In the Broadcast Booth with Jerry Howarth
By Greg Dalgetty
Few broadcasters in Canada have had the longevity or been as widely embraced as Jerry Howarth, the voice of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The radio play-by-play announcer first started calling Jays games with his long-time partner, the late Tom Cheek, in the broadcast booth in 1981. Since then he’s witnessed every Toronto milestone firsthand—two World Series championships, recent back-to-back playoff runs and the infamous bat flip—and brought listeners across the country along for the ride with his insightful commentary.
It all could’ve turned out differently, though.
"I didn’t know much about Canada when I first moved here and I knew nothing about Toronto," Howarth recalls. "I figured I’d be here for about three years and then move back to the States."
But those three years have turned into more than three decades, with Howarth now in his 36th season behind the mic in the broadcast booth. Born in York, Pennsylvania, and raised in San Francisco, Howarth became a dual Canadian citizen in 1994, along with his wife, Mary, and sons Ben and Joe.
We caught up with Howarth shortly before spring training began to learn more about his amazing career, his favourite memories and his family history in the mechanical trades.
A New Generation of Jays Fans
Not only was Howarth a witness to the Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series titles—he was also around for the 22-year playoff drought that immediately followed.
The Jays finally managed to right the ship in 2015 and have enjoyed successful playoff runs to the ALCS for the past two seasons, reinvigorating baseball diehards across the country—and earning the team thousands of new fans who weren’t around for the ’92 and ’93 championships.
So, how do today’s crowds compare to those from the Jays’ heyday in the early ’90s?
"One nice thing about broadcasting for 35 years is you can answer a question like that with some perspective," Howarth quips. "When the SkyDome opened—back then it was still the SkyDome—it was a mostly corporate crowd of 50,000 a night. I would even say to myself, ‘Come on, get into it! Where’s the anticipation?’ The fans would only stand and applaud with two strikes in the ninth inning, when the game was pretty much over.
"And then in 2015, I’d never seen crowds as emotional and having as much fun as the last three months of that season when (former Jays pitcher) David Price was acquired to make a great team even greater. In August, September and October of that season—I’d never seen crowds like that in my 35 years. And that carried over into last year, when they drew 3.4 million fans."
Ties to the Trades
Baseball season stretches through the dog days of summer, when the days are long, the sun is high in the sky and some relief from the heat is often welcomed—unless you’re Jerry Howarth, that is.
"The Blue Jays went to Florida years and years ago," he recalls. "The visitors’ radio booth at the Marlins stadium had air conditioning that blew over the top of my head the whole game. I ended up with laryngitis for the week. And I said, that’s it for air conditioning—I don’t want any more cold air blowing over my head."
Howarth estimates that about half of the broadcast booths he works in have air conditioning—and he always turns the AC off, in spite of his interesting connection to the HVAC/R trades.
"The irony is my dad was a very good mechanical engineer who worked in air conditioning and refrigeration cooling systems," he says, adding that his oldest son is an electrical engineer. "I tell my friends, ‘My dad was a mechanical engineer, my son is an electrical engineer, and all I do is go to baseball games!’"
Howarth rose to fame working alongside Tom Cheek, who’d been calling Blue Jays games since the team’s inaugural season in 1977. The pair of sportscasters—lovingly referred to as Tom and Jerry—remained working together until 2004.
Sadly, Cheek passed away of brain cancer in 2005, but some of Howarth’s fondest memories include calling the game with his former cohort, and one game in particular stands out.
"I think my all-time favourite game would be Game 6 in extra innings of the World Series in Atlanta," Howarth says. "It was an opportunity for the Blue Jays to win a first-ever World Series for Canada."
He and Cheek would take turns doing the play-by-play each inning and, as luck would have it, Howarth was having his turn in the 11th inning, with the game tied at 2-2 and the Jays leading the series 3-2.
"Dave Winfield doubled two home for a 4-2 lead," Howarth recalls. "And there’s Tom sitting with me, who’d been with the Blue Jays since Day 1.
"I came on and, without Tom knowing what I was about to do, I just said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve had the pleasure of calling Dave Winfield’s two-run double for the lead. And now here’s my partner Tom Cheek to take you the rest of the way.’
"So he took over, and the Blue Jays won it in the bottom of that inning, 4-3. I was just so happy for Tom. It made my day—and season—to see him glowing like that. It was richly deserved and I couldn’t have been happier for him."
The Bat Flip
One of the most memorable moments from recent Jays history centres on Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS series against the Texas Rangers, a three-run homer from Jays slugger Jose Bautista—and the now-infamous bat flip.
It was the top of the seventh at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, with the game tied 2-2. The Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo was at bat when a fluke of epic proportions sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Jays catcher Russell Martin was throwing the ball back to Aaron Sanchez on the mound—but the ball grazed Choo’s bat, careening off course and allowing the Rangers’ Rougned Odor to score. The umpires stopped the game to review the play—the run was allowed—and then the proceedings really screeched to a halt when fans started hurling beer cans onto the field.
"You have to put everything in perspective, and that was an ugly inning for the fans, and for everybody else," Howarth recalls of the game. "It was very emotional—things were being thrown on the field. It was Game 5. Win and move on; the loser’s out. And now, all of a sudden, Texas has the lead."
Once the dust had settled and the game finally progressed to the bottom of the 7th, the Rangers committed a comedy of errors—three, to be exact—that allowed the Jays to tie the game. And then, with runners on first and third, Bautista stepped up to the plate and cranked what can only be described as a dingwhopper deep into left field, bringing the Jays ahead 6-3 in the game—ultimately winning them the series.
As an exclamation point to his series-winning bomb, Bautista superciliously flipped his bat aside—a move that instantly became part of Blue Jays lore. The bat flip was viewed as unsportsmanlike by some, but Howarth, like many others, had no problem with it.
"It’s a game of emotions—especially in the playoffs, when so much is at stake," Howarth says. "Did it look good on the surface for everybody else? Probably not. It was very in-your-face for Texas. But for the Blue Jays, Jose and the fans—at that moment, for me, it was an OK thing to do.
"It was in the moment. And when you’re in the moment, that’s a good thing. Jose’s always been in the moment, and that’s why he’s had nine great years in Toronto, and why we’re looking forward to a tenth."