Cheek's wife accepts Frick Award with moving speech
Late Blue Jays voice honoured for excellence in baseball broadcasting
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- He touched them all, one fan at a time.
Tom Cheek, the voice of the Blue Jays for nearly three decades, became a permanent part of the fabric of the game on Saturday. Cheek, who passed away in 2005, was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award in recognition of his passion, skill and ability to connect with the common fan.
Shirley Cheek, Tom's wife of 46 years, spoke in his place on Saturday and delivered a moving address in a surprisingly measured manner. Baseball and broadcasting had been their lives for so long, and Cheek finally won the Frick Award after being named a finalist nine times.
"He would be so humbled," she said in the hours before her speech. "He would say, 'But there's somebody else who's more important than me.' That's just how he came across, because he did a job that he loved doing. He was born to be a broadcaster. There was no doubt about it. But it wasn't just that he was a broadcaster. He loved meeting the fans. He loved talking to people. If we were on a cruise or a train, he'd strike up a conversation with anybody. He was interested in hearing their story."
The trio of Jacob Ruppert, Deacon White and Hank O'Day, elected to the Hall of Fame late last year by the 16-person Pre-Integration Veterans Committee, will be represented by their heirs at Sunday's induction ceremony, beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET. Hall of Fame coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. on MLB Network and also can be seen with a live stream on MLB.com.
Cheek, a Canadian treasure who was actually born in Pensacola, Fla., brought an unparalleled dedication and professionalism to the job. He broadcast Toronto's very first game in 1977 and worked an astonishing 4,306 consecutive games -- a 27-year streak -- before missing time in 2004.
And if that streak was his calling card, Cheek can also claim one of the game's immortal quotes. Cheek, calling Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, ad-libbed a perfect remark after Joe Carter hit a title-clinching home run. "Touch 'em all, Joe!" Cheek said. "You'll never hit a bigger home run in your life!"
It's that moment -- and countless others during his 27-season run -- that fans return to time and again. Cheek was first named a finalist for the Frick Award in 2005, and fans relentlessly kept his name in the conversation. Shirley Cheek acknowledged that effort on Saturday, and she also lauded Mike Wilner, one of Cheek's broadcast partners, for making a "tireless effort" to rock the vote.
"After seven years, fans across Canada have never forgotten Tom," she said Saturday. "I've heard from Blue Jays fans from British Columbia to Newfoundland expressing support and congratulations. Each year, Jays fans voted and voted for Tom. From the bottom of my heart, thank you."
Cheek, born in Pensacola, served in the United States Air Force before beginning his broadcasting career. He started as a disc jockey in upstate New York and later moved to Burlington, Vt., where he began calling games in various sports for the teams from the University of Vermont.
Those humble beginnings helped mold the man. Shirley Cheek spoke eloquently Saturday about Cheek's willingness to do everything from ad sales to play by play, and he graduated to part-time work on Montreal Expos broadcasts before landing the full-time job with the expansion Blue Jays.
That's where the ride began. Cheek called Toronto's first game in 1977 and didn't miss a game until 2004, when he left the booth following his father's death. Cheek was diagnosed with a brain tumor later in 2004, and he returned to the booth sporadically before passing away in October 2005.
The final chapter of Cheek's story took a sudden twist, but he lived long enough to see some amazing gestures. The Blue Jays inducted Cheek to their Level of Excellence in a moving ceremony in 2005, and he received reams of correspondence following the end of his streak.
One of those letters came from Cal Ripken Jr,, holder of baseball's longest consecutive games streak, and another one came from George Steinbrenner, the late former owner of the Yankees. Shirley Cheek read an excerpt from that last letter aloud on Saturday, sharing it with the world.
"Twenty-seven years," wrote Steinbrenner. "Four thousand, three hundred and six games is a very long time to announce baseball. Let me put it another way: If you announced only one game a week ... it would take you 83 years to get to 4,306 games. Now that's impressive."
Cheek's first broadcast partner in Toronto was Early Wynn, but then he settled into a notable partnership with Jerry Howarth. "Tom and Jerry," as they were known in Canada, worked together for 23 years in the booth, chronicling Toronto's rise from expansion upstart to World Series champion.
Wilner, who served as the third man in the booth and postgame host, said Saturday that he grew up listening to Cheek and that he considers the man a life-changing mentor and friend.
"It's indescribable," Wilner said in an e-mail. "To grow up listening to someone, to go to sleep with a speaker under my pillow with the game on the radio, just imagine getting the chance to actually work with that man. He was wonderful to me, so generous with his time on air and off, pushing me to succeed. A wonderful teacher, mentor, advisor and one of the best human beings I've ever known."
Shirley Cheek said Saturday that Tom took special pride in working with former catcher turned broadcaster Buck Martinez, who now calls Blue Jay games a generation later. It's full circle and altogether appropriate, and she seemed certain that her husband would have loved this day.
Cheek, who passed away at the age of 66, loved his native Florida and fishing, and he was well known for crooning all the way through the corridors of the SkyDome when he worked. His voice was thick and evocative, instantly recognizable from the first syllable he uttered in passing or on air.
Cheek's three children were all in attendance on Saturday, and Shirley Cheek said that they have seven grandchildren who dearly miss her husband's presence. But on this day, the Cheek family shared their family member with the baseball world and were embraced in return.
"Yes, Tom, you have come a long way from that dirt street in Pensacola to realizing your dreams, and today being recognized and honored by your peers," she said. "To our grandchildren ... You don't remember much about Pop-Pop, but he loved you unconditionally. This is your legacy."