What do former Braves GM John Schuerholz, former Braves announcer Pete Van Wieren and current Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein have in common? They each got their first job in professional baseball after writing a letter. Today, I give you Pete Van Wieren’s story, along with 8 lessons you can learn from his story to land a career in sports. Schuerholz’s and Epstein’s stories will follow in the coming weeks.
Some of you may know Pete Van Wieren as the voice of the Atlanta Braves for 33 seasons. A few years back, his memoir Of Mikes and Men was released, and it in he recounts how his career began. For me, summer is the smell of fresh cut grass and the sound of Skip and Pete on the radio. Accordingly, I bought the book immediately.
As I read the book that first time several years ago, I marked a passage about letters Van Wieren sent looking for his next job. Why did I highlight that passage? Because I’d done the same thing as a high school student, then college student and law student. I got my first job working for a lawyer when I was a sophomore in college simply by faxing a letter to every attorney I could find in the yellow pages within a 20 mile radius. I went in alphabetical order. I was hired by Ms. White.
Back to Van Wieren’s story. After graduating from college, he began his career working for the Washington Post – not as a sports writer, but in marketing and promotion. He was hopeful he could move into sports if an entry-level job became available. Lesson #1: Get your foot in the door however you can.
Van Wieren knew writing wasn’t his passion, however. His career goal was to one day become a baseball announcer. So, when he saw an ad in the Washington Post for the National Academy of Broadcasting, he enrolled in a course three nights a week. Lesson #2: If you’re not getting the experience you need in your current job, find a way to get it.
The National Academy of Broadcasting had a job placement program, and after completion of the course Van Wieren landed a job at a small radio station in Warrenton, Virginia. His title was News Director, but he did everything from disc jockey to sales to voicing commercials and play-by-play work. Lesson #3: Be willing to do anything.
From there, Van Wieren was hired by a station in Manassas, where he got more play-by-play experience calling high school, little league and American Legion games. He was getting more play-by-play experience, but it still wasn’t professional baseball. Lesson #4: Everyone starts at the bottom.
At this point in the story, we reach my favorite paragraph of the entire book:
I knew that if I wanted to do professional baseball, I first had to find work in a city that had a pro club. So I began what became a daily ritual: typing one letter and one resume, and mailing it to a station in a city that had a minor league baseball team.
Let’s not forget that Van Wieren was doing this before the age of computers. He didn’t have a resume and cover letter he simply tweaked a little and shot off by email. He had to type each one out on a typewriter every day. If he could do that, you have no excuse. Lesson #5: Make your own opportunities.
Van Wieren says most of the letters went unanswered, as will likely happen with many of yours. Out of the answers he did receive, however, he landed a half-dozen interviews. He spent his week of summer vacation going on those interviews, and one of them yielded a job offer in Binghamton, New York, home of the Bighamton Triplets. Lesson #6: Be willing to move anywhere.
The only problem was the station that hired Van Wieren didn’t actually broadcast the Triplets’ games. No station had in years. So, Van Wieren asked his new boss if they could carry the games, and he said only if Van Wieren could sell it – himself. There would be no help from the station’s sales force. Undeterred, Van Wieren teamed up with the GM of the Triplets and nearly reached the sales goal by the start of the season. His station manager was so impressed they agreed to try to sell the rest of the time, and Van Wieren ended up calling home games that season. Lesson #7: If you’re truly passionate about what you want to do, you’ll find a way to do it.
Another radio station picked up the rights to the Triplets the following year, and Van Wieren followed them there. Back then, minor league teams didn’t put out a daily stat sheet, a packet you’d find today in any press box. Instead, a package arrived on Tuesdays with stats for the entire league through the previous Sunday’s games. Week-old stats weren’t good enough for Van Wieren, however, so he spoke with the local newspaper sports editor and found out they received box scores from all the teams, but they didn’t have room to print them. Instead, the editor started saving them for Van Wieren, who would pick them up each day.
Van Wieren kept a book on each team and added the new stats every day. It wasn’t long before coaches and players were beating down his door for information on the teams and players they’d be facing. Lesson #8: Find a way to become indispensible.
Are you doing all the things Van Wieren was doing in pursuit of his career goal? If not, remember what I always say: If you’re not doing it, someone else is.
And if you want to read the entire book, the paperback is due out next month.