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What John Wilkerson’s Partners Want You To Know About The Voice Of Tennessee Baseball

Photo via Wilkerson.

John Wilkerson and Mike Keith’s call was delayed. Their mixer plug shorted and Wilkerson hurried to the nearest Fayetteville dollar store to buy $60 worth of D batteries to run the adapter in order to keep their call of Tennessee baseball’s mid 1990s series against Arkansas on the air. The duo spent the next three days finding excuses to go to break when the signal grew weak and they needed to change the batteries.

“It was truly for the love of the game and the love of the broadcast,” Mike Keith told RTI of the early days of Vol baseball on the radio.

Wilkerson has spent the last 36 years calling Tennessee baseball and the last 25 years as the lead radio broadcaster. He is a walking encyclopedia of Vol baseball knowledge with an undying love of the program he covers.

The Knoxville native and Tennessee graduate has worked in the booth with five different partners. This is what they want you to know about the Voice of Vol Baseball.

“He is the heart and soul of Tennessee baseball,” Roger Hoover told RTI.

More From RTI: Texas A&M HC Jim Schlossnagle Discusses Tony Vitello The Assistant Coach

An Unforgettable Trip To Walmart

Kyle Hixson was at Walmart during his senior year of college when he bumped into John Wilkerson. The two had developed “somewhat of a relationship” over the past few years when Hixson would periodically call baseball games for WUTK— the student radio station.

At Walmart, Wilkerson asked Hixson if he wanted to join John’s broadcast to do postgame interviews down in the locker room.

“I was just thrilled,” said Hixson, who sat by Wilkerson in the booth from 2005 to 2011. “Really the best trip to Walmart I’ve ever had.”

Roger Hoover, who worked with Wilkerson as a student in 2010 and then as his full time partner in 2012, has a similar story. Hoover had done the public address announcing at Lindsey Nelson Stadium during his sophomore and junior years but they had moved in a different direction for the 2010 season.

Wilkerson learned through the grapevine that Hoover’s true passion was play-by-play announcing and approached Hoover at a Knoxville West vs. Knoxville Catholic football game that they were both announcing.

“I figured John was coming over to talk to me about who should we expect in the secondary for West or any changes on the offensive line— stuff like that,” Hoover said.

But Wilkerson instead asked Hoover if he wanted to join the Tennessee baseball radio team with Hixson, doing locker room interviews and calling innings during midweek games.

“It felt huge to me to do that with John because, for me growing up (in Kingsport), like he was a very much larger than life figure,” Hoover said.

Two years later, after a gig calling AA baseball in Jacksonville went sideways, Hoover was once again looking for an opportunity. And it was Wilkerson who once again provided it, bringing him in as his full time partner when the spot opened up.

That’s what those who worked beside John Wilkerson want people to realize. To truly appreciate Wilkerson’s greatness on the mic, you first have to understand the selfless and thoughtful person that he is.

“The one thing that really stands out with John,” Hixson said. “He is genuinely one of the nicest, most genuine people you could ever hope to meet and what you’re hearing on the radio is exactly how the man is.”

“To be his partner was one of the very greatest experiences of my life,” said Keith, who sat by Wilkerson in the booth from 1988 to 1998. “Because we were roommates for two and a half years and he really took care of me because I was, I still am, younger.”

Stories From The Road In The SEC

Hoover, now the voice of Alabama baseball, had to break brutal news to Wilkerson this April. Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders in Oxford had closed.

“I mean, it was like death in the family,” Hoover said. “It was really, really tough because … it was kind of a Tennessee baseball broadcasting tradition it felt like.”

As great the calls and lessons in the broadcast booth were for Wilkerson’s partners, it’s the road trips they most remember.

“You really get to know someone rolling along in his Toyota Camry for all of those hours,” Hixson said. “Those are my favorite memories”

“Just all the road trips were … extremely fun,” Hoover said.

A text between Wilkerson and Hoover that includes the name Sikes Orvis will rapidly bring back memories of the Ole Miss’ freshman’s walk off hit on a week that included trips to Graceland and Rendezvous.

Traffic provided serious issues for Wilkerson and Vince Ferrara, who’s been John’s partner since 2013, on one road trip causing Wilkerson to drop Ferrara off at the front gate to quickly run up to the press box and set up equipment while he parked the car.

Following in Keith and Wilkerson’s tradition of chaotic trips to Fayetteville, Wilkerson and Hixson were “blissfully unaware” driving on Interstate-40 through a nasty thunderstorm.

“As we were driving down I-40 in Memphis there were literally trees on the interstate,” Hixson said. “Drove through the storm and then it was literally on our tails all the way back to Knoxville.”

The traveling stories were craziest in the 1990s when Keith and Wilkerson were just beginning to call Vol baseball on the radio. In 1992, they drove the 650 miles back from Baton Rouge through the night to make it back for their respective Monday morning radio shows, all in a season no one was paying them to broadcast the games.

On one trip to Clemson, Wilkerson and Keith had an unexpected guest staying in their hotel room with them.

“We showed up one time at Clemson and they had a fan set to room with us because Coach Delmonico had promised a fan he could go to the game,” Keith said with a laugh. “So it’s like, ‘who are you again?’ and it’s like ‘oh, I’m one of the third base hecklers’ and it’s just like what?”

But there were welcomed guests too. When Tennessee basketball started having success in the late 1990s under Jerry Green, baseball players would come to Wilkerson and Keith’s room and listen to the games on the radio.

“It’s possible that some of the older ones might have had a beer,” Keith said. “It’s a different time and the stories were so fun. Because all those first JUCO guys, Lord only knows how old they were. But oh gosh the road trips and all of it was a scream. Just a scream.”

Photo via Roger Hoover

Fourteen Years In The Wilderness

Wilkerson and Keith started doing every game during the 1992 season— Rod Delmonico’s third season as head coach. Wilkerson was behind the mic for the rise of Tennessee baseball as Delmonico took the Vols to Omaha in 1995, 2001 and 2005.

But the Vols’ program started to slip after the 2005 run. Tennessee fired Delmonico after the 2007 season and the program entered its dark ages.

Through coaching changes and unsuccessful seasons, Wilkerson was once again the constant.

“He lived and died on every pitch and that was something that was really fun to be a part of,” Hoover said.

“He was frustrated through some of the lean years like everybody else was,” Hixson said. “But at the end of the day he’s the consummate professional so once he gets on the air he does his job.”

Despite the trying stretch, Wilkerson remained both optimistic and totally dedicated to supporting Tennessee baseball.

For years, John and his wife Pennye have taken summer vacations to Massachusetts to watch Tennessee players in the Cape Cod League. That continued throughout the tough times.

“John brought this same enthusiasm and passion to the broadcast that he did when we were covering a College World Series team,” Hixson said. “I think that just speaks to what a professional he is and how much he loves the team.”

“For him to stay as positive as he did about Tennessee baseball and the possibilities that Tennessee had to be an SEC and national power, it’s incredible,” Hoover said.

Wilkerson’s commitment and dedication to Tennessee baseball through the bad times is what makes the Vols’ current run of success under Tony Vitello particularly rewarding to the men that worked with him.

“The first time they went to Omaha under Vitello, I was thrilled for the team,” Hixson said. “I was thrilled as a fan but almost more than anything else, I was thrilled for John Wilkerson. Because I knew what he had gone through and what he had witnessed through some of the lean times to get to that point.”

“To see John in these moments, especially after 14 years of being in the wilderness in between, it’s so gratifying to me more than anybody else outside of his family because I know what he did for this,” Keith said. “I know the dues he paid for this and I also know that John is perfect for the game of baseball.”

A Man Ready To Meet Every Moment

Tennessee baseball had one trip to the College World Series before Wilkerson started calling games on the radio. He’s been along for the ride in six of Tennessee’s seven trips to college baseball’s mecca.

“When I think of Tennessee baseball’s modern era, I think of Coach Delmonico arriving and then the building of the program in the early and mid 90s and John was there for all of it and when you think of all of the coaches,” Hixson said. “All of the players. All of the staff through this entire time. The only constant really has been John Wilkerson and I think that is pretty remarkable.”

Wilkerson’s voice has accompanied nearly every major Tennessee baseball moment in the modern era. Don’t let his radio partners’ love for him as a person distract you from a very important fact about Wilkerson the broadcaster.

“He doesn’t miss in those moments,” Ferrara said.

When Vitello’s squad won the 2022 SEC Tournament it was, “for the first time in Hoover, Alabama the Tennessee Volunteers are tops in the Southeastern Conference.”

“I thought he framed that extremely well,” Hoover said.

Keith’s favorite Wilkerson call is a sentimental one. As the lead commentator in 1995, Keith called the final out of Tennessee’s College World Series clinching win over Oklahoma State. But six years later it was Wilkerson’s turn as Tennessee defeated East Carolina in Greenville to advance to the third College World Series in program history.

“I knew what that meant to him and for him to have that moment after working 13 years to get there was almost as good for me as my moment was in ‘95 because I love him so much,” Keith said. “He’s like a member of my family and to see what he’s getting to do now and to see how people respond to him and recognize his greatness and make no mistake— it’s greatness.”

Hixson sat beside Wilkerson in 2005 when Rob Fitzgerald’s sixth home run of the season was a ninth inning two-run shot that gave Tennessee a 3-2 lead and silenced Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium in game one of the Atlanta Super Regional.

“John just went nuts and it was a crazy moment,” Hixson said. “It was kind of an unexpected moment, one you didn’t see coming just given the circumstances and then we go out there the next day and beat them pretty soundly … and we’re off to Omaha.”

Perhaps Wilkerson’s most famous call came when Drew Gilbert’s walk-off grand slam allowed “Tennessee to say hello win column” in a 9-8 Knoxville Regional opening win over Wright State in 2021.

“The Drew Gilbert call to me stands out above the rest,” Hoover said. “I think he met that moment extremely well.”

“I think it was one where you started to see more-and-more people give John the attention and recognition,” Ferrara said. “You take them in and you watch, I’m not sitting there staring at him, but you take it in and appreciate it.

Wilkerson checked another call off the list on Wednesday night when Tennessee defeated Florida State to advance to the College World Series finals for the first time since 1951. That leaves only one Tennessee baseball moment left for Wilkerson to call.

The moment.

“He has been building towards a moment that could be coming up later this week in Omaha,” Hoover said. “He’s really well suited to be on the mic if Tennessee wins the National Championship.”

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