R.I.P. Bill King

I remember this routine I had as a child. As a typical latchkey kid, I’d come home with my twin brother to an empty house. During baseball season, my brother and I would have time to watch the dynamic duo of G.I. Joe and Transformers. After the cartoons ended, my brother would head to a neighbor’s house. I’d stay home and go straight to the radio. If the A’s were playing on the East Coast, the cartoons would lead up to an East Coast 4:35 start.

I’d move from the family room to the living room, where the old Sears console stereo sat in corner. The console was multi-functional, as it served as a real piece of furniture that happened to have speakers and an analog dial. I had long ago broken the record player after repeatedly playing an old floppy red Sweet Pickles record one too many times. As part of the routine, I pulled out my homework, math first, and laid it out on the console’s table area. I didn’t realize it then, but this was my first experience with multitasking, and it would serve me well in later years.

Bill and Lon often alternated responsibilities to keep things fresh. One would do the lineups and the first half-inning, the other would do the next two innings. Both did TV back then, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear only one of them during the broadcast at times while the other did TV, but it was pure magic when both were in the radio booth trading barbs and stories. Bill’s feisty nature was a perfect foil for Lon’s laid-back, dry humor. Sometimes I felt as if I had this set of invisible grandfathers in the console, teaching me about the game, about the meaning of a word donnybrook (which they only used for high-scoring games). I remember:

  • John Shulock’s enormous ego and hot temper
  • How Dave Kingman was virtually useless in the field but was still entertaining just because of his swing
  • The optimism in their voices about the 1986-87 teams, which were young and talent-rich
  • The explanation of TLR’s “Village Idiot” comment
  • Exasperation at Luis Polonia’s glove size and his Byrnes-like routes to the ball
  • Bill deferring to Lon in the 9th inning of Game 4
  • Not knowing about Bill’s brilliance in working basketball play-by-play until I heard archived broadcasts some years later
  • How Bill cherished the challenge that broadcasting baseball brought. Not to belittle hoops, but the action on the court was plentiful enough to get a rhythm going and coast it all the way through. Baseball required a different skillset, one of frequent metaphors and similes and the occasional bit of alliteration. It’s why he stopped doing TV.
  • Bill’s complete dissatisfaction with interleague play, Bud Selig (who was sardonically coined “our brilliant leader” once, IIRC), and The Ballpark in Arlington
  • Bill’s love of New York, Boston, and Seattle
  • How on more than one occasion, another broadcaster recounted (Lon, Ray, or Ken) picking Bill up from his hotel room, only to be greeted by either the smell of raw onions or thick cigar smoke.
  • Bill’s recent attempts to inject his “street” knowledge, especially of hip-hop music, into some broadcasts.
  • Bill phoning into Gary Radnich’s show a few weeks ago to tell a story about the first spike he saw in the NFL (the Raiders’ Hewritt Dixon) and how Bill’s trademark handlebar moustache was non-conformist, forcing the TV network to hire two schmos to do pre and postgame work while Bill, unseen, did the play-by-play telecast.

Wikipedia has already acknowledged Bill King’s passing today.

I’ll miss Bill more than anything. Three years ago, longtime colleague Chick Hearn passed away, ironically while recovering after hip surgery. Maybe they’ve already donned their headsets to work play-by-play in heaven. But not before Bill stopped to have a chat and a drink with Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Martin.

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