AN Exclusive: Interview With Ken Korach, Part III

Ken, Ray, and Bill at work, with Ken apparently calling for an intentional walk. Photo is courtesy of Wellstone Books.

Welcome to the third and final installment of my interview with A's radio voice Ken Korach. Part I of my interview with Ken discussed the process by which Ken came to write "Holy Toledo: Lessons From Bill King, Renaissance Man Of The Mic." Part II of the interview focused on various aspects of Bill King's life in and out of the broadcast booth. In Part III, Ken recalls a day that truly rocked the entire Bay Area and beyond: On October 18th, 2005, Bill died unexpectedly from complications during a hip operation. For the sake of continuity, I begin here by repeating the last question and answer from part II.

Nico: I can't ever imagine him retired. Do you have a sense of long he probably would have kept on broadcasting?

Ken: That was not a subject I felt like asking, because a lot of people did ask him and he bristled at that. And went to the root of his disdain for any discussion of his age. Bill would never, ever reveal his age unless he was forced to on the customs forms when we were on the plane, on the tarmac in Toronto! Because he said, "If people know how old you are, they're gonna have an expectation of how you were supposed to act at that age."

And so he had no intention of retiring. He loved what he was doing. And one of the reasons he went in for the hip surgery was that he wanted to come back and work a full schedule the next year...And he had not indicated to me at any time that he had a timetable of when he was going to step away.

Nico: Since the subject came up, I can't quite imagine being in your shoes, learning unexpectedly that your broadcast partner has died. What was that day like?

Ken: Ken Pries (A's Vice President of Broadcasting and Communications) called me. I was back in Henderson, Nevada. I was in my office, and I think when those things happen it's a numbing experience. You're numb. And we're doing this (interview) the day before JFK passed away, which was my first real experience with something profoundly sad -- November 22nd, 1963 -- so it was just a really sad day.

And then of course the phone calls started coming in, and people wanted me to do interviews and things. I remember I wrote a column for the Oakland Tribune; there was probably a little catharsis in that. I had been through death -- you know, my mom passed away when I was young (21), and grandparents and stuff...A loss like that never really leaves you. I think I miss Bill -- and still have things I want to share with him -- as much now as eight years ago. I think the whole Bay Area still misses him.

Nico: It also raised so many unknowns. I guess it was early in the off-season --

Ken: Yeah it was the middle of October.

Nico: -- what was then the process after in terms of "How do we move forward?" I mean, you probably were not expecting suddenly to be the captain of the ship, and have a new broadcast partner --

Ken: No, obviously not. No, I mean I had a feeling that at some time that I was going to be the lead guy. I was hoping it would be many, many years after that, but the A's had made it very clear to me that at some point...so the fact that I became the lead guy, that was something that made clear to me instantaneously. There was no question about that. But moving forward without Bill was hard because I just l loved the chemistry that we had; it was so much fun working with him. But you know, we had to find a successor. I mean not a successor to Bill; we had to find a #2 guy. So...(trails off)

Nico: Get to work on it.

Ken: Got to get to work on that, yeah.

Nico: What's your favorite part, or chapter (of the book), just curious?

Ken: Favorite chapter of the book? ... Boy, that's really a hard question. I don't know. I don't know. I think I don't really have a favorite part of the book. I really don't. I mean the most emotional and difficult chapter to write, of course, was the "Losing A Partner" chapter, because that was very emotional. I had to give that chapter a lot of thought as to how much I wanted to reveal of my own life. I don't think I had ever written or spoken publicly about my mother taking her own life before.

And that was in the chapter, because I wanted to talk about how much Bill meant to me. I kind of wanted to examine whether I thought he was a father figure or not, and so what I came around to kind of understanding -- because then you kind of go through a self-evaluation when you're writing a book. And one of the things I wanted to say was I wanted to try to keep it as positive as possible: That you really do appreciate someone like Bill, and my dad who's still alive, and my old friend Bob Blum who passed away -- maybe appreciate that even more when you have something tragic that happens in your life when you're 21.

So there was that process of "How deeply do you want to get into your own feelings here when you're writing a Bill King book?" And so that chapter became very personal. But I think there's some wonderful stuff in that chapter. The Monte Poole quote about "He was like the Golden Gate bridge: To be dispensed in small portions." And some of the quotes from Greg Papa about his phone call with Al Davis. There were some pretty emotional things in that chapter, which spoke to how much Bill meant to people.

Nico: You know, since readers will have a chance to see everything that's in the book, I know a lot got onto the cutting room floor. Are there some good stories or moments or pieces that just couldn't make it into the book because you can only have so many pages, but that might be interesting to hear?

Ken: Yeah I think so. There was a real process of cutting down some of the stories and trying to make the book cohesive and flow --

Nico: I mean did most of the stories get in there, just maybe trimmed down?

Ken: Exactly, yeah. I had to kind of learn how to take quotes and pare them down. Because you'd have a great quote, whether it was from Rick Barry, or John Madden, and my initial thought was, "Let's just leave the whole quote in!" But now you've got a huge quote, and so one of the things that Steve and Pete implored me to do was to do what Pete described as a "pick and roll": Do your own writing to set up the quote, and then use the quote but don't use the whole quote - put it in your own words. And that really helped in trimming some of the quotes down and helping me with the flow.

Nico: What do you want readers of the book to get from the experience? What's your goal for what you're doing?

Ken: You know, I'll leave that up to the readers. The thing about the book was I gave it my best shot. I had 55-60 people who were wonderful people to interview, that were so inspiring, and so passionate about talking about Bill. I can always -- I saw Jim Barnett last night at the Warriors game and I told him, "You know, I think I should have interviewed you."

But at some point I kind of had to stop. The book is 272 pages, including the acknowledgements, and you can't put everything in there that you want to because there's a reality that we kind of had to finish it! We wanted to get it finished before the end of the season. So I did the best I could with it

But I would just hope that people got a sense of Bill, that people got to know Bill King through the book. I think any time you're doing a biography - and it's probably not a biography in the truest sense of the word, in that it doesn't take you from start to finish in every detail of his life -- but I would hope that in a way people got to know Bill, and got to understand why his story was so compelling, and why his story resonated with so many people.

That's been the most gratifying part of the feedback I've gotten from the book. I've heard from people all over the country, believe it or not, including people who never knew Bill before, people who had listened to Bill, friends of Bill, people who were extremely close to Bill, and it's been so heartwarming. And not that I needed to have this reinforced, but it really has reinforced how much this man meant to people.

And it has been amazing to me to read these emails from people; some have almost brought me to tears. Or letters or phone calls from people who remember where they were when certain games took place and maybe that call was transcribed in the book. Or that it was passed down from a generation. You know, "My grandparents listened to Bill, and then I listened to him, and now my kids had a chance to listen to him..." and how someone like Bill kind of links the generations.

And when Bill died it was very sudden, as you know. And it left a lot of people very empty, without any closure, without a chance to say goodbye. I never had a chance to say goodbye. I never had a chance to tell him -- I think he knew how I felt about him -- but I never really had that time when you really think...(trails off) So maybe this book has provided, has in a small way filled the void that was left by Bill's passing.

Nico: Is there anything I didn't ask that you want to add?

Ken: In the book, in the last chapter I do try to make the case for the Hall of Fame for (Bill). It's not something that drives me, I'm not obsessed with it, but I think that would be an awesome thing if it happens. December 11th is the day the Ford C. Frick award is announced (we now know that it was won this year by Eric Nadel of the Texas Rangers) and it would be awesome if it happened.

Doing the (book) signings, I was really touched by people. I didn't know what to expect, and I'd walk in and there were 150 people in line --

Nico: I know you ran out of books the first time.

Ken: Ran out of books! Sold 1,000 books in 2 days. And everyone had a story about Bill. It really touched me. I didn't get a chance to say a collective "thanks" to everybody, but maybe this is a little bit of a chance to do it. It was intimidating to try to capture (Bill). I really went into this with some trepidation. How do you capture Bill King? Because I know so many people were invested in Bill, people who listened for 47 years before he passed away: He moved here in 1958 and died in '05.

And I knew people would have their own opinions on how a biography of Bill King should read, and what it should say, and I was a little intimidated because of Bill's incredible diversity and the depth of who he was. That was another reason why I felt it was important to interview a lot of people and not just tell the story myself, because so many other people can tell that story too. I'm indebted to those people.

I'm indebted to (NBA official) Ed Rush, who said "I had a bad night in Seattle in December, 1968". Sometimes you just happen upon things when you're in my business, you happen upon an interview that just becomes unbelievably profound and moving. Somebody who was the recipient of one of the most legendary X-rated barrages in the history of radio, and you ask him about it 45 years later, literally, and he remembers it clear as day, and he says, "I gotta tell you: I wasn't very good that night." Those things are golden when you try to do what I did.

I just look back with such fondness over these people who just meant so much to Bill, like Hank Greenwald, and Bill's daughter Kathleen. I really want to make that point of how wonderful she was during this whole process...the information we got from Kathleen added an amazing amount of texture and depth to the story that it wouldn't have been the same without her input. Some of those stories are really colorful, like they didn't have a phone and so they were banging on the ceiling, or (Wilt) Chamberlain showing up in his Bentley her quote about "His legs filled up the room."

Nico: In the process of reading the book, and doing the research (for this interview), I went to www.holytoledo.info and I think for the first time saw a lot of the artwork that's been referenced. This isn't so much of a question as a statement, but it's frankly incredible --

Ken: Incredible, yeah. I thought it was That's why some of these chapters didn't take on the flow of "He was in Mrs. Smith's class in the 5th grade, and then when he was 22 he did this and when he was 38 he did this..." I really tried to focus in on certain aspects of his life that were really interesting, and that was one of them. And that's why Steve (Kettmann) came up with the title "Artist of the Airwaves" for that chapter. (Bill's) artwork was unbelievable. If you were to see it in an art gallery, or in a gallery in a museum, you would go, "It belongs there." The photo of the painting on the back page of the book (also used as the photo that accompanies part II of this interview), I've gotten an amazing amount of feedback on that. People are blown away by that -- they all think it's a photograph.

The eating chapter: I had to sell Steve on that. I said, "I think we should do a chapter on Bill's eating habits." And I went to Susan Slusser and I asked Susan, "I've got this crazy idea of just doing a chapter on Bill's eating," and I thought "Nobody would ever do that in a biography." Who would ever write a chapter on somebody's eating habits in a biography? And she said, "That's the first chapter I'd want to read!" So I thought, "OK, we'll do a chapter on his eating."

Nico: If I have a favorite chapter, that's probably it, to be honest, as a reader.

Ken: Yeah? Really?

Nico: It's just so out there, so "Bill King".

Ken: It's probably the funniest chapter. I really thought we had to do a chapter on Mother's Day (1968 basketball incident), because I think so much mythology had come out of that particular incident. And so much misinformation: That Bill had gotten a technical foul, or that he was fined, or that they were in trouble with the FCC, and so I thought it was important to set the record straight.

I really felt that I wanted to include the entire at bat of Gibson against Eckersley. And initially there was a little resistance to that because it's so long. I think it takes up 5-6 pages in the book. And Bruce McGowan had the tape of the call -- it's not easy to find -- and Bruce transcribed it for me. And when I sent it to Steve (Kettmann), he goes, "We gotta keep it in there in its entirety." And I said, "We don't have to conform to anybody's standards of how we're supposed to write a book. We're writing a book! I'm writing a book about Bill King!" Of all people, Bill King never subscribed to any standard of the way things were supposed to be done. He did it the way he thought they should be done.

And I thought it was important for people to be able to read that (Gibson at bat) because it was one of the most famous moments in the history of sports. That may sound like a piece of hyperbole, but it was voted the #1 moment in the history of sports in Los Angeles. I really felt that Vinnie's (Vin Scully's) call was great, and everybody heard that. Jack Buck's call was great, and everybody heard that. Nobody's ever heard Bill's call. So I just felt like he needs to get his due, to have his call in there.

I like the Bill & Lon chapter, because I really felt that was such an amazing pairing. I was living in Santa Rosa and I go, "You can't put these two guys together." Nobody would put the two icons in the same booth. I guess (A's Equipment Manager) Steve Vucinich said it was like the merging of CBS and NBC. It went so against the grain and yet it was a stroke of brilliance.

Perhaps it's fitting that the interview ends with the word "brilliance". Many thanks to Ken for offering so much of his time for the interview, and for writing a book that keeps Bill King alive, at least in some way, to an audience that never had a chance to say goodbye -- and would never have been ready to anyway.

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