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A Conversation with Jerry Howarth

I sat down with Jerry to talk about his new book, being nervous on air, his relationship with players and more.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

For someone who spent his life being listened to, it was never about Jerry Howarth.

He deferred to his broadcast partner. He coached basketball for 25 years in Etobicoke. He fund-raised for the Special Olympics. Jerry didn’t even concern himself with his legacy in Toronto — that was for others to decide, not him.

And in his career, it showed. Affable and warm on the radio, Jerry won over the hearts of fans across Canada and around the world, all with something as simple as a, “Hello, friends!”

”It wasn’t about me, it was about the audience,” Jerry told me in a recent interview. ”[I wanted] to make this broadcast the most enjoyable for them, so that they would want to hear another broadcast, and another month of broadcasts, and another season of broadcasting.”

Over 36 years, recounted in his new book, Hello, Friends!, Jerry worked as hard as anyone to make each broadcast better than the last. He aimed to relate the game on the field to the listener at home, letting the result of the broadcast be a story, or piece of advice, or fact that could be taken away, regardless of the score.

After all, over 36 162-game seasons, Jerry saw his fair share of losses.

”The win-loss record was out of my control,” Jerry said, “but the broadcast, which I could orchestrate, meant something to everybody . . . and that’s what I was proudest of in my career.”

While the Blue Jays were losing, Jerry still enjoyed every part of his job: waking up, drinking his Starbucks coffee and taking a 25 minute nap; talking with players, coaches, managers and umpires on the field; and broadcasting the game, heading home and sleeping after reviewing the days’ games. He had a routine — “that good discipline gene,” he calls it — and stuck to it for half his life.

Jerry is most proud of that discipline. “That’s what I took the greatest pleasure of all in — the preparation and homework to . . . make [the game] sound as good as possible.”

In fact, he never found his job tedious. He loved baseball because every day, he could work to make the broadcast better. He didn’t have to wait a week, as in football, or a handful of days, as in basketball, to improve; there was always a game the next day.

That paid off in 1980, when Jerry made his major league debut in the Blue Jays’ radio booth. As he tells it, “the adrenaline was flowing.” After the game, he wasn’t sure what to make of his performance. He hadn’t been nervous, he made clear — just pumped up.

“On Saturday, the adrenaline flow was down to about 20 percent,” Jerry said. “I thought to myself, Jerry, can you do this? I wasn’t sure.”

But the next day, he had the chance to improve. “I broadcast it as if I were doing those five years in the triple-A Pacific Coast League, and it was just exactly what I was hoping for. And when I got on the plane to go back to Salt Lake [City], I said to myself, Jerry, you can do this if given the opportunity.”

Only a handful of years later, he had the opportunity and never looked back.

On the radio, Jerry rarely spoke negatively about someone on the field. In his book, he did this only three times in 102,000 words. From his limited time playing baseball in high school, he understood the difficulty of the game. In the booth, when given the opportunity to be constructively critical, Jerry imagined the subject of his criticism sitting right next to him.

“The next day, if he challenged me on what I said, I could say, ‘Yes I did [say that], as if you were right there with me and I’d already said it to you once,’” Jerry recounted. “That way, it eliminated being ultra-negative, personal [and] nasty.”

His relationships with players were “very close and personal,” especially when he was closer to their ages. Jerry let players know that he didn’t care about what they did on the field. “I wanted to know about their wives and their families,” Jerry said. “They were more important to me as a person than they were someone wearing a uniform. I took a lot of pleasure and satisfaction in doing that and years later asking, ‘How are those kids?’ or, ‘How old are they?’ or, ‘I can’t believe that your son is 12 years old now and he’s been able to watch you play all these years.’”

Still, it never stopped him from calling the game fairly. Jerry was especially close to managers — he loved them as brothers, he said — and when he had to question their decisions, he would.

“It was very important to me to be fair in every broadcast, raise the questions, and sometimes, you know, you didn’t want to do that, and a manager might hear about it later. ‘Well, Jerry you said this,’ or, ‘Jerry you said that.’ Well, yes I did, and it gets back to, ‘I already said it to you cause you were sitting right next to me when I questioned that decision.’”

Jerry Howarth is just, well, Jerry. In his career, he always referred to players by their first name because he himself just wanted to be known as Jerry. “I always tell people who say Mr. Howarth, ‘No, but thanks for talking about my dad, but no, it’s Jerry,’” he said. “For me, it’s a lot more informal, relaxed, first-name basis, and the misters and everything else, forget that. I just have never been a big fan of that.”

That goes straight to the heart of who Jerry is: personable, affable, approachable and warm. He’s a friend — a companion through a long season. On air in his 36 years, Jerry was never nervous, and he wanted his listeners to feel the same way, always relaxed and calm, as if listening to a friend.

And through those 36 years, Jerry Howarth was a friend. He still is.

Jerry Howarth’s Hello, Friends!: Stories from My Life and Blue Jays Baseball is available everywhere books are sold on March 5. To hear the rest of my conversation with Jerry — all 6000 words of it, about religion, philosophy on life and Jerry’s legacy in Toronto — click here.