You want numbers? Man, do we have numbers, and it seems as if we keep coming up with new ways to view them every season, as the fWAR alphabet armies continue to storm baseball’s beaches.
And you don’t quite get baseball unless you understand the significance of one particular number: Cal Ripken, Jr.’s, consecutive games played streak of 2,632, which in 1995 smashed Lou Gehrig’s 56-year record of 2,130.
That record diminished somewhat as details of the toll the pursuit of the record took on his relationships with teammates and the Baltimore Orioles became known, but the smarminess and pettiness that often comes with hindsight does not remove the significance of the accomplishment, especially its timing.
In 1995, baseball was coming out of the cataclysmic 1994 players strike, and what Ripken’s record did was give the game a positive nation-wide narrative. The strength of baseball is that once the season starts, there is almost a game every day. Ripken re-established fans’ daily link with the game and the idea that there was a nobility to punching the clock and putting in a shift, whether it was an O-for-4 or a 3-for-4. Because that’s how everybody in baseball has always done it. Show up and punch the clock. Wait for the first pitch and then the final out. Go home… and do it again tomorrow.
For 36 seasons, Jerry Howarth has punched the clock: through good times and bad; through three different ownership groups; through countless players reporting ‘in the best shape of their lives’; through the death of his broadcast partner Tom Cheek; through a battle with prostate cancer and most recently a virus that led to laryngitis – “Jerrygitis,” he called it – and through countless chartered flights, hotel rooms and press-box meals.
For 36 years Howarth was a part of so many people’s daily meal; giving so many people hope whenever we heard the phrase, “and the Blue Jays are in flight.”
That clock will no longer be punched. Howarth announced Tuesday that he is stepping down as the voice of the Blue Jays, a man very much at peace with the decision despite the fact it was that bout of laryngitis that sapped his voice of the final few percentages of tone and strength he felt he needed to do the job to his lofty standards.
He has written a book, scheduled to be released next spring, which is fitting because his first love was writing. Yes, like so many of us Howarth wanted to write for Sports Illustrated. His first job was as a fundraiser for the athletic department at University of Santa Clara in 1971, which he hoped would heighten his profile and lead to a role with the school’s football and basketball broadcasts.
“The lead broadcaster said ‘no,’ and told me that I did not have a Major League voice,” Howard says. “He was probably right. I was 25-years old without ever having a thought about broadcasting.”
Undeterred, Howarth purchased a tape recorder and taped Santa Clara basketball and football games for two years, trying to “make each tape better than the one before.” In 1973, he moved to Tacoma, Wash., to begin his broadcasting career.
Counting minor league games, Blue Jays games and post-season games not involving the Blue Jays, Howarth estimates he has called over 7,500 baseball games. That’s a helluva lot of clock-punching. He says the key to longevity in the business – to making people want to keep inviting you into their homes, cars, cottages or on to the patio, because that is essentially the relationship that develops between a long time play-by-play man and their audience – is looking at each game as a “blank, white canvas.”
“My job was to artistically paint it to the best of my ability and then initial it in the lower, right-hand corner,” Howarth says. “This meant that at the end of the game, regardless of the final score, I knew in my mind that I had done my best. That way there was no grind or feelings of disappointment in my voice by how the team was doing.
“It was my goal to make the next day’s broadcast better than the one before. I have tried to do that over my entire career. This has kept me positive and appreciative of my broadcasting opportunities.”
I grew up in Manitoba in the 1960s and ’70s, listening to Herb Carneal call Minnesota Twins games. He was my radio voice of summer. Dave Van Horne became that for me when I moved to Montreal and then Tom Cheek and Jerry when I moved to Toronto.
I was lucky enough to spend time with or at least meet them because of my previous job as a travelling baseball reporter. And on those happy days on The Jeff Blair Show when we have had Howarth in-studio – my producer, Travis MacKenzie, coined the phrase ‘Hour of Howarth’ – I’ve noticed how he will always write down the name of a caller to personalize the discussion. That, plus Howarth’s ability to seemingly remember every person he has met, is a reminder of how forming a relationship with an audience is one thing – the real trick, it turns out, is maintaining it. It might seem second-nature, but it requires work to make it that way. Being ‘on’ all the time is a grind unless you’re one of the lucky few like Howarth.
It’s quite a megaphone you wield when you are a club broadcaster. You travel on the same flights as the players. You stay in the same hotel. So you see players and coaches and managers at their best, their worst and their in-between, wherever that falls.
You are a filter; a keeper of secrets, a dropper of hints. By your choice of words or tone you provide context in a manner nobody else can match. So it is at its core a balancing act in which a lot of people need to be kept happy. Thirty-six years of it? Too tough for me but clearly not too tough for Jerry Howarth, who to borrow the painter’s analogy, knew that how you applied the brushstrokes is as important as the result itself.
If you can punch the clock without making a big deal of it, you have won the battle. And in that sense Jerry Howarth retires undefeated.