Bill King A Baseball Prince
Near the end of World War II, a high school baseball star left for Guam, where an Armed Forces Radio tryout pivoted his life. Returning home, Bill King nixed a minor-league pact for 250-watt outlet in Pekin, Illinois. "I had the bug," he said, carrying it to his recent death, at 78. Always King showed what El Figaro of Paris termed "a certain feeling of possibility."
We felt it as early as 1958. Bill joined the Giants’ Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons from Peoria baseball, Bradley basketball, and Nebraska football. "They’d just moved from New York and played mostly in the afternoon. I got to explore other things": Russian history, opera and ballet, painting and sailing a 31-foot boat. "Some people in the game get stuck in the game. I never find enough time outside it to do what I want."
King tried. "When we met," said friend Nancy Stephens, "he didn’t know a thing about classical music. Now he knows more than me." The Young Man and the Sea sailed her to Hawaii, Canada, and down the Coast. The gourmet had peanut butter and onions on warm tortilllas. "You see so-and-so is 57 or 32 and create in your mind an image of what a 57- or 32-year-old looks like," said Bill, 32 turning 21.
Ultimately, a generation matured hearing him do the Bay Area’s three major sports. Flaunting cool and humor, King made his active the unconventional life.
The term became Bill’s trademark. King drove a battered car, banned a telephone at home, and hated socks and shoes. Late-1950s Giants mikemen wore a coat and tie. On hot days, feeling like "I’d showed in my pants," King ditched them for skivvies. G.M. Chub Feeney entered the booth to see him peeling. Said Simmons: "He almost had a heart attack."
Soon Bill grew a handlebar mustache and Van **** beard. "A beard in America of 1976 is not … unusual," said the San Francisco Examiner’s Art Spander. "But he was wearing a beard in 1962. He left baseball for the 1962-83 NBA Warriors, 1966-92 Raiders, and University of California. "At his peak," a writer said, "[he could] do play-by-play, wax eloquent about the flow of the game, and decry officiating, all without missing a beat."
George Blanda became "King of the world"; fumble recovery "a Holly Roller"; Stabler to Casper "The Ghost to the Post." Hoopsl was glitzier: "His words," said The Sporting News, "bullets from a machine gun." Bill’s and the bigs’ boats passed. Then, in 1979, the Oakland A’s drew 306,763. "We need some jazz," said an exec, giving King radio/TV. High, sharp, and stacatto, he joined the just-leaving-the Giants Lon. Once, doing Warriors TV, Simmons said, "If I were watching, I’d turn off the sound and hear Bill on radio."
King’s first-year A’s made the 1982 League Championship Series. A year later King made history: In Milwaukee, spying the beard and mustache, an elderly woman grabbed and proclaimed him the devil. "That’s Bill — flair, panache," laughed Jon Miller, growing up near Oakland. The A’s had usually been the Bay Area’s second fiddle. Now, their radio became the last word, not last choice.
"The Golden Voice of Guam"
In the 1980s, the man whose "passionate descriptions," wrote a columnist, "[were] nothing short of Shakespearean" became America’s sole Voice of big-league basketball, football, and baseball. Ironically, only baseball remained by 2005.
The A’s talk of moving to nearby Santa Clara. Like El Figaro’s desciption, the possibility intrigues. "Who cares?" a fan laughed, putting perspective in season. "Even if they leave, we’ll still hear Bill King." No, we don’t. Not any more. The sad fact is: We still have his bug.