(This is an edited version of a previously published column, December 5, 2012.)
I first met Tom Cheek a short time after he had been hired as the Toronto Bluejays radio voice. It was during the Blizzard of 1977. It was late January and there were 6 foot high snowdrifts covering everything when the Bluejays "Caravan" rolled through the Niagara Peninsula, featuring Tom, manager Roy Hartsfield, Bob Bailor and, I think, catcher Phil Roof. There was a little cocktail reception for the townsfolk and the media was invited to come down and interview the principles. I was working radio news at CJRN in the Falls. Good station. Rick Jeaneret, Erik Thomas and some drunken News Director whose name I can't recall. I had a Sony cassette tape recorder with an Electro-Voice microphone. I strode confidently up to this big tall fellow, taller than me. I had never met Tom Cheek before, but I had heard him doing some Expo games on radio as Dave Van Horne's back up the previous season. I was big into radio, so I tried to catch as many different broadcasts as I could. Tom had a great voice and an easy, down-home delivery. I introduced myself, asked if I could talk to him, and proceeded to do what I thought was a pretty good interview, maybe 5 or 6 minutes long. After I had thanked Tom, I went into a corner to listen to the interview. But there was no interview. The mic wasn't plugged in all the way. I had nothing. I panicked. I had to bring something back to the station, but by this time, the caravan was on it's way out of the room and back in the car for the drive home. I ran out into the freezing cold, microphone firmly plugged into tape recorder, looking for Tom Cheek. "Please" I cried "We've got to do it again. The mic wasn't plugged in" And so, Tom got out of the car, and, in the middle of a parking lot with the snow falling and the wind blowing it into drifts, Tom Cheek saved me from myself. He stood there and patiently answered every question, just as he had minutes earlier into an empty microphone. In fact, the second interview was even better.
A year later, I was lucky enough to land a job at CKFH, which is now Sportsnet 590 The Fan. I had been a huge fan (still am) of Bob McCown's show "Talking of Sports". He had done P.A. at Bluejays games that first season AND hosting a phone-in show every night and, I think, selling radio airtime as well. I convinced him (ok begged him) to let me help out and produce his show and screen the phone calls. He not only gave me the job, he also got me a PRESS PASS to the Bluejays games for 1978. I was now a real sports journalist and talk show producer and sat next door to Tom Cheek for every single home game. In fact, we had a booth called the "Polish Press Box" (McCown's name for it) that was supposed to be an open-air booth for TV, like the radio booth. Instead, somebody put plexiglass all around it, which rendered it useless for TV. When you sat in there, you could hear every word Tom was saying on the broadcast, so it was like we were his private audience. When he was finished broadcasting the third inning, he'd turn the mic over to Early Wynn, tell the engineer (Jim Fonger or Doug Cawker) he was going out for a while, and then saunter into the Polish Press Box with a box of popcorn. That's where McCown and I would be with any number of these gentlemen: Pat Gillick, Paul Beeston, Elliot Wahle (Asst. GM) Gord Ash (Operations) George Holm (Tickets) Peter Durso (Publicity) Bobby Prentice (Scout) Dr. Ron Taylor (Team Physician). As well, visiting broadcasters such as Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Harry Caray, Dick Enberg, Bob Uecker and many others would stop by. Let me tell you, I learned a lot about baseball from those gentlemen.
But I learned more about broadcasting from Tom. He had a way of putting you at ease, both as a listener on radio and as a participant in a discussion. He had wide-ranging interests and was not a "stats geek" like many of today's announcers. He was more interested in the human being. What type of person you were versus what kind of ballplayer you were. And boy, did he work hard. He never said "no". In the early years, he did EVERYTHING. Early Wynn was not a broadcaster, so Tom was responsible for everything that went to air. The pre-game show, the post-game interview, ALL the commercials (many of which were done "live"), all the "special guests" that were ferried in and out of the broadcast booth had to be interviewed, thanked for their support and ushered out without taking away from the flow of the game. Len Bramson, who hired him for the radio network, and his assistant Sue Rayson always had lots of work for Tom to do. He was, after all, the only constant the ballclub had. He was the link to the fans on radio and in person. Tom emceed every single event associated with the Jays, and was the team's unofficial historian. It's witness to history. During the 1981 baseball strike, he even broadcast AAA Syracuse Chiefs games because there were no Bluejays games. Tom also had quite a temper, and let me know exactly how he felt about one particular transgression of mine. I had embarrassed him in front of other people, and he quietly took me aside and then lit into me. I was in my early 20s and he was in his mid 30s and I remember him telling me to NEVER show somebody up in front of other people. Treat them with respect. That advice saved my career.
The high point of my early broadcasting career took place in September of 1979. The Jays were a terrible team and Roy Hartsfield would not be back as manager the following year. Early Wynn was nearing the end of his 3 year tenure as Tom's partner. He was getting old and cranky and didn't like the travel anymore. Also, the cold weather made his arthritis flare up. He wasn't able to make it to a Wednesday afternoon game between the Jays and the equally low-brow Oakland A's. Tom suggested I fill in. I was over the moon with glee. Imagine being 23 years old, sitting next to a man you've listened to since Day One, and getting an opportunity to live your dream as a broadcaster. Who cares that Phil Huffman was pitching against Mike Norris in a meaningless game before 11 thousand fans? All I remember is sitting next to the avuncular Tom Cheek, who patted me on the shoulder just prior to opening the mic and said "Just be yourself, and you'll do great". And with that, he flipped the mic on, said his "welcome" and introduced me to the listening audience. "Take it away, Mark" he said. I did 3 innings of play by play with Tom Cheek as my colour commentator. He treated me like I was a ten year veteran. That was Tom Cheek in a nutshell. He treated you with respect.
Congratulations to the Cheek family on Tom's induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Tom, you touched us all. The Hall deserves you as much as you deserve to be in the Hall.