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Jerry Howarth: voice of a generation

PHOTO COURTESY OF JERRY HOWARTH

Jerry Howarth: voice of a generation

Reminiscing about Howarth’s 36-year career with the Toronto Blue Jays

For many, the start of spring is signaled by several sounds: birds chirping, the quiet pitter-patter of rain. For Toronto Blue Jays fans, the beginning of spring is marked by one man’s iconic voice as he calls the ballgame over the radio.

Jerry Howarth had been the Jays’ play-by-play announcer for 36 years until he stepped away from his duties earlier this year. Howarth spoke with The Varsity about his career and beginning a new life away from the radio.

Broadcasting for a professional sports team is no easy job. While the public is only tuned in for a couple hours, an announcer’s work starts hours beforehand. Prior to a single word being transmitted across the air, Howarth spends hours preparing and studying for the upcoming game. However, now in retirement, Howarth has found a new way to spend his time.

“It’s pretty much the same… the hours I used to spend… getting ready to broadcast and then actually broadcasting for three hours, I do now in the form of duplicate bridge,” says Howarth. “Now I’m back to preparing, doing my homework, and getting better and better playing duplicate bridge with partners in a big room of 50, 60, or 70 people. And that’s for three hours as well… My every day is pretty much the same, substituting bridge for baseball.”

Howarth also adds that time away from baseball allows him to spend time with his wife, two sons, and three grandsons. Of course, you can take Jerry Howarth out of baseball, but you cannot take baseball out of Jerry Howarth.

“I go out to the first game of every series; I’ve been out about 15 [or] 16 times,” he says. “What I do is I get out on the field at about quarter to four — I visit with [Manager] John Gibbons, the coaches, the players.” Howarth also greets the media staff, and in particular, reunites with those of the visiting team. “You give each other hugs and it’s a wonderful time,” he adds.

Through the 36 seasons of baseball that Howarth called, the Blue Jays achieved two MVPs, four Cy Youngs, a Rookie of the Year, a no-hitter, two World Series, and a Hall of Fame player in Roberto Alomar. But two memories stand out the most.

On the evening of October 24, 1992, the Jays needed just one win against the Atlanta Braves to win their first World Series Championship. The broadcasting duties were split between Howarth and award-winning announcer Tom Cheek. The innings were split with Howarth calling the game in the third, fourth, seventh, and eighth innings, while Cheek called the other five. If the game was to go into extra innings — as we now know it did — the two would alternate innings, with Cheek starting the 10th.

In the top of the 11th, Howarth called Dave Winfield’s two-run double, which gave Toronto a 4–2 lead heading into the bottom of the 11th. “When we went to a commercial break, I realized, ’Hey Jerry, Tom has been doing this since day one,’” recalls Howarth. “The Blue Jays were on the verge of winning their first-ever World Series. All of Canada is waiting. It’s only right that [Cheek] calls the bottom of the 11th inning.”

GEORGE TOROK/CC FLICKR

“When we came back after the commercials, unbeknownst to Tom, I simply said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve had the pleasure of calling Dave Winfield’s two-run double. Now here’s my partner Tom Cheek taking you the rest of the way.’”

“Tom was so surprised and happy all at the same time. He just sat right up, said ‘Thank you Jerry’ and called the bottom of the inning. Atlanta scored one run, but the Blue Jays would win it 4–3 at the end of 11 innings.” The decision felt right to Howarth; he believes that it made him happier than if he had called it himself.

The second memory is one that many diehard Jays fans hold close to heart. One of the most emotional home runs in franchise history came off the bat of infielder John McDonald. In 2010, McDonald’s father passed away, and according to Howarth, his dying words to his son were, “John, hit a home run for me.” McDonald wasn’t known for his power; in 16 major league seasons, McDonald had only managed to hit 28 home runs.

Days later, on Father’s Day, Howarth witnessed a scene straight from a movie, as the Jays were playing at home against the Chicago White Sox.

“John came in for defensive purposes and he came to the plate for his first at-bat since his dad passed away. He hit a line drive down the left field line. It just got over the wall — home run! We knew it was for his dad,” remembers Howarth. “As he rounded the bases, everybody was just crying and so was John. I was too when he hit home plate. He looked up to the sky and pointed there. It was only later we found out what his dad had said to him. It was certainly divine intervention that day, and that goes down as one of my most memorable calls.”

KEITH ALLISON/CC FLICKR

Howarth’s career also gave him the opportunity to support Indigenous communities. While many are aware of the use of racialized stereotypes in certain team mascots, Howarth only really understood what impact these had after receiving a letter in 1992. “The Blue Jays went to the World Series in ‘92. I was talking to the fans of the tomahawk chop and took a pitching coach out to the mound for a powwow with his pitcher,” he recalls. “I was part of all of that.”

“One day I received a letter from someone from a member of the First Nations up north,” he continues. “[It] said, ‘Jerry, I love your work. I know what you do on the radio is important to you; it’s also important to all of us. I heard you talk about the tomahawk chop and powwows and talking about the Braves and it’s offensive to us who live that life. We have very little say here in our own country. If you think about it, I would encourage you to just think about this please. The next time it comes up, maybe you can think about how hurtful it is for our people and what we have to be subjected to regarding those names and how we find them so offensive.’”

“I wrote him back… and I said, ‘Sir, thank you very much. That was right straight from your heart. I really feel for you and what you’re going through regarding this. I’ve never felt that way before… because of you for the rest of my career, I will dedicate myself to never using the words Braves or Indians or [the NFL’s Washington Redskins], especially with Cleveland’s redface mascot Chief Wahoo.’”

From that point on, Howarth says he “didn’t use those words at all” and that he “didn’t want to draw attention to himself.”

Howarth’s personal decision to exclude these names was essentially unnoticed for over two decades until listers started to catch on. In an interview with Jeff Blair of Sportsnet, the two discussed the decision of eliminating these words from the broadcast. The interview went viral.  

“I was very happy that it all came about that way, so that people began to recognize at least an issue that maybe they hadn’t thought of before,” says Howarth.

Yet the decision came with some backlash. Some made it clear that Howarth should “just stick to calling the game.” To this, Howarth responds:

“We’re talking about life, not so much ‘does politics have a place in sports?’ You do what you think is right from a human element [and] human standpoint. Colin Kaepernick did what he thought was right regardless of the consequences. He didn’t put himself first. He knelt because he felt that there were issues regarding race in the United States, which there definitely are; when you take a look, there’s no questioning that. This is life; it’s not sport separate from life, it’s not politics separate from life. It’s all a part of life.”

Howarth continues, “You have to weigh what you think you can do best to accommodate other people to just eliminate as much as you can — racism, whatever it happens to be, and just try to do the right thing… Let’s make that happen for life so that people can enjoy their lives.”

While Howarth and many protesters of the Cleveland’s red-faced Chief Wahoo logo look forward to its elimination from on-field attire in 2019, more systemic changes are on the way for Major League Baseball. Coming off the inaugural season of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL has begun its shift to 32 teams, something that seems to be on the way for baseball. But Montréal Expos fans should not get excited for a potential refurbishment of the Expos, according to Howarth.

“There’s a possibility, maybe not as strong a possibility, as perhaps some other cities might be involved too. Montréal, while they had a history together, they left because the fans didn’t come out to Olympic Stadium,” says Howarth. “The Olympic stadium doesn’t fit that bill anymore.”

“Will the fans not come out again? Will they draw eight thousand a game? Well, what about another city that would be fresh, [that] would have a brand-new stadium, and [that] would be happy to have a team that they might end up drawing an average of 30,000 to 35,000 fans for a game?” Howarth adds, “I think Montréal [is] certainly in the running whether they get a team or not. I think they’re long odds right there to do that.”

Despite stepping away from the radio, Jerry Howarth is not done telling stories. His autobiography is scheduled to be released in February 2019, featuring over 100,000 words on his life on and off the field, from high school, to the army, to his 36 years as the Blue Jays’ radio play-by-play announcer.