all-Americans Gene “Squeaky” Melchiorre and Paul Unruh, the Braves reached the championship games of both the NCAA and NIT tournaments.
Four years later, led by all-American Bob Carney, BU was back in the NCAA title game, but fell to LaSalle.
Bradley would go on to win three NIT championships and finish second once in the ensuing six seasons as all-American and future NBA star Chet Walker and all-American Bobby Joe Mason led the way.
Melchiorre brought a different kind of renown to the school when he and several teammates were involved in a point-shaving scandal. The affair had far-reaching implications for Melchiorre, who was the No. 1 pick in the 1951 NBA draft but never played because the league banned him for life.
Bradley continued its national prominence into the 1960s, ending four consecutive seasons (1958-62) ranked among the nation’s top six teams. BU added another NIT crown in 1964, topped by all-American Levern Tart.
While the team’s national fortunes dropped in the following decades -- save a 1982 NIT title — the Braves continued to churn out all-Americans such as Joe Allen, Roger Phegley, Mitchell Anderson and Hersey Hawkins and longtime NBA players like Anthony Parker and Danny Granger, the latter who left BU for New Mexico before making the jump to the NBA.
Hawkins topped the nation in scoring in 1988 at a 36.2 points per game clip and was named the consensus national Player of the Year.
The Braves in 2006 reached the NCAA Sweet 16 as a 13 seed, knocking off powerhouses Kansas and Pitt.
Peoria launched a thousand voices
Peoria has been the personal, collegiate or professional home to a number of the biggest and most impressive voices in sports — be it on the mic or behind the typewriter.
Chick Hearn, Jack Brickhouse, Rick Telander, Charley Steiner, Ralph Lawler, Brendan Burke, Matt McConnell, Mario Impemba ...
All told, some 18 broadcasters have worked in the Peoria sports market and gone on to careers in the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball.
“It’s like Peoria is the San Pedro De Macoris of broadcasters,” joked Steiner last November, referring to the Dominican Republic town that has produced more than 100 major league baseball players. “I’d be the Jose Offerman of that group. And that’s OK. Who knows why all these guys have come out of Peoria?
’Cradle of the crossover’
Peoria was once dubbed “the cradle of the crossover” by Sports Illustrated writer and author Alexander Wolff.
He wasn’t wrong.
Carried by the trio of Sergio McClain, Frank Williams and Marcus Griffin, the Manual Rams won four consecutive boys basketball state championships from 1994-97, one with legendary coach Dick Van Scyoc and three under Wayne McClain. The trio went on to star for Illinois and Williams played for three NBA seasons.
Earlier in the decade, crossover king Howard Nathan was a Manual superstar, earning the state’s Mr. Basketball award and eventually landing briefly on the Atlanta Hawks’ roster. Peoria High’s A.J. Guyton later played in the NBA for three seasons.
Shaun Livingston led the Peoria High Lions to a pair of titles in 2003 and 2004 — and then was drafted No. 4 overall into the NBA. After a horrific injury slowed his professional trajectory, Livingston reinvented himself as a role player. He parlayed a big season in Brooklyn into a fruitful five-year stint with the Golden State Warriors, winning three NBA titles and earning a spot in their front office.
And between 1996 and 2020, Peoria was home to the Illinois High School Association’s boys basketball state finals — which in 2021 will return to Champaign for the first time since the 1990s.
The 39-year-old franchise is the seventh-longest continuously operating team in the minors, and has carried Peoria’s name to national attention as a member of three leagues — the International Hockey League, ECHL and American Hockey League — that had a footprint from coast-to-coast.
The Rivermen have sent more than 250 players, coaches, radio voices and staff members to the NHL.
Under owner Bruce Saurs, they put their name in the game’s history books when they set a professional hockey record with 18 consecutive wins in the 1990-91 IHL season. The team’s streak drew news coverage across the U.S. and Canada, and its record feat was read into the official records of Congress in Washington, D.C.
NHL scouts called that team equivalent to an NHL expansion franchise and the best ever seen in the minors. A year later, 15 of its players were on NHL teams.
Peoria was host to a regular-season NHL game between the St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers on Feb. 8, 1993, where Brett Hull and the Blues won, 3-1, before a sellout crowd at Carver Arena.
NHL coaches like Bob Plager, Paul MacLean, Rick Wamsley, Don Granato and others have coached the Rivermen team over the years. Notable players Curtis Joseph, Curtis Sanford, Jaden Schwartz, Patrick Lalime, Guy Hebert, Manny Legace, Nelson Emerson, Kelly Chase, Tony Twist, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay McClement, Gordie Roberts, Doug Evans and so many more have played here, as have opponents that included U.S. Olympians and the vaunted Russian Red Army team and Moscow Dynamo.
Minor league, in a major way
Peoria was perhaps at its sports best in the 1990s and early 2000s when three pro teams in three sports occupied the area at the same time.
The Rivermen were already a fixture in Peoria as Triple-A farm club to the St. Louis Blues in the IHL and American Hockey League.
The city has also been home to the Peoria Chiefs — Single-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals — and the now-defunct arena football team Peoria Pirates.
The Chiefs began in Peoria as the Suns, an affiliate of the California Angels. It has had stints in the Chicago Cubs and Cardinals organizations under the ownership of iconic Peorian Pete Vonachen — a close friend to Cubs voice Harry Caray.
More than 200 Chiefs players have reached the Major Leagues over the franchise’s 38-year history. They won the Midwest League championship in 2002, the same year they opened a new ballpark — now Dozer Park — in downtown Peoria.
The Peoria Pirates launched in 1999 in the Indoor Football League and played to sellout crowds at Carver Arena for their first three seasons of a 10-year ride.
Head coach Bruce Cowdrey was one of the most colorful sports personalities Peoria has ever had, and he stocked his teams with former NFL and college players like East Peoria native Tim Simpson.
All told, Peoria saw championship seasons from its pro teams in 2000 (Rivermen), 2000 (Pirates), 2002 (Chiefs) and 2002 (Pirates). Four pro titles in three years.