If you follow baseball in Canada at all, you know who I'm talking about. The title alone gives it away. That's how deeply and ubiquitously the voice of Jerry Howarth permeated baseball culture in this country. With last week's retirement announcement, the baseball world has lost one of its golden voices.
Stephen Brunt's warm, insightful tribute, which I urge you to read, says it best: "What will summer sound like now?" For legions of Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians, myself included, Jerry was the Voice of Summer for 36 years, especially after assuming the Jays' lead announcer role when his long-time partner Tom Cheek died in 2005.
Baseball and radio are made for each other, and as a primarily auditory person, I'm wired to lap it up. The best broadcasters keep the listener informed, entertained and when necessary, amused. Beyond that, the cream of the crop—and Jerry is certainly one—are gifted storytellers, taking on the persona of a wise, kindly uncle who slips in a life lesson or two amidst the grand slams, gold gloves and chin music. Sometimes I think the reason I've spent so many summers with Jerry, all 162 games' worth, is more about palling around with the uncle I never had than the race for the pennant.
As we sit on the cusp of spring training and a new season of Blue Jays baseball, we don't yet know who will take the reins as lead radio voice. But we do know who we'll miss. To the man who opened every broadcast with a warm "Hello, friends," I say farewell, friend, God bless, and enjoy your well-earned retirement.
On a related note, Leo Cahill, legendary '60s and '70s coach of the Toronto Argonauts, passed away earlier this week. Flamboyant, outspoken and quick-witted, Leo was a larger-than-life personality on Argonaut teams that had more than their share of outrageous characters. I can't recall any coach or GM, save perhaps the Leafs' Harold Ballard, who so thoroughly dominated the local sports scene. Cahill's brilliance as a coach was often overlooked, and as a recruiter he had no peers. Among his many accomplishments, Leo lured Joe Theismann away from the Miami Dolphins to lead the 1971 Argonauts to the Grey Cup, a game which left quite an impression on a certain 10-year-old.
Cahill never won a Grey Cup, but as a CBC colour commentator he got to call the second half of the Argos' 1983 victory, the one that broke Toronto's 31-year championship drought. And it's somehow fitting that the Boatmen won the last Grey Cup game played during his lifetime, last November's 27-24 victory over the Calgary Stampeders, the very team that beat Leo's squad in '71. Ironically, the heavily favoured Stampeders blew the 2017 game in a manner eerily reminiscent of the 1971 Argos.
Goodbye, Leo, God bless, and thank you. We won't see your like again anytime soon, and whenever I don my Mike Eben jersey—which arrived in the mail the day you died—I'll remember you, double blue forever.
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After the frenzy of the CD release, I've been spending my much-needed downtime watching classic Grey Cup games from the '60s and '70s on YouTube. The '60s games were educational because I'd never seen them, but the early '70s are where the memories really start to kick in. The first CFL game I ever watched (on TV) was the 1971 Grey Cup. We had a new colour TV and rotary antenna, and Dad patiently explained the rules to my brother and me as we watched our hometown heroes, the Toronto Argonauts, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a heartbreaking 14-11 loss to Calgary.
Fast forward through a lost 1972 season to November 11, 1973 and the Eastern Semi-Final at CNE Stadium. This was my first live game, again with Dad and my brother. Toronto, having finished in second place with a 7-5-2 record, hosted the Montreal Alouettes. We sat in the Grandstand, Section P, I believe, about 20 rows up. With two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the score 10-7 Montreal, the Argos have the ball on the Alouette 24. QB Joe Theismann, in what would be his final game in the CFL, drops back to pass. He finds rookie tight end Peter Muller open at the goal line—for the game-winning touchdown—and Muller drops the ball. The Boatmen tie the game on a field goal, but Montreal rolls over them in overtime, eventually winning 32-10. (Saving grace? The Als would lose the following week to the eventual '73 Grey Cup champion Ottawa Rough Riders.)
Around this time the neighbourhood kids and I started playing touch football, on the street, with modified CFL rules. For one, your average city street lacks goalposts, so we used the hydro wires attached to the telephone poles in lieu. (They were way up there and we were all lousy kickers, so I doubt many field goals were made.) Said telephone poles, about 30 yards apart maybe, also demarcated the goal lines, so our "field" was a tad shorter than the CFL's 110. A regulation CFL field is 65 yards wide; our street, including the sidewalks, might have been 10. If I recall correctly, the sidewalks were in bounds. Mrs. Shaw's lawn was definitely not, as she took great screeching pains to point out whenever the ball landed on it. (Hey, cool it, Mrs. S. At least we never broke your window.) I couldn't throw or kick, but had good hands and was a reliable tight end. Why, in my 12-year-old mind, I could've shown Peter Muller a thing or two.
All our offensive plays were pass plays. Running wasn't allowed, mainly because it would've been pointless in such a confined space. We mostly played against each other but on rare occasions, we'd challenge the kids who lived east of Bicknell Avenue. For these games we had to call ourselves something, hence the Westbury Wolves. And despite the sheer brilliance and cunning of our playbook (see below), as I recall we got our butts kicked whenever we ventured outside the neighbourhood for a not-so-friendly match.
So gather round, kids, and listen carefully, for Grandpa here is about to reveal the best-kept secret in the history of touch football—the Westbury Wolves Official Playbook. If you or your kids play touch football, give these a try. One or two of them might even work once in a blue moon. And if you've never heard of the CFL greats who are their namesakes, do look them up.
And speaking of namesakes: Hedge, Ec, Birdeen, Kojak, Cyc, Stick, Fuzz, the One-armed Bandit, The Ed, Dan & Don, this playbook is dedicated to you. (Yes, one of these is me. No, I'm not telling you which one.)
- Mike Eben: Run forward seven yards, then back two or three.
- Zenon Andrusyshyn: Line up wide left or right. Run forward seven yards, then cut outside.
- Peter Dalla Riva: Run a curl pattern in the shape of a question mark, starting from the bottom.
- Johnny Rodgers: Run forward three yards, stop, jump, then streak downfield.
- Tom Campana: Run forward five yards, cut in sharply for two yards, then cut back out (like a T-shape).
- George McGowan: Similar to the Dalla Riva, but instead of closing the question mark by curling in, run straight across the field.
- Rhome Nixon: Run forward two yards. Accept the short pass from the QB, lateral back to him, then streak downfield.
- Tom Forzani: Line up wide left or wide right. Run a 45-degree slant about five or six yards.
Fast forward, oh, 44 years, and the Argos are back on the CNE grounds, their new home a stone's throw from long-since-demolished CNE Stadium. What's more, the Double Blue are your 2017 Grey Cup champions, victors over Calgary, who themselves snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a series of improbable blunders. I've rekindled my passion for football and splurged for a season ticket in the cheap seats. See you next June, Section 220! And, um, Coach Trestman? Feel free to borrow from the best.