CBN writer J.P. Antonacci grateful to have a mentor like Howarth

Jerry Howarth and Canadian Baseball Network writer J.P. Antonacci at spring training in Dunedin. Photo: Matt Antonacci

Jerry Howarth and Canadian Baseball Network writer J.P. Antonacci at spring training in Dunedin. Photo: Matt Antonacci

June 10, 2019

By J.P. Antonacci

Canadian Baseball Network

I thought I had Jerry Howarth stumped.

There I was, eight years old, standing in his driveway in central Etobicoke, holding a piece of graph paper on which I’d scrawled some baseball trivia questions.

“When Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run off Ralph Branca to win the 1951 National League pennant, who was on deck?”

I waited, sure that the voice of the Blue Jays couldn’t solve this riddle. Little did I realize he was a San Franciscan who grew up rooting for the Giants and certainly knew that it was Willie Mays who had an up-close view of The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Jerry smiled and said something to the effect of, “Well let’s see now. Would his initials be W.M.?”

Taken aback but undeterred, I pressed on, challenging him to name the pitcher who served up Hank Aaron’s 715th career home run.

Another smile. “Would that be A.D.?” Sure enough, it was Al Downing who gave up the homer to break Babe Ruth’s all-time record.

And on it went, Jerry patiently answering all my questions (correctly, of course). As a baseball history nut, I was suitably impressed.

Then Jerry turned the tables on me. “You’ve heard of Tinkers to Evers to Chance?” he asked. I nodded, having read up on the Chicago Cubs double-play team.

“Who played third base?”

I hadn’t a clue. Jerry had ended up stumping me. I left that visit sure to remember that Harry Steinfeldt was the unheralded member of that famous infield – not only a neat bit of trivia, but a lesson from Jerry about never overlooking the unsung players, a philosophy he put into practice on every broadcast.

A few decades after my dad and I dropped by Jerry’s house, I remain impressed – by his knowledge, certainly, but moreso by his kindness in graciously humouring a young fan whose “tough” questions were child’s play to someone immersed in the game.

But that’s Jerry. Countless Blue Jays fans have their own stories featuring a kind word or thoughtful gesture from the former play by play man who considered his millions of listeners to be his friends.

Former Blue Jays broadcaster Jerry Howarth posing for a photo with a group of Jays fans outside Camden Yards in Baltimore. Photo: Mike Meehan

Former Blue Jays broadcaster Jerry Howarth posing for a photo with a group of Jays fans outside Camden Yards in Baltimore. Photo: Mike Meehan

Jerry and I kept in touch as my nascent journalism career took me from one small town to another. He took the time to give specific feedback on my articles – an invaluable gift that made me a better writer – and encouraged me to follow my talent and curiosity wherever it led, reminding me that it was even more important to be a good and generous person.

Not one to discuss politics on the air, Jerry nevertheless managed to teach the whole country a lesson about the power of small choices. Inspired by a letter he received from a First Nations baseball fan in Canada’s Far North after the 1992 World Series, Jerry decided to stop using Indigenous-themed team nicknames in his broadcasts and cut out jargon like “powwows on the mound.” It was a classy gesture that in its own small way furthered the national effort toward reconciliation.

But Jerry likely wouldn’t frame it like that. Instead of making a big deal of it, he quietly made his broadcast more welcoming and respectful to all his listeners in response to a personal appeal that changed his heart. That’s how it went unnoticed for 20 years that Jerry never called the Atlanta and Cleveland teams by their nicknames. When the news did finally become public, other broadcasters and baseball writers chose to follow his lead.

When Jerry announced his retirement in early 2018 after 36 memorable seasons behind the microphone, the hashtag #ThankYouJerry trended on Twitter (a famous technophobe, I hope someone thought to tell him). I have more reason than most to thank him, for it was Jerry who forwarded a feature story I’d written about him for my former newspaper to Canadian Baseball Network founder Bob Elliot, which began my happy association with this website.

I didn’t get 10 words into my interview with Jerry before he cut me off to gently teach another lesson. I had started to tell him the topics I hoped to cover, but Jerry reminded me that the best interviews are natural, unscripted conversations. We ended up having a great one.

I was gobsmacked when friends texted me one night to say that Jerry Howarth was talking about my writing on the air. He and analyst Joe Siddall spent a few minutes discussing an article I’d written for CBN about the role of the first base coach and how then-Jays coach Tim Leiper contributed to Toronto’s success.

But that’s Jerry too – always eager to help a young writer or broadcaster with a word of advice, a well-timed introduction, or a generous shot in the arm.

We should all have such a mentor. Thank you, Jerry.