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October 19, 2005

Crooked Numbers

An Appreciation

by James Click

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New York had Mel Allen and Red Barber. In Los Angeles, it's Vin Scully. In St. Louis, Jack Buck was the voice of the Cardinals.

In Oakland, for 25 years, it has been Bill King.

King, who broadcast Oakland Athletics games from 1981 through 2005, died Monday, leaving a hole the size of Toledo in the Bay Area sports scene. All baseball broadcasters are invited into our living rooms and their voices remind us of summer, of victories long past and defeats too painful to recount, and if ever there was a broadcaster meant for the Bay Area, it was King.

He was, as A's president Mike Crowley put it, a Renaissance Man. Not only was he at the top of his profession in broadcasting three sports--Giants and A's baseball, Raiders football, and Warriors basketball--but he was often more interested in discussing matters wholly unrelated to sports. A's broadcasts usually included a side of Shakespeare, Russian literature, food or wine discourse along with the action of the game. During road games, King would discuss local restaurants with partner Ken Korach in between events on the field; batter versus pitcher was followed by Bryant's versus Gates. But it's questionable whether any other Renaissance man so enjoyed popcorn covered with chili--one of King's favorites--or broadcasting ballgames shoeless, as he so often would.

Bay Area fans don't like a homer. Not "home runs"--this is the town of Moneyball and Barry Bonds--but the broadcaster who refers to the team as "we" and openly cheers for the hometown nine. King was nothing of the sort. He voiced elation at any great play, any dramatic turn, as if he'd never seen anything like it before. Whether it was a diving stab in the hole by Miguel Tejada, a Mark McGwire home run, or a Dave Stewart strikeout, every game with Bill King meant experiencing something unique in the history of baseball.

Even more importantly, King was honest with us. Just this year, when Korach mentioned MLB's plan to switch the DH rule in interleague play, King called the idea "Selig logic," a phrase, he explained, that is an oxymoron. Even with the A's out of the race late in September, he went so far as to call a slow-responding umpire a "jackass" on air. Larry Krueger would have gotten himself fired for a remark like that, but King drew applause. He was notorious for his exasperated disdain for all umpires and he made no bones about it, pointedly criticizing every missed call to the delight of his listeners and colleagues.

It's a tribute to his appetite for self-education that his vocabulary was large enough to avoid the kind of hackneyed repetition all too common today. He had but one signature phrase--"Holy Toledo!"--that was divided between A's and opponents alike, a result of King's love of the game of baseball perfected.

Through it all, King's one failing may be that he was 10 years too late. After coming in as the third man in the Giants' booth in 1958, King broadcast San Francisco and Golden State Warriors games before moving on to the Raiders and, in 1981, the Athletics. By the time King was prominently involved in baseball broadcasts, television was already the dominant national medium. With the arrival of satellite radio, baseball on the radio appears to be making a comeback, but King's brilliant career bridged the middle decades. While Fox was busy sugar-coating the national pastime in a blizzard of quick shots with a few microphones on top, King's classic style reminded all of us why baseball is the greatest game on earth. He was the narrator of our summers.

Signing off at the end of this season, King said, "We'll see you Saturday, March 4th, 2006, at noon." After 25 years of hearing King call A's games, it's hard to imagine starting a season without him.

Thanks for everything, Bill. We miss you already.

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Prospectus Notebook: R... (10/19)
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Premium Article Crooked Numbers: Takin... (10/27)
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