MY PERSONAL TRIBUTE: INTERVIEWING TOM CHEEK

Tom Cheek
by Bram Aaron
July 27, 2013

Today the late Tom Cheek, radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, will be
posthumously inducted into the broadcasters’ wing of the National
Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. On behalf of Tom
his wife Shirley, and children Jeff, Lisa and Tom Jr., will be presented
with the Ford C. Frick Award, in the presence of at least 47 other
relatives.

Over 27 seasons, Tom — known for his famous “Touch ’em all Joe!” call
of 1993 — amassed a staggering record streak of 4,306 consecutive games
attended and called, nearly all on radio, until June 2004 when the
cancer that would later take his life abruptly forced him to miss work
for the first time ever.

As a fan and former journalist myself I could not be prouder and I
really wish I could be there. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom at
great length in 1998. In March of that year I was finishing my
journalism studies at Sheridan College in Oakville, and we had one final
assignment: Interview a celebrity and, ideally, write, sell and publish
freelance article based on that interview.

As an aspiring journalist I had idolized Tom and his partner Jerry
Howarth, to whom at that point I had been listening regularly for some
20 seasons. Around 1984 I first started listening to them call Blue Jays
games every day for six months a year, and I loved hearing Tom recount
numerous entertaining baseball tales from his many years in the game.
Hearing the two of them for so many hours over so many years, they felt
familiar and welcoming, and in a strange way like old friends.

And now that I had to interview a celebrity, I had only one person in
mind: Tom Cheek.

The Blue Jays were in the middle of Spring Training in Florida, but in a
couple of days were briefly returning to Toronto for just two exhibition
games against the St. Louis Cardinals at SkyDome, as it was then called,
on a Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. Early that Friday afternoon
I called the Toronto Blue Jays, who forwarded me to Tom’s voice mail,
and I left him a detailed message requesting an interview.

Then I departed Oakville for Toronto where I would spend the weekend
with friends and family.During my trip, Tom left me a message agreeing
to the interview, and instructing me to meet him in the lobby of the
SkyDome Hotel, where he was staying for the Jays’ lone night in town,
right after Friday night’s game. I called back and left him another
message that I would see him there.

At 9 pm I departed for the dome, arriving around the 7th inning, and
watched the rest of the game — while listening to Tom and Jerry on my
1980s Walkman — on monitors in the lobby, with the occasional peek at
the field through the curtains.After the broadcast ended I waited for
Tom, while listening to the full radio post-game show and watching fans,
hotel guests, and even Cardinals slugger Marc McGwire pass by me.But Tom
hadn’t yet arrived.

Finally, at nearly 11 pm — a full hour after the end of the game — Tom
stepped off the elevator and into the lobby, looking well but tired.
Even in a large open space such as a hotel lobby, you felt Tom’s
unmistakable presence: Tall and elegant, always smartly dressed, with
his booming baritone that drifted across the room like a warm, welcoming
blanket, he was impossible to miss.

I greeted him and introduced myself, but Tom was embarrassed; he hadn’t
picked up my return message, and had forgotten about our meeting.

No problem, I told him, how about the next day, before or after
Saturday’s game? “That’s alright,” he said, noting the team would by
flying back to Florida immediately after Saturday’s match. “I said I’d
be here, so I’m happy to do it now.”

So we grabbed a table and a couple of over-sized, plush chairs near the
windows overlooking the field, and I set up for business, pen and fresh
notebook in hand, placing my voice-activated mini-cassette recorder on
the table between us.

Problem:The recorder’s microphone was too far from Tom to hear him speak
and wouldn’t record.I tried leaving it set on “record” but it still
couldn’t pick up his voice. So, at his suggestion, with Tom holding my
tape recorder in hand in front of his face, for the next two hours I
interviewed my hero, The Voice of the Blue Jays, at great length about
almost every aspect of his career, Canada and the USA, the game of
baseball, his experiences therein and views thereof, that I could think of.

Tom could not have been more generous with both his time and his
insights during those two hours, and at that time of night. The
interview lasted until about one in the morning — well past his usual
bedtime.

Tom told me that as a journalism student in the early ’60s, just like
me, he requested an interview from a veteran broadcaster, who turned him
down. He vowed then that if he made it in broadcasting he would never
turn down an interview from an aspiring young journalist like me. I am
betting he never did.

Of all the answers Tom gave to my questions, there are two which stand
out in my mind: Was there anything in his personal life which Tom
regretted missing due to his jaw-dropping streak of 4,306 straight
regular-season Blue Jays games called? His biggest regret, he said, was
missing his son Jeff’s high school graduation.

The second was when I asked him about the prospect of his future
induction into the broadcasting wing of baseball’s hallowed halls in
Cooperstown with the Frick Award, based on his streak and his importance
to the game of baseball and its fans across Canada. Remember, this was
15 years ago, and at the time his streak was “only” at about the 3,400
mark, but there had already been some buzz of the idea among fans and in
baseball circles even then.

Tom, in his reportedly typical modest and unassuming way, dismissed the
idea, assuring me that Hall of Fame honours were “for better men than
me.” He also pointed out that Frick winners to that point were generally
broadcasters with national importance in the United States, not Canada.

I spent nearly another eight seasons listening to Tom call Blue Jays
games on the radio, till his illness finally forced him away from the
radio booth.Like all fans I was shocked to learn of his illness, and
deeply saddened to hear of his passing in October 2005. As strange as it
may sound, I really felt like I had lost a friend and a significant part
of my life. That feeling still lingers today.

I am grateful for the thousands of Blue Jays games I heard Tom call Blue
on CJCL/The FAN. Though I subsequently met him again twice more, I am
especially and personally grateful I was able to spend two hours quality
hours talking baseball and broadcasting with a great man whom I so
admired and respected.

I could not be more thrilled and excited for Tom and his family that
today he has finally found his well-earned place in Cooperstown.

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