'King' of sports broadcasters
From Audiograph, signature sounds of the Bay Area:
The Bay Area has a rich pro sports scene with distinctive voices who bring us all the action.
There’s Golden State Warriors play-by-play man Tim Roye. Greg Papa calls games for the Oakland Raiders. And across the Bay, there’s San Francisco Giants broadcaster Jon Miller.
Baseball. Football. Basketball. Each game is linked with a voice. But there’s one man who called all three sports in the Bay Area at the same time. And he was inducted into the prestigious broadcasting wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His name is Bill King.
As he said with his signature line, “Holy Toledo! The element of surprise reigns supreme!”
A character with character
Bill King died back in 2005 at the age of 78, but he’s still well remembered. As a matter of fact, the broadcast booth at the Oakland Coliseum is named after him. That’s where I go to talk with Ken Korach, who knew Bill as well as anybody else.
Ken joined Bill in 1996, broadcasting games for the Oakland A’s. A few years ago, he wrote the book Holy Toledo! Lessons from Bill King: Renaissance Man of the Mic.
But his first introduction to Bill was over the airwaves in the 1960s as a kid living in Los Angeles. That’s when he’d hear the AM signal making its way down from San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
“And late at night I could hear the Warriors broadcasts clear as could be,” says Ken, “and I couldn’t wait at night to hear Bill broadcast the Warriors. So he was a profound influence on me at that point. I didn’t know a lot about him aside from pictures, and he had a very unique look as you know.”
Bill King was a character with character. He had a waxed mustache and a devilish beard.
“He was a smallish man,” says Ken. “I would say average sized when he was in his prime. Maybe 5’8”, 5’9”. Not more than 155 pounds.” But he stood out when hired by Oakland Raiders general manager Scotty Sterling in 1966.
Bill showed up to training camp that summer in Santa Rosa, says Ken, “And [he] had this aversion to shoes, and socks, and pants. His signature outfit would have been speedos and flip flops. Bill was on the sidelines watching practice, and [Raiders owner] Al Davis walked by, and he turned to Scotty and said, ‘Who is this scrawny little guy? And what can he possibly know about football?’ And Scotty turned to Al and said, ‘Al, that’s your new radio announcer.’”
The full spectrum
Bill King threaded beautiful storylines in sports ... and in everything else.
“Bill brought a passion to every second of his life,” says Ken. “If he was reading the morning paper, he immersed himself in it to the point like it was the most important reading of the morning paper in the history of the world.”
He read all the time. Often Russian literature. He learned to sail and traveled the world from his home base of Sausalito. He loved art and opera. Ken says Bill’s voracious appetite for living also manifested in, simply, a voracious appetite.
“Well, we have a popcorn machine back here in the press box,” says Ken. “He would start with the popcorn. That was kind of the base of the dish. Then smother it in nacho cheese sauce. And then onions, peppers, tomatoes, whatever else he could find, that he would put on top of that. He would eat raw slabs of butter. He’d eat butter right off the tray. He’d find a room service tray and eat the butter. But then he would also, the finest restaurants in the country. Fine dining. Waiters in tuxedos. White linen tablecloths. He loved that. He was a connoisseur of fine wine. Bill ran the full spectrum.”
His dinner parties at home and on the road were legendary. He counted basketball player Wilt Chamberlain as a friend along with other top athletes. He loved spending time with them. But not so much the people who enforced the rules of the game.
“Bill was very emotional when it came to referees and umpires, and authority figures in general were not his favorite people,” says Ken.
That became quite clear in a basketball game he called on December 6, 1968.
“It was a very intense game between the Warriors and the Sonics. And at the end of the game there had been a lot of calls that could have gone either way and had gone against the Warriors,” says Ken. Bill became enraged at referee Ed Rush, “took his headset off, and he motioned to an engineer to cut the mic. And Bill stood up and yelled an expletive. His mic was cut, but the crowd mic was wide open. And so here he was on 50,000 watts. The entire Bay Area could hear what he said to Ed Rush. Everybody could hear, and for ever and ever, it became known as Mother’s Day.
I ask Ken if Bill could appreciate a good call.
“I never saw that,” he says with a laugh. “No, he prohibited me from even talking to an umpire.”
But he also helped Ken become the voice of the A’s.
“The way that Bill reached out to me and accepted me, and brought me into the booth as a partner, says Ken, “I always had the feeling that A’s fans were thinking that if Bill King thinks this guy is okay, then he’s okay.”
The most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play
The two shared many memories in the broadcast booth. Like the Scott Hatteberg home run that gave the A’s a record 20th consecutive victory on September 4, 2002.
“There were a lot of calls that he made that were iconic, I think,” says Ken.
And no Bill King call is more famous than the end of an Oakland Raiders game at San Diego on September 10, 1978. It came to be known as “The Holy Roller.”
“When you came to capturing the denouement in a ballgame or any kind of a game, you wanted to have Bill King as your announcer, because no-one could capture those dramatic moments like he did,” says Ken.
Bill King has been called by many people the greatest football announcer who ever called a game. Many more consider him basketball’s greatest broadcaster.
“He didn’t work for the celebrity or the notoriety. He did it because he loved it. And that was the sole purpose,” says Ken. “He didn’t answer anybody’s expectations. Bill was his own man, and particularly in his broadcasts.”
As King himself exhorted in his signature call after the Hatteberg homer, “Crazy. Just plain crazy. How do you explain it?!”
This story originally aired in July of 2017 as part of our Audiograph series, a radio project mapping the Bay Area’s sonic signature. Audiograph tells the story of where you live and the people who live there with you.