Major League Friends

He called more than 6,000 games. After Jerry Howarth ’68, Toronto baseball will never be the same.

Major League Friends
Jerry Howarth ’68 in his lair, circa 1986. Note the SCU pennant! / Image courtesy Jerry Howarth

Like the other 2019 inductees into the Santa Clara University Athletics Hall of Fame, Jerry Howarth ’68 can quote some glitzy stats from his college days. Or at least one: an unworldly sounding .500 batting average.

Of course, it bears mentioning Howarth only lasted one game with SCU’s first-year baseball team before getting cut. But he left with a triple to right-center field and the satisfaction of having chased a dream against long odds—SCU baseball then looming as a national power.

It’s Howarth’s willingness to test himself against the best that explains a lot about how a college baseball reject ultimately reached one of the peaks of the professional game. For 36 years, starting in 1982, Howarth was the play-by-play radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, a run of more than 6,000 Major League games that ended in February 2018 with his surprise retirement.

“Someone will follow Howarth in the booth, of course,” a columnist for the Toronto Star lamented after his decision was made. “But they cannot replace him, of course.”

It was time, Howarth says. He had always maintained that he would walk away if he sensed his standards slip. And in the wake of successful surgery for prostate cancer, he felt his energy drop—and vocal strength with it. He left with no regrets.

Focus on the Field

In the broadcast booth, Howarth prided himself on keeping the focus on the field, not himself. That fact was never more evident than in 2016 when one of his sons called him to say his name was trending across social media. The explanation: A caller to a radio talk show had just pointed out that Howarth never used the mascot names for the Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves.

It was, it turned out, something Howarth had been doing mostly unnoticed since getting a complaint from an Aboriginal Canadian 23 years earlier—even during the 1995 World Series between the two clubs. It was the right thing to do, Howarth says. He had just never told anyone.

But in retirement, Howarth is sharing more of his own story. This past winter, he released a memoir. The title, Hello, Friends!, is a reference to his trademark broadcast opening. Undoubtedly the book will appeal most to baseball fans, and Blue Jays fans at that. But it’s also a fascinating look at the luck, pluck, and persistence required to reach heights people spend whole careers never making. And it’s a story with deep and unlikely roots in the Mission campus.

 

The Priest

Howarth arrived at Santa Clara in 1964, drawn by the baseball program, then just two years removed from the College World Series finals. Yet he responded to the news of getting cut by going out to catch a final fly ball and running off the field without the least regret. He had given it his all.

Free from playing sports, Howarth begin to cover them, both for fledgling radio station KSCU and, more intensely, for The Santa Clara newspaper, where he would rise to sports editor. But the bigger development for Howarth at Santa Clara was a spiritual one. His first week on campus, he met John Shanks, S.J., his dorm’s resident priest, and the person he says inspired him to become the man he is today.

Howarth had come from a fractured home—his parents’ misery never more apparent than at holidays. “I would lie awake in bed at night, listening to the uproar in the house, telling myself that I would avoid conflict at all costs for the rest of my life,” he writes in Hello, Friends!

Shanks helped Howarth forgive his mother, whom he blamed for the family’s unhappiness. And he challenged Howarth to become more alive. “Fr. Shanks told me that I had just one of my four burners going on the top of a stove,” he says in the book. “Over the next four years, it was my intent to fire up those other three burners because I knew I had it in me.”

Jerry Howarth in 1966 in the broadcast studio for radio station KSCU
We’re Live! KSCU goes on the air for the first time in 1966, and so does Jerry Howarth—a 20-year-old sophomore. / Image courtesy Howarth

The Jolt

Still, none of that added up to a clear career direction. After two years as an Army officer following graduation, Howarth enrolled in UC Hastings law school long enough to meet his future wife—Mary Howarth J.D. ’73. But a chance conversation with a San Francisco 49ers executive jolted him in a way that law didn’t. He knew he needed to work in sports.

That fall, Howarth returned to Santa Clara as a fundraiser for the athletic department. He was filling his days with talks to service clubs and alumni when he realized that if he could get a spot on Santa Clara’s team broadcasts, even on their tiny 250-watt station, he could reach more people.

But the team’s announcer wasn’t interested, rebuffing several requests without explanation—until one day they passed one another at Buck Shaw Stadium. “‘Jerry, I know you’re disappointed that I am not letting you join me on the radio,’” Howarth recalls him saying. “‘But you and I have the same problem. Neither one of us has a Major League voice.’”

Howarth was surprised but not offended. He was 25 years old and had never even thought of being a broadcaster. But his competitive side was inflamed. He went home that night and told his wife he was dipping into their wedding gift money to buy a microphone and tape recorder.

It was the beginning of a two-year, self-styled apprenticeship. By day, he kept busy at the Bronco Bench Foundation. By evening, he would sit in press boxes and on sidelines calling SCU basketball and football games no one else would ever hear, then going home to critique them, his goal to make each call better than the last.

The Call

What had begun as a reaction to a gentle knock soon took on its own life. After two years, Howarth got his first announcing job with the Triple-A Tacoma Twins, a gig so underfunded that the team couldn’t even send him to cover road games. Instead, when the Tacoma Twins were on the road, Howarth had to wait until someone called in each inning’s results—and then make up a game to match, clicking his tongue to emulate hits, and playing taped organ music and crowd noise.

The job would lead to other opportunities, like calling minor league baseball and basketball. But by 1980, Howarth had put the microphone down, yielding to what seemed a hard truth. He might become, as he put it, “the best Major League broadcaster who never called a game.”

Then he got a call from the Blue Jays. They had kept tabs on him after he had applied for a spot with them three years earlier. Would he come up a for a three-game stint over the Fourth of July weekend?

Handling Disappointment

It took him to the third game to reach his stride, but he was so elated by his final performance that he could have flown home without a plane. The next year he called 20 games for the Jays. The following year, he had the job full time. And no one was going to cut him this time.

SAM SCOTT ’96 is an award-winning writer based in Toronto. He still roots for the Oakland A’s, though. He has covered everything from high tech and AI to basketball and rock and roll.

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