For 36 years, he was a friendly companion to Blue Jays fans from coast to coast. Every game, he opened the Blue Jays radio broadcast with a simple greeting; “Hello friends, this is Jerry Howarth”. That phrase perfectly encapsulates the warm demure of a Blue Jays broadcasting legend.
It’s been one year since Jerry Howarth hung up his headphones and retired as the radio play-by-play voice for the Toronto Blue Jays. No longer behind the mic 162 times a year, he still has plenty of stories to tell, woven into his new book, “Hello, Friends! Stories from My Life and Blue Jays Baseball”.
Like many broadcasters, Howarth’s path to the broadcast booth was anything but linear. His broadcasting career kickstarted thanks to a fateful phone call from the president of the San Francisco 49’ers, Lou Spadia. Howarth is a devout 49’ers fan and begged anyone within earshot to get him into Candlestick Park to watch a game. He recalls the day he picked up the phone and it was Mr. Spadia on the other line.
“I’m in my apartment and it’s Lou Spadia. He said, ‘I’ve heard from everybody but the Pope about you. I can’t get you on the field and we don’t have any openings here if you were looking for work. But next Tuesday, can you come in and I’d like to meet you’. When I hung up the phone, I left law school. I always tell kids in my career as a coach as well as a broadcaster, when your heart jumps, follow it.”
Howarth took a leap of faith and left law school behind as he followed his true passion as a sports broadcaster. It led to a position in Tacoma, Washington where he became the voice of the triple-A Tacoma Twins, in addition to broadcasting college and high school football and basketball games.
Two years later, Howarth moved to Utah, where he took a role as a broadcaster for the Salt Lake City Gulls of the Pacific Coast League. After spending five years in Utah broadcasting baseball and basketball games, Howarth took his biggest leap yet; a promotion to broadcast Major League Baseball games. He joined the Blue Jays radio team mid-way through the 1981 season, eventually becoming Tom Cheek’s partner in the broadcast booth in 1982.
Over 36 years with the Blue Jays, Howarth was there for nearly every thrilling moment in Blue Jays history. From the World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, to the resurgent playoff drives of 2015 and 2016. He acknowledged there were vast differences between to the two fan bases.
“In 1992 and 1993, it was a very corporate crowd. They sold out every game, but the fans would only get into the game when it was naturally called upon: home runs, runs scored. It was only at the end in the ninth with two outs and usually two strikes on the hitter, that the crowd would rise and finish the game. I was a little surprised at that.”
Howarth noticed a seismic shift in the fan base on Civic Holiday Monday, August 3rd of 2015. After a whirlwind of trades made by the Blue Jays at the trade deadline, David Price made his very first start as a Blue Jay. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Skydome in the early nineties, if not louder.
“It’s the fourth inning. The bases are loaded with nobody out. All of a sudden, the crowd stood on its feet. There was pandemonium at the Rogers Centre. I had never heard that before, especially in the fourth inning. The crowd was the loudest I had ever heard it. Those fans electrocuted that ballpark.”
It’s difficult to distil a three-and-a-half-decade career into one singular moment, but without much hesitation, Howarth easily pinpointed his favourite call of his career. It wasn’t Howarth’s call at all, but his partner, Tom Cheek’s. Howarth was on deck to announce the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 6 of the 1992 World Series, but he turned the mic over to Cheek, took a backseat and listened to the historic Blue Jays call.
“I said to myself, ‘Jerry, Tom’s been here since day one’. So, when the commercial break was over, I said on the air, ‘Ladies and gentleman, it’s been my pleasure to call Dave Winfield’s two-run double for the lead. Now, here’s my partner Tom Cheek to take you the rest of the way’.
“That’s the call I remember the most because I was happier that Tom called it than me calling it. It was the right thing to do and I was so happy I did it.”
In November of 2016, Howarth underwent surgery to remove a cancerous gland and tumour from his prostate. He returned to the microphone the following season but found himself labouring as the 2017 campaign came to a close.
“I was okay for most of the year, but the last few months was a struggle. I couldn’t regroup,” Howarth explained. “I wasn’t sleeping nearly as well as I was before. My congestion was leading to polyps. On February 8th, I went into Dave Cadeau’s office at Sportsnet, and I said ‘I can’t seem to gain the health I need to broadcast and I’m going to step down and retire.’”
For five days, the two kept the announcement close to the vest until Howarth announced his retirement over the airwaves on February 13th, 2018. For the following two hours on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, former Blue Jays players, coaches, broadcasters and fans phoned in to thank the voice of the Blue Jays for his 36 years of service.
“It was touching, moving and humbling. I was fortunate to broadcast for a team across our great country,” Howarth said. He was overjoyed with the outpouring of appreciation and support, “his family” as Howarth happily refers to them. That was the inspiration behind the signature sign-on phrase he used for 13 consecutive years.
“For me, it was family, that’s why I went on the air with ‘Hello, friends’. It wasn’t just ‘Hi, everybody’. No, I’m friends with everybody across Canada because of our network. I really knew my family was reaching out to me. It was pure joy. That’s my favourite word, joy, and that’s what I received.”
One year removed from his duty as the voice of the Blue Jays, Howarth keeps a close eye on the team. To this day, he and his wife Mary remain in Toronto, where they’ve lived for the past 37 years. At the advice of his son Joe, Howarth shows his friendly face around the Rogers Centre quite often. He’s usually found on the field level catching up with players, coaches and broadcasters.
“The first game of every series, I went in at quarter to four, visiting during batting practice with the Blue Jays, John Gibbons, the coaches and the other team’s broadcasters. I did that for every home series, so I was on the field for 30-plus times last year. It was so much fun, so rewarding.”
“And then, as I joke with people, I would get in my car at 6:15 and beat the traffic.”