If you’re a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, Jerry Howarth needs no introduction. The 64-year-old has been the radio voice of the Blue Jays for three decades—24 of those years paired with the late Tom Cheek—and few broadcasters in the game are more popular, or as respected. A graduate of the University of Santa Clara, Howarth grew up in San Francisco and is now a Canadian citizen and a resident of Toronto.
David Laurila: To start, what is your history as a baseball fan?
Jerry Howarth: It goes back to my father, who took me to San Francisco Seals games before the Giants came out, in 1958, from New York. I remember watching the Seals and the Hollywood Stars play, and that was kind of my introduction to watching the game. My dad introduced me to Little League, so I played as well.
When the Giants came, in ‘58, I went to a number of games and suddenly Jim Davenport, Chuck Hiller, Willie Mays, Willie Kirkland and Jackie Brandt became my heroes overnight. Then, in 1959, my father and I went to a ballgame. It was an afternoon game, and as we were driving in my dad had the radio on and we were listening to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons doing the pre-game show. They said that the Giants had just called up this young first baseman from Triple-A Phoenix named Willie McCovey. That day my dad and I sat there at Seals Stadium and watched Willie go 4-for-4 with two triples and two singles; he hit all three walls. That was in late July and he went on to become the Rookie of the Year, playing just a little better than two months. From that moment on, I just developed a real passion and love for both baseball and the Giants. My dad introduced me to the game that way.
DL: How different was the game of baseball 50 years ago than it is today?
JH: It’s altogether different. The game is different; the ballparks are different. Baseball has gone through different eras, including the Steroid Era. It’s just very hard to compare. But if you love the game, I think you still have that little boy in you, like Roy Campanella talked about, to appreciate the game. You appreciate the players, because the game is very difficult.
Probably the biggest difference is that it is more of a business, whereas before the owners had complete control. Now I think that the players have a lot of control, and it has worked out well for the free-market system. They just have to find a way to come to the middle and we’ll have the perfect scenario for everybody.
DL: How different is broadcasting than it was when you started out, 30-some years ago?
JH: It’s the same for me. What I try to do is have a white canvas every day—it’s a fresh painting—and you paint it, and at the very end of the broadcast, when it’s over, you initial it down in the lower right-hand corner. Then you start a fresh canvas the next day. I’ve always enjoyed that. I’m not one to ride a rollercoaster with the wins and losses of a season, and that’s just my disposition. There is a reason why you win and a reason why you lose, and I like that form of objectivity. It helps me to balance the broadcast. The fans know that I’m a Blue Jays announcer, but they also know that I appreciate the game and the good plays on both sides, and there are many at this level. I’m very fortunate, at the major-league level, to see big-league plays.
The broadcasting has changed for me in one respect. I started with Tom Cheek, and we were two professional play-by-play announcers. With Alan Ashby, it’s different. I’m the play-by-play broadcaster, and he is an analyst who caught 17 years. My job is to highlight him, and in turn that highlights the game and makes our audience a lot more aware and informed about what is going on. I learn from him, too.
DL: Audiences today are better informed even before they tune in, thanks to the Internet. How does that impact your job?
JH: It makes it easier. I remember years ago when I was starting out, I would go on the road to libraries and get stacks of newspapers, probably a whole month’s worth, and cull them to find out who was doing what with that particular team. Now you can do that on the Internet in much less time.
I always enjoy the preparation. The preparation is easier now, so you can make it even more thorough. And over the years, I’ve learned to take that preparation—take that prepared material—and maybe use 25 percent of it, as opposed to trying to force 75 percent into the game. If you do that, you miss the game. With Alan Ashby, he’s a form of homework and preparation as well, because you can defer to him and that’s better than any prep work that you can do. A lot of my work has to do with setting him up and getting his thoughts and analysis. That’s why I don’t really talk to him a lot before the game, because I want everything on the air to be spontaneous. That makes for a very nice fit, to inform and entertain the audience day after day.
DL: Some players are seemingly better fits for specific markets than others. For instance, you’ll hear it said, “So and so is comfortable in Pittsburgh, but he couldn’t play in New York.” Does the same apply to broadcasters?
JH: I don’t think so. In radio, the good play-by-play announcers are fundamentally sound. It doesn’t matter which city you’re in, or which team you’re broadcasting for. If you’re fundamentally sound, and by that I mean: Give the score frequently, tell what inning it is, use the words “right” and “left” throughout the broadcast—“a left-handed pitcher into his windup to face the right-handed hitter”—then the fans can really relax and sit back and enjoy the broadcast, because they’re totally informed.
Then, with what you have to say, they can take it and run with it. They can say, “I remember when Alan Ashby said this,” or “Jerry made that comment,” but if you’re forever doing the things that are not fundamentally sound, then the fans are yelling at the radio, “Give me the score!” So I think that it fits anywhere. Fundamentals, like in any sport, are essential, and they are very essential in broadcasting.
DL: When you were getting your degree from Santa Clara, did you think that you were going to become a broadcaster some day?
JH: No, I had no idea. I graduated in ‘68, with a degree in economics and a minor in philosophy, and I knew that I had two years to serve in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant, in Frankfort, Germany. I knew that I was going to go to law school, I thought for three years, but I only went for one. I took a leave of absence to see if I could pursue a career in sports. I went back to my alma mater, Santa Clara, and they hired me in their athletic department to be the first to raise money for the school’s athletic program, in particular athletic scholarships.
It was at that point when I saw that the football and basketball games were on the radio, and I tried to get on the radio to heighten my profile as a young fundraiser in the Santa Clara-San Jose area. But I couldn’t get on the radio, so I thought: well, let’s buy a recorder and let’s tape games to see if maybe in the future there might be something I can do with the spoken word. I had always wanted to write.
I really thought, in my career, that I would be a feature writer for Sports Illustrated. Instead I took the road almost not taken, and I’m really glad that I did, because each day is a challenge to make the broadcast better than it was the day before. It was a great career path, because of that desire to improve every day, something that is good but can always be better.
DL: What most stands out from your 1974 season, broadcasting minor-league baseball in Tacoma?
JH: Well, it was my first year and I realized how little I knew about baseball, even though I had played it. I began to then broadcast with a purpose and before the game, with some investigative journalism, I sought out the manager, the coaches, the players, the umpires. I thought: Let me learn the game from them; they play it, coach it, and manage it. Be the filter between them and the radio broadcast to inform the fans—not what I knew, which was very little, but what the game is all about from the inside, out. And I’ve done that to this day. I try to let the game be spoken through the people that play it. And I try to let the audience know that it’s a tough game to play, even though we all played it at one time or another.
JH: Well, both, and vividly. Tom was a red-headed right fielder. I was there in ’74 and ’75, and each year the fans voted him the most popular player. In his second year he was called up to the big club, Minnesota, for all of 18 games. And then later I enjoyed watching him manage and take the Twins to two World Series, both of which they won.
Lyman Bostock was quiet and shy. He was a slender left-handed hitter and he was only with us in ’74, that one year. After that he went to Minnesota, and then to the Angels as a free agent. Then, sadly, he was gunned down in a case of mistaken identity, and it just broke my heart to see someone like that, who was so kind and loved baseball, and who loved people, be killed senselessly. Those were two of my favorite Minnesota Twins players, and they both started in Tacoma, like I did.
DL: Your next broadcasting job was in Salt Lake City, and you got to know the manager there pretty well.
JH: Jimy Williams was my first manager there, after Cal Ermer had been my first manager in Tacoma. Cal was a grandfatherly type who really took me under his wing, and it was a great two years. With Jimy it was more the technical side, like running the game and the strategy. For three years I was with Jimy, and I enjoyed every moment. I learned so much from him.
I’d go into Jimy’s office, at Derks Field in Salt Lake, and ask him a multitude of questions about the game the night before. He’d explain to me why he did what he did, and it dawned on me that only in the dugout, and on the field, could those questions that upstairs seem so easy be answered in a little more difficult way. It’s a complicated game and it takes a certain appreciation for that, rather than thinking that you know it all. It was a wonderful education.
Later, after he won the championship in ‘79, in Salt Lake, he became the Blue Jays’ third-base coach, and that’s when the Hewpex Sports Network, and Sue Rayson and Len Bramson, asked Jimy about me. That’s because I had sent a tape in, in ‘76, but didn’t get the job. Jimy really helped give me my break by telling them about me as a person. He was like a brother to me, and that break helped lead to me broadcasting in the major leagues for 30 years. I can’t thank Jimy enough for that.
DL: Your first season in the big leagues, and Toronto, was 1981.
JH: Yes. In the ‘81 season, I broadcast, it turned out, about 20 games. I was going to work about 40 games with Tom Cheek and Early Wynn, but they had the two-month strike. So my first full year was 1982 and I came along at just the right time, because the Blue Jays made a change in philosophy. They brought in Bobby Cox as the manager and instead of just trying to market an expansion team they went about the business of trying to win games. They did it with a future Hall of Fame manager, Bobby Cox, and Cito Gaston was the hitting coach.
I did the manager’s show there every day, appreciating Bobby Cox. I did the post-game interviews in the dugout, live. From ‘82 to ‘85 under Bobby was another classroom experience; I learned so much. Then, in ‘85, when the Blue Jays won 99 games and their first division title, I truly appreciated it. I went into the clubhouse and saw all of those kids, and gave them each a hug and told them what I thought they contributed to that first division title. I’ll never forget that. That was one of the greatest young experiences of my career.
DL: Was that 1985 team the best in Blue Jays history?
JH: No, I think that the best team ever was in ‘92. They won in both ‘92 and ‘93, but in ‘92 the games were over after six innings. They had wonderful starting pitching. In fact, in the ‘92 World Series, in Game Six, Cito used four starters: David Cone and then Todd Stottlemyre, David Wells and Jimmy Key. That’s how deep they were. But with Duane Ward in the eighth inning, and Tom Henke in the ninth, and a number of solid pitchers in the seventh, if the Blue Jays were ahead after six, it was game over.
The ‘93 team was more offensively oriented and they won games like World Series Game Four, in Philadelphia, 15-14. But for me, the all-time best team, and for so many reasons, was the 1992 team.
The 1985 team won 99 games, and they were good, and they were young. Had Bobby Cox stayed there, rather than leaving to become the GM in Atlanta… I would have loved to have seen that team grow for another three or four years. It may have grown to the best ever, but the team matured much beyond that ‘85 team. In ‘92 they had the highest payroll in baseball, and Hall of Fame players. They were just a stronger and more-talented group than the ‘85 team.
The ‘85 team did have heart and soul. They won a tough division, and to beat the Yankees was a special thrill for that team. They were kind of the pioneers to lay the groundwork for what was to come.
To be continued Wednsday
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