Starkman: Cheek was like a rock star

* Howard Starkman, former Blue Jays P.R. director, current vice-president, recalls the early Jays days when broadcaster Tom Cheek was like a rock star. .... MLB, Brewers open workouts 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors  2013 Canadian collegians playing summer ball 2013 Canadians in College  Letters of Intent


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By Bob Elliott

In Year I of the Blue Jays 12 games were televised.

Blue Jays in 30, Blue Jays Central, SportsNet, TSN or Global-TV didn’t exist in 1977.

“For our winter caravan we’d have players like Bob Bailor, Rick Cerone, Sam Ewing and manager Roy Hartsfield,” said Howard Starkman. “We’d arrive at a Rotary Club and Tom Cheek was like a rock star. Radio was king then.

“That’s how people got their baseball fix then, the way people grew up listening to Ernie Harwell.

Starkman was the first publicity director of the expansion Jays. Now, he’s vice-president and right hand man of president Paul Beeston’s. Then as now, he is the team’s most loyal employee.

Caravans consisted of a five-day, tours for players. Most years there would be three segments.

Cheek went to them all batting 1.000 for every flight cancellation, car ride on an icy prairie road, microphones that wouldn’t work and local MCs who thought if he told enough jokes or showed his diamond insight, he’d leave town with the Jays.

“All those years, whenever I needed something, Tom never said no, never complained -- maybe he did behind my back -- but he never once declined a single request,” said Starkman. “He always delivered. I’ll never forget him for that.

“He was always first class with the public and took the Blue Jays from sea to sea.”


* * *

Nadine Thompson wrote the Jays in 2001 about a caravan visit to Kingston.

Attending a meeting at an elementary school, a break was scheduled since the Jays had a clinic in the gym. Cheek hosted a Q & A session with Jesse Barfield, Darrin Fletcher and Todd Greene, plus coaches Terry Bevington, Garth Iorg and Cookie Rojas.

“Most children and some teachers did not recognize Tom until he spoke and then there it was, the voice of the Blue Jays,” wrote Thompson. “What a classy individual (and tall). I never pictured him to be as tall as he was, about 6-foot-10? But hey, I’m five foot.

“Leaving I noticed Tom in the staff room by himself. Me being me, went in to shake his hand. He told me to sit and chat. I was in awe. We talked about Johnny Olerud who Tom said was an amazing person. We spoke about my dad. My dad loves Tom and Jerry (Howarth).

“All of a sudden in come the players. Tom corralled each and every one to sign a paper to my dad! How amazing! Of course, it was centered around his autograph ... but it was addressed to my dad not me ... PERFECT! I had a birthday gift for him.”

Thompson, who became friends with Shirley and Tom Cheek after that chance meeting, will be at Doubleday Field Saturday.


* * *

Gary Oswald, formerly Starkman’s assistant, now executive director of Skate Canada recently finished autobiographies about Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully and St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial.

Both explained the role radio played in a community’s fabric: Scully walking in Flatbush listening to radios tuned to Red Barber and Musial’s about people listening to Harry Carey.

“Tom’s broadcasts were the same, particularly in 1992 and 1993,” said Oswald. “You could walk down many a street and hear those golden tones emanating from houses.”

Oswald didn’t fully appreciate Cheek until after he left the club.

“Being around him every day, you didn’t see the magnitude of what Jerry Howarth and Tom meant to people,” Oswald said. “My father-in-law would have the game on at the cottage in Tobermory, constantly adjusting the radio to improve the signal and when Tom paused, he’d think that the station had faded out.

“Tom became the “voice of summer” as someone said: an old friend who came to sit on the porch and talk ball during the evening.”

Cheek was never shy telling people how he felt: a bad back, a sore throat. Oswald recalls a New York-Cleveland trip during the mid 1980s when Cheek was ill.

“Tom was on death’s door, (trainer) Ken Carson was treating him, opposing team doctors were treating him,” said Oswald.

After he recovered and the Yankees came to Exhibition Stadium, Yankee broadcaster Bill White walked into the lounge.

“White,” Cheek bellowed as only he could. “What’s it been? A week and three penicillin shots since I last saw you!”