Ken Korach On Bill King And 'Holy Toledo'

Ken Korach called games with King for 10 years.

It takes a special kind of announcer to become the definitive voice of an sports organization. It takes a once-in-a-lifetime talent to become the voice of three different organizations, especially in three different sports. But that was Bill King, THE voice of the Oakland A's, Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors.

UPCOMING BOOK SIGNING

Ken Korach will be signing copies of 'Holy Toledo' on March 22nd at the A's spring training home, Phoenix Municipal Stadium. He will be available before the game on the concourse inside the stadium.

For generations of Bay Area sports fans, Bill King was the voice of their favorite teams. The legendary broadcaster manned the mic for the Golden State Warriors, Oakland Raiders and Oakland A's for nearly 50 years. Last September, longtime A's broadcaster Ken Korach released a book on King. Korach was King's radio broadcast partner for A's games for 10 seasons.

'Holy Toledo': Lessons from Bill King, Renaissance Man of the Mic (available on Amazon here) details different aspects of the varied life of King, who had a passion for sailing, Russian culture and literature, painting and food, as well as sports. In the book, Korach also speaks to King's family, friends and colleagues about the impact King had on their lives and their sport.

King will always hold a special place in Oakland A's history. The lead radio broadcaster for the A's for 25 years, King narrated the team's journey through the Billy Ball era, the Bash Brothers squads and the Billy Beane teams of the early 2000s. King passed away in October 2005 and the following season, the broadcast booth at the Oakland Coliseum was re-named the Bill King broadcast booth.

Korach, who is himself a beloved voice for a generation of A's fans, joined King in the A's broadcast booth at the start of the 1996 season. However, he first was influenced by King as a child listening to King broadcast the Warriors over the radio. I recently spoke with Korach about his process writing the book, King's legacy and his impact on the Bay Area, and why King should have a place in Cooperstown.


OaklandClubhouse: First I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the book. It is a great read and it really brings me back to the days of listening to all of Bill's broadcasts as a kid. Thank you for writing it.

Ken Korach: I'm honored that you liked it. I am always blown away when anyone reads it. I was out at Papago [on Tuesday] and a couple of people came up to me and said ‘hey, I read your book.' I'm thinking 15 months ago, I was just staring at a blank computer screen. To think that people are reading it now, it's amazing.

OC: What was your impetus for writing the book? And once you decided to write it, how did you take all of those years together with Bill and figure out how you wanted to tell the story?

KK: I have always had an interest in writing. I always had this dream that someday that I would write a book, but it always seemed like a daunting assignment or task. I never thought I would have the discipline to sit down and do it. This isn't a really long book, but I think it's over 250 pages. I never thought I would be disciplined enough to put it together.

A few years back, I was approached by a publisher who broached the subject of me writing my own story. I really had no interest in that at that point, and I still have no interest in it, but it got me thinking that if I was to write a book would there be something I could write about that I have a great passion for, and the content would have a chance to be good and interesting? And I thought: Bill King.

I really felt because he had such a profound influence on me and that he had spent 47 years broadcasting in the Bay Area and what he meant to people there, and his story is so rich and so layered and nobody had written a book about Bill, I thought if I were to do something, this is a project I would undertake. I thought writing a book about Bill would provide that inspiration.

Steve Kettmann [publisher of Wellstone Books] had this idea to start his own publishing company. We had talked a little bit over the years about my interest in writing. He contacted me and said, ‘I want you to consider writing a book about Bill' and at that time, he had this idea of kicking off Wellstone Books with a series of shorter books, considerably shorter books than mine, that he was going to call the ‘Mentor Series', where he would get maybe a half dozen people to write books about people who had come into their lives and had had an influence on them and do a series of books. But these were to be much shorter and much more personal, without the interviews and the calls transcribed like the Bill book, which has a certain biographical quality to it. But your personal reflections on what that person meant to you.

So that was really the genesis of it.

OC: Growing up in the Bay Area when I did, I only knew Bill King as the A's radio voice, so the parts about him announcing the Warriors and Raiders games were really interesting to me. Those parts of his life were so different and varied. You said that the book isn't strictly a biography. Was it difficult to bring those different eras of his life together? Did you find a common thread in how he handled those different aspects of his career?

KK: That's a great question because I didn't start with an outline and I didn't start out ahead of time with a table of contents. There were a couple of things that I really wanted to pursue. Number one, I wanted to give equal time to the three sports. Obviously the chapters about the A's are as personal as any of the chapters, but I also wanted to do justice to his time with the Raiders and the Warriors. So that was part of the structure of the story going in, to reflect on the work he did with those teams and the impact that he had on the Bay Area. Once I got into the research on the Raiders, Steve and I talked and we came to the conclusion that we had to do an LA Raiders chapter, too, because that was a significant part of Bill's life. After all, it was a decade down there.

That was part of the structure. The book is not a strict biography – like I said – so we weren't concerned with things like ‘he had Ms. Johnson's class in the fifth grade. And then when he was 14, he did this, and when he was 21, he did this.' We weren't overly concerned with that chronology and detail.

I really tried to go after people, in terms of the interviews, who would tell the story. I wanted to tell the story of Bill. Steve really pushed me to make it as personal as possible – and I went out thinking I didn't want the story to be strictly through my voice and experiences. I wanted to have all of the views of the people who Bill had come into contact with. After all, he had such a rich history of the Bay Area.

I had an idea that I wanted to link Bill's history to the history of the Bay Area. It is very hard to separate Bill from the history of Bay Area sports. I don't think a lot of people knew that he broadcast Cal basketball during the Pete Newell days and the heyday of that program. I started to make a list of people who I wanted to interview. I could go back now in retrospect and I could give you 10 or 15 people that I could say in hindsight I could have interviewed or I wished I had. But I feel pretty comfortable with the group of people that I interviewed. They really provided so much wonderful background.

It was a matter of looking at the different facets of Bill's life. If it is the Raiders, who are you going to talk to? If I am talking about the Warriors, who should I talk to? If I'm talking about the A's, who do I want to talk to from the A's? Then to do a thorough portrayal – because Bill was so diverse with his interests – we had to consider the other aspects of Bill's life. It was obvious to me we had to have a chapter on his painting.

And then there was that chapter on his eating, which is still a little goofy, I guess, but I think people have had a lot of fun with it. I was talking with [longtime A's beat writer from the San Francisco Chronicle] Susan Slusser, and I said, ‘Susan, I am thinking about doing a chapter on Bill's eating. I think it might be kind of humorous and fun.' And she said ‘that would be the first chapter I would read.' I passed that onto Steve, and he said, ‘oh, we have to do a chapter on his eating.' That's a little glimpse of how it all came together.

One of the things that was really important to me, and I mentioned this in the Acknowledgements – was that it was hugely important for us to have Bill's daughter Kathleen's blessings on this project. I don't think I would have gone ahead with it or Steve would have gone ahead with it if she didn't feel it was a worthwhile project. As the summer evolved and I was doing games and writing and doing research for the book, Steve and Pete Danko – who was an editor of the book – were wonderful and they established a great relationship with Kathleen. That is where some of the pictures came from in the book and Steve got some wonderful information from Kathleen that's early in the book. His days in Sausalito and his sailing. She was really wonderful. I can't thank her enough for everything that she did as this process moved along. She really endorsed what we were doing and got behind it and provided us with the kind of insight that you could only get from a family member.

OC: You talked in the book about how Bill helped to shape the view of Bay Area sports during his career. You also mentioned that he had a dislike of the San Francisco Giants. A's fans dislike of the Giants organization is no secret. Do you think Bill's feelings about the Giants helped shape that view?

KK: No. I don't think so because I think Bill was professional enough that – even thought he clearly wanted the A's to win – even in a game against the Giants, if the Giants did something well, he'd give them their due. Although the Olmedo Saenz [walkoff homerun against Robb Nen] call when he said ‘the only way they can score Jaha…' was one of his most memorable calls because of the passion and emotion in his voice when the A's beat the Giants.

But I think part of the Bill King experience – and I wouldn't necessarily equate this with the rivalry with the Giants – but if you were a fan of a team that Bill broadcast for, I think that Bill brought that passion and that emotion out of the fanbase. When you listened to Bill, there was incredible passion. These were not mundane or passive broadcasts. These were broadcasts where he poured his heart and soul into them. It was clear to anyone who listened to Bill call the A's for those 25 years that he was deeply emotionally connected with the team. That was the connection that he made.

There are a lot of announcers who come and go and a lot of announcers who have a pasteurized sound or a pasteurized approach. Bill was none of that. If you go back – and I'm dating myself – to listening to him in the ‘60s do the Warriors, you had a connection there. That was the best thing about Bill – there was that immediate connection because of his involvement and his commitment.

OC: One of my clearest memories of a Bill King broadcast came in 2003 after Game 5 of the divisional series [the A's lost with the tying and winning runs on base]. At the end of his game recap, he finished by saying that he'd see everyone again and he had the exact date of the first spring training broadcast for the next season. To me, that was a really interesting touch because it sort of allowed the listeners to begin the healing process from that loss and know that they had something to look forward to the next year. Was that something that you felt he did really well?

KK: Absolutely. I think there is a quote in the book from Dave Henderson and he's talking about when the people in the Valley turned on that first spring training game that everything was okay because Bill was doing baseball. I think the cliché of being a member of the family and being the soundtrack of people's lives, Bill was the soundtrack for people's lives.

As passionate as he was, I said in the book – and I didn't mean this as a pejorative at all – that he had a remarkable ability to put things in perspective, even when the team was playing awful. He never went off of the deep-end with that to the point where he just completely wrote off the team because he always knew it was important to keep perspective in those situations. As emotional as he could get, and that was one of the best things about Bill because it was unvarnished, he did have the ability to put things in perspective, like you said.

He knew that there was a continuity to that, that there was a rhythm to baseball that in the spring there were the clichés about renewal and the season blooming like cactus out here, so he had a great feel for that.

OC: In the book, you talk about the difference between announcing a game for television and announcing one for the radio and how people learn the game differently when they are listening to a broadcast rather than seeing on a screen what a producer has chosen to show. Do you think in this era of baseball where many teams have 162 games on TV that it will change how fans learn the game because they are so much more likely to see a TV broadcast now than, say, in the 80s when only 60 or 70 games would be on TV?

KK: I do think that radio has remained viable, especially in baseball, because you can take the radio anywhere and baseball games can be three hours long. You can listen in your car and I think people do a lot more driving in the summertime when they are out on vacations or going places for the weekend, or you are out in the backyard and you're barbequing. Thank goodness that people still enjoy listening to the game on the radio because otherwise I wouldn't have a job. [laughs]

But one of things that people have this debate about is whether Bill was better in basketball or football or baseball. I think one of the things I felt is that people want to think – and for good reason – back at those days of when Bill was doing the Warriors and I think part of that is because if you really wanted to pay attention the team, you had to listen to the radio. There weren't many games on TV. Same with baseball. When I was a kid, there were only nine games a year on TV for the Dodgers. Radio really was your link. Those memories become indelible because there was something enchanting about sitting there late at night and listening to the game on the radio.

[Former A's president] Roy Eisenhardt made some wonderful contributions to the book, and he said that the radio does allow you to use your imagination. This is not to disparage television at all because I agree that there are announcers that do television very well. I love watching games on TV. But Bill and I both had a great preference for radio over television. I think maybe that is one reason that we got along so well. He was very supportive of me wanting to do radio over TV.

OC: You have alluded a little bit to your history announcing games in the minor leagues. What is the difference between announcing a game even at the Triple-A level and announcing a big league game? And just how difficult is it to get that opportunity for a job in the big leagues?

KK: That's a great question. I'll give you a little bit of a different approach to the answer. In 1985, I was hired by KCBS and I was doing San Jose State football and I was filling in on their updates in the morning and the afternoon. I was very intimidated by that. I was working at a 1,000 WATT station that went down to 250 WATTs at night and the next thing I know, I was working at a 50,000 WATTs station. I touched on this in the book that I couldn't get this out of my head that now I was in a big market and I have to be different. I have to somehow figure out how to be a major market announcer.

What you really have to figure out is how to be yourself. You have to be yourself no matter where you are working, no matter what level. That experience really stuck with me because I foundered around there for awhile trying to find myself. When I got hired by the White Sox in 1992, I was working weekends, but I was the lead guy one day a week on a 50,000 WATT station in Chicago. In the times I kind of talked to myself about my approach, it was not unlike a player getting called up to the big leagues. I was a little bit like Gene Hackman in ‘Hoosiers' where he measures the basket. I had to tell myself that I had called 20,000 groundballs to short in the minor leagues and it's the same in the big leagues.

There are certain adjustments that you have to make when you are working in a different market and a different team, but ultimately I tried to come around to the thought that it's still baseball and I want to be myself. I had to do the games the best way I knew how to do it whether it was Triple-A or it was the big leagues.

The hardest thing for me initially was the length of the season. It has nothing to do with the actual announcing of the game, but in Triple-A, your season is always done on September 1st. Going that extra month was really rough in the beginning.

OC: You talk in the book about what it was like to replace a legend in the booth when you took Lon Simmons' place in the A's booth. Did that experience help you help Vince Cotroneo when he took over for Bill after Bill passed away?

KK: I think a lot. One of the things that I understood and certainly Vince understood when he went through it, is that when you replace an iconic figure, it's really hard. I think it was probably even harder for Vince because Bill had passed away. All of a sudden he was gone and there was no closure. A's fans never really had a chance to say good-bye and suddenly there was this new guy.

When I took over as the lead guy, I had been there for 10 years, so fans were used to hearing me. That was a situation where I know it was a tough transition for Vince. But you can't think of it that way on the air. In our business, if you spend too much time obsessing over what people are thinking about you, then you tie yourself up in knots. I wanted Vince to feel as comfortable as he possibly could and welcome him into the booth and try to do everything I possibly could to make him feel comfortable. We had had a history together because we had both worked at the Triple-A level at the same time. I think that helped.

Bill went out of his way to make me feel comfortable because that could have been very difficult [replacing Lon]. Bill made that a lot easier. Not that it was seamless, and it certainly wasn't seamless for our fans, who were missing Lon when I came on-board in '96. I think one of the things that you learn as you get older is that all you can do is the best you can in those situations.

OC: There is discussion about Bill's Hall of Fame candidacy in the book. Once again this year, Bill was a finalist but didn't get the Frick award. With the book coming out, it seemed like this might have been his best chance of getting into the Hall. Do you think that is a barrier that will ever be crossed at this point, or do you feel like if it was going to happen, it would have happened already?

KK: I don't know. I'm not overly optimistic, to be honest with you. Bruce Jenkins wrote a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle and Susan touched on this in one of her stories that because of the fact they have broken this down into eras of baseball, Bill is in the most contemporary era. He is grouped together with guys who are still working. As time goes on, there are going to be more and more good candidates. Obviously, I think Bill is at the top of that list. He should have been in already. But it's going to be harder and harder because there are going to be more and more eligible candidates.

I wish he had been placed in an earlier era. Bill started broadcasting baseball in the 50s. He broadcast for the Giants, although he wasn't a regular, beginning in '59. I think he would do better if he was grouped more with his contemporaries. After all, if Bill were alive today, he would be in his mid- to late-80s. And yet he is in the same classification as announcers working now. I think that is a drawback.

OC: You talked a lot about how Bill didn't have the advantage of being known nationally because he did the bulk of his work just for a Bay Area audience. With technology being what it is now, people can listen to whatever radio station they want no matter of location, especially with the MLB.com At-Bat app. Do you think Bill would have enjoyed the idea that someone in New York could choose to listen to his broadcast?

KK: Yeah, absolutely. Bill wanted as many people to listen as possible. No question. That's one of the reasons he liked to do the LA Raiders games and being exposed to a whole different market out there.

One of the greatest aftermaths of writing this book is that I have heard from so many people – and I don't mean this as an exaggeration – it's rare that a day goes by when I don't hear through an email or a letter from someone who read the book and were touched by the story. It has reinforced ten-fold how much he meant to people.

If you are talking about the Hall of Fame, this is a guy who impacted people's lives for 47 years and 25 years with the A's. He made a huge impact and it was emotional. He touched people. That's a Hall of Famer to me. I'm sorry. There are probably people who have won the Frick award who can't touch the impact that this man had on other people. This man, he had a profound impact on people and it was deep. It was emotional.

That to me, it's almost the definition of what a Hall of Famer is. If you aren't impacting people, you don't belong in the Hall of Fame.

OC: As someone who grew up listening to Bill announce A's games, Bill's death in 2005 hit me hard. I had to close my door at work because I was crying when I heard the news.

KK: I appreciate you saying that. It was the case for a lot of people. We had a chance to go to the funerals and the memorial services. Not that it made it any easier, but for fans, they never got to have that closure. Suddenly, he was gone and the next season starts and he was gone. I was talking to Marty Lurie the other day and he said that maybe the book helped to bring him back to life a little bit. That gives me a warm feeling when I hear someone say that.

OC: You talked about the ‘Moneyball' movie in the book. My favorite part of the movie was hearing the calls again. It really brought back the excitement of listening to those games as the streak went on.

KK: That's why I wrote the chapter about the movie in the book. Not only because of the calls. I thought it would be interesting to talk to Billy [Beane] about how they made the movie and how Bill's call [of the Scott Hatteberg homerun] became the centerpiece of the movie. But also because of how gracious Bill [King] was to me when he took those games [18 and 19] off and didn't come back. That made such a huge impression on me and I thought maybe we could make a chapter of it.

That's one of the ways the book evolved. It's sort of like how I do my preparation for the games from the standpoint of you have an idea and then you have these tributaries where you think, ‘there's the 20-game winning streak, so maybe I'll talk to Billy about ‘Moneyball''. Then maybe I'll talk to Hatteberg about that at-bat and maybe he'll have some interesting thoughts on hearing that call. And then maybe I'll talk to Art Howe about that game and what his thoughts were about that game. Then you just free associate, see where it takes you and the next thing you know, you have a chapter. That was really fun.

OC: For you, was it the process of writing the book or talking to people after the book was released that has been the most rewarding?

KK: I think the writing of the book was the most fun. I really enjoyed writing the book. I want to reiterate that Pete Danko did a phenomenal job as the editor of the book and the book doesn't happen without the support of a great publisher like Steve Kettman. To consider that this was the first significant publication that Steve has been involved with as a publisher – it's a major project to get a book published.

I really enjoyed the writing. There was never a time when I didn't enjoy it. It was a lot of fun. There is a certain intensity to it and some tedium with the editing as you get to the end of it. It's not always easy and that's part of the creative process.

But the most rewarding and heart-warming part of the process has been hearing from people. No question. Literally, it's almost brought me to tears numerous times just reading letters and emails from people. People are so thoughtful. I'm kind of blown away by that. There are 64 reviews on Amazon. To think that people would take the time to do that and they are all so heart-felt, I'm really touched by that.

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