Just after 4:30 this afternoon in Cooperstown, New York, Shirley Cheek will be standing on stage to accept the 2013 Ford C. Frick Award on behalf of her late husband Tom. The Frick Award is an annual honour given to a baseball broadcaster for excellence in their contributions to the sport. Although recipients are not actually inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame per se, they are recognized with a plaque in the museum. Cheek is already a Hall of Famer anyway, having been inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame last month. Shirley was at the ceremony in St. Marys, Ontario, and she was nice enough to sit down with me that day to talk about the Voice of Summer.
The discussion started, naturally, with 1977. Not the snowy April day when the Blue Jays hatched on the hard artificial turf of Exhbiition Stadium, but January 1977, when the Jays were still in incubation. Tom had really been there since the beginning. Before he called a single game, he was already introducing the team to Canadians, flying with manager Roy Hartsfield all around Ontario, even to small places like Elliot Lake.
"Tom was telling people about the team from day one and carried them through to a championship," Shirley told me. And that was Tom's biggest legacy, in her mind. He chatted with Canada about Blue Jays baseball for 27 years--not only in the booth for 4306-straight games, but in the community, sometimes one-on-one with fans.
Shirley then shared one of her favourite messages that she had received from a fan after Tom's passing: "He not only touched a city, but he touched a province, and he touched a country. He united Canada and talked to them about baseball."
Shirley understands that Tom was very special to many of the nation's baseball fans, but was surprised and touched with all the messages that she received, many of them beginning with "when I was a little boy (or a little girl), Tom was the Voice of Summer." She received more than 400 emails and letters that were collected by the team and the FAN 590 in October 2005 when Tom died. She took all of them that had a few more words than "you were the voice of summer", noted down the name of the fan, and had been working to compile them all in book form for her grandchildren.
"It was therapy for me," Shirley recalled, "he passed away on October 9th and I started doing it in November. I would work on it, sitting there at the computer, tears would roll down from my eyes. To read these letters and to know how he had touched people has been very special to this day."
Another reason why she wanted to make the book was to try to keep Tom's legacy alive, at least for her grandchildren. In her Cooperstown speech later today, Shirley will tell her grandchildren that Tom's legacy is now theirs. She hopes that the generation that grew up with Tom who are now parents will tell stories of Tom to their children. Unless parents tell children about Tom, the next generation might recognize his name only, but his legacy would die out.
Shirley is also very appreciative of the fans and reporters like Bob Elliott who go out to visit Tom's bench at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park in Clearwater, a 15-minute drive from Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the Blue Jays' spring training home. They would occasionally keep him company and leave behind flowers, baseballs, and caps.
Of course, eventually the conversation would turn to his streak of calling 4306-straight regular season games, and the toll that took on Tom, especially on the days when he was ill. Once Tom was so sick that Pat Gillick went to him and asked, "what are you trying to prove?" Tom would say that he wasn't trying to prove anything and that he felt it was his duty to be there.
"Who else would call the game?" Tom asked back.
Several times, though, he would go home to Shirley and say apologetically that he "shouldn't have inflicted [his] voice on the audience because it was so bad." But Shirley said that, ultimately the only game that Tom regrets not missing was the one during his daughter' Lisa's graduation from Humber College.
"Our kids knew that you didn't get married in the season--better plan it for late October," Shirley said with a laugh.
Tom Cheek dedicated his life to broadcasting Blue Jays baseball from 1977 until he couldn't physically do it anymore. I still remember his voice from the summers of my youth and get chills every time I hear him call the bottom of the ninth in game six of the 1993 World Series. I miss him on my radio, but I am so happy that finally, after almost a decade as a Ford C. Frick finalist (and the incredible fan campaign that was headed by Mike Wilner) that the Cheek Family--and every Blue Jays fan in the world--can honour the man who they knew as the Voice of Summer.
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Shirley Cheek also shared a funny story involving Tom. It was actually one that I had heard or read previously from Mark Hebscher (who wrote a fantastic personal story about how Tom Cheek had saved his career twice). In the early days, before Jerry Howarth came about, Tom's first partner was Early Wynn. Wynn, a Hall of Famer himself, was a switch-hitting pitcher from Alabama who pitched in the majors from age 19 to age 43. He wasn't afraid to knock batters down: he even swore he would knock down his grandmother if she crowded in at the plate. He also wasn't afraid of saying whatever he wanted to on the radio. I'll let Shirley tell you the story in her own words:
Every game, they would have group lists of people who came in, like the Rotary Club of Burlington, and "from St. Marys, Ontario, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame has brought in 75 people." And Tom is reading down the list and he sees this name, and he grabs Early by his knee and squeezes really hard, in other words, "don't you say anything!"
And he says "from Buffalo, New York we have 75 people from the Hooker Chemical Company," now Early doesn't say a word.
Several games later, and it was kind of a slow game, I think there was a rain delay or whatever. So they started going down the list of groups, and all of a sudden out of Early's mouth came, "whatever happened to that bunch of hookers from Buffalo?!"
Tom had many other great stories, and perhaps one day they'll all be collated and printed in a book. Meanwhile, you can read some of them on the Toronto Sun website via Bob Elliott: on flapping his wings in New York City, on Early Wynn interviewing Ted Williams, and a bunch of Cheekisms.