Jays announcer Tom Cheek passes away
Tom Cheek never used gimmicks or catchphrases and never tried to make himself part of the show.
All he did was tell listeners, plain and simple, how he saw the game, putting his trusted stamp on every milestone moment in Toronto Blue Jays history.
And – day in day out during his astonishing streak of 4,306 consecutive regular-season games called – it was perfect every time.
This season Cheek’s voice was missing from airwaves, as brain cancer forced him out of the broadcast booth for good and on Sunday, the disease got the better of him.
Mr. Cheek died at his home in Oldsmar, Fla. He was 66.
“It’s difficult to put into words the overwhelming sense of grief and loss shared today by the Blue Jays family, the city of Toronto, the extended community of Major League Baseball and its many fans,” Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey said in a statement. “Tom Cheek has provided the soundtrack for the most important moments in this team’s history, with his choice of words and intonation always perfectly suited for the occasion.
“He was far more than just an outstanding announcer though. He was a great goodwill ambassador for baseball in Canada. His love for the game, which radiated through his words on the radio, captivated fans across this country and helped to grow the sport from one coast to the other.”
Cheek was first diagnosed with a brain tumour last summer and had surgery to remove it on June 13, 2004, his 65th birthday. The procedure was partially successful and a round of chemotherapy that hampered his short-term memory followed.
He returned to the booth late in the summer, bringing his charm and smile back to the Rogers Centre, and was set to return to work in 2005 when doctors recommended additional brain surgery.
The operation took place in March, but it could only add some brief time to Cheek’s life, not save it.
“It sure does hit you hard,” said Jerry Howarth, Cheek’s longtime broadcast partner. “He will be missed. His voice was the signature voice of this ball club.”
The second round with cancer came as a shock, as Cheek had planned to call some road games this season, as well as all home contests. That optimism faded quickly as his health deteriorated much faster this time.
“I don’t want to sit and wait for something to come get me,” Cheek said during the spring, weeks before the second diagnosis. “That’s the way I feel. With everybody, everything is different. There have been guys that have gone on for years.”
Cheek made it to the broadcast booth once this season, calling a half-inning of Toronto’s opening day 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in St. Petersburg. He had planned just to sit quietly in the booth but asked Howarth if he could call the top of the fourth, with the Blue Jays down 1-0.
“I said of course and then Frank Catalanotto led off the inning with a double, Toronto’s first hit of the game,” Howarth recalled. “Orlando Hudson was the next batter and he homered and Vernon Wells followed with another home run to make it 3-1. a After the inning Tom signed off and said, `I’m tired now, but I just wanted to say thank you.’ I thought that was a nice bit of divine intervention and magic right there.”
Cheek later made one visit to Toronto, a sort of last hurrah, taking in a couple of games from a private box. When he was shown on the videoboard, fans stood and cheered him in the type of gesture the humble Cheek never took for granted.
Cheek’s popularity with fans was never more evident than during his absence last season, when cards and e-mails poured in by the thousands wishing him well. A crowd of 44,072 feted him Aug. 29 when the Blue Jays added him to their Level of Excellence with the number 4,306 by his name, signifying his streak.
“Until last summer, I don’t think he knew how much he meant to people,” said broadcaster Mike Wilner, who joined Cheek and Howarth as the third man in the booth in 2002. “It really overwhelmed him.”
During that Blue Jays ceremony, Cheek kept shaking his head in disbelief that he was being honoured so elaborately.
“You’re going to make me cry,” he told the crowd. “This is more than I’m going to be able to handle.”
The next day he thanked each reporter who had written about him for, “saying such nice things about me.”
Born in Pensacola, Fla., in 1939, the beloved broadcaster became the voice of baseball in Canada during his streak, which began on April 7, 1977 when Bill Singer threw the first pitch in club history and ended on June 3, 2004 in Oakland because of his father’s death.
“That streak was phenomenal because of all the sacrifices he had to make,” said Howarth. “His family was so supportive, they told him `You go broadcast games, we’ll be here.’ He did it not for himself, but for the fans.”
Cheek attended the Cambridge School of Broadcasting in Boston and began his radio career in Plattsburg, N.Y. He then moved to Burlington, Vt., where for nine years was corporate sales manager and sports director for a group of three radio stations, doing play-by-play for baseball, basketball, football and hockey at the University of Vermont.
He moved up to Canada in 1974, where for three years he served as swing man on Montreal Expos radio broadcasts on television nights before landing the Blue Jays job in 1977.
It was in Toronto he became an institution, never taking a night off until his father’s death. Along the way, he called Doug Ault’s two homers in the franchise opening 9-5 win over Chicago in 1977, the record 10-homer barrage against Baltimore in 1987, George Bell’s three opening day homers in 1988, Dave Steib’s no-hitter in 1990, Carlos Delgado’s four home run game in 2003, five AL East titles, a pair of pennants and two World Series titles, capped by Joe Carter’s walkoff homer in 1993.
His call on that homer – “Touch ’em all Joe, you’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life,” – was his calling card and the best example of how perfectly he captured each moment, without getting in its way.
“Nothing about Tom is pre-packaged,” said Wilner. “He’s never setting up to get to a specific call or a specific story.
“He lets the game dictate what he says – and that’s the way it should be.”
Even in the bedlam that followed Carter’s homer, Cheek was able to cover all the bases.
“It’s a strange kind of thing,” Cheek said recalling the moment. “I was looking for something to say and Joe gave it to me because he was jumping up and down.
“I didn’t know if he was hitting all the bases out there and I was just making the point that you have to do that. I was merely mentioning – to him, through the airwaves – that you’ve got to touch all the bases.
“That’s where that came from.”
Cheek was nominated for the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award this year, which is given for major contributions to baseball broadcasting.
Longtime San Diego Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman was chosen instead, something Cheek handled with his usual grace.
“There are some things that the guys on that list have done that just blow me away. Just having my name there is pretty nice,” Cheek said of Coleman and the other nominees. “I’m an old guy myself and I watched a lot of those guys do what they did.”
This summer Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame established the Tom Cheek Media Leadership Award to honour those who play a key role in promoting Canadian sports. Cheek was the first recipient and it was presented to him by a large delegation of Blue Jay dignitaries at his home a few weeks ago.
“Those of us that worked with him and of course the listeners and fans of Blue Jays baseball desperately miss hearing him,” said Nelson Millman, vice-president and program director of The Fan 590, the Toronto all-sports radio station that carries Blue Jays games. “He was the voice of the Jays to all of us.”
Cheek is survived by his wife Shirley, a native of Hemmingford, Que., their three children and seven grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.
Jays announcer Tom Cheek passes away