Home Runs and Courage: The Inspiring Story of Veteran Jerry Howard

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By Tyler Francke, Contributing Writer
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Veteran Jerry Howard

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life, or so they say. Air Force veteran Jerry Howard, commissioner of the Mavericks Independent Baseball League based at the Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, has found a novel way to combine his two lifelong passions: baseball and honoring and supporting veterans and those actively serving in our nation’s military.

Howard’s love of baseball goes back to his earliest memories. He started playing at the age of five, and was an avid hitter and middle infielder until the Air Force came calling in 1961.

Assigned to Bergstrom Air Force Base outside Austin, Texas, he later worked at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch 60 miles west of the city. Air Force One flew into Bergstrom when the president would travel home from Washington, D.C., or other states and nations.

“I was pretty much a ‘gofer,’ and did a great deal of driving, especially when President Johnson was home,” says Jerry, reflecting on his five years in Texas. “I really enjoyed my time in the Air Force and extended for an extra year, but ultimately decided I wanted to get back into baseball.”

That he did, starting as an umpire and working his way up — just like the players who toil in the rookie and minor leagues before, hopefully, getting their big break.

“I got to umpire five National Junior College World Atheletes Series and the U.S.A. vs. China Olympic game,” he says, as he recalled the years of traveling in professional baseball. “Eventually, I did some coaching and then went into scouting, first for the [Chicago] Cubs and the [Toronto] Blue Jays.”

In 2006, Jerry began working with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, then a Class A-Short Season eight-team league affiliated with the San Francisco Giants. He is one of just four full-time staff members working with the team and has a variety of tasks.

“I do a little bit of everything in the office, but on September 1 each year, I start planning the July 4th Patriot Tribute game,” he says.

It is this — an annual celebration of the nation’s veterans, active duty military and all things Americana — that has made Jerry particularly well-known, especially among the Oregon veteran community.

The earliest iteration, the game in 2008, honored four National Guard members who had recently returned from Iraq. The success of that solemn gesture inspired everyone with the Volcanoes to plan for the next year.

The starting point is often the hardest part, Jerry says, detailing all the aspects that go into supporting the theme of the event. In many ways, it’s like being a wedding planner, as each part has to be carefully considered, thought out, and choreographed.

The tribute now is nearly 90 minutes in length with as many as 200 veterans and service members on the field prior to the first pitch. It has also grown to include a horse-drawn carriage, military songs and remembrances, special patriotic uniforms worn by both teams, and a professional fireworks show to cap it all off.

The tribute won Jerry the prestigious Charles K. Murphy Patriot Award in 2019, and just this past summer, during the 2023 tribute game, Volcanoes owner Jerry Walker announced that all future editions of the Patriot Tribute would be renamed in Jerry Howard’s honor.

“I am proud of what Jerry Howard has selflessly achieved with this program and equally proud of all our active servicemen, servicewomen and all veterans who give so much in the defense of freedom and liberty,” Jerry Walker says.

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