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AN Exclusive: Interview With Ken Korach, Part II

One of Bill King's original paintings serves as the back cover of "Holy Toledo," published by Wellstone Books.
One of Bill King's original paintings serves as the back cover of "Holy Toledo," published by Wellstone Books.

Part I of my exclusive interview with Ken Korach appeared on AN last Wednesday, focusing a lot on the process of writing his newly released book, "Holy Toledo: Lessons From Bill King, Renaissance Man Of The Mic." In Part II, Ken dives into his experience joining Bill in the broadcast booth and his inside perspective on their relationship, including Bill's quirks, and even his insecurities...

Nico: I know you talk about this some in the book, but when you first started working together (in 1996) -- I actually don't have a vivid recollection of that year now, as to what it sounded like in the booth -- what was that first year, or the process of starting out working together like?

Ken: Well, I always felt that we got along from the very beginning. And we got along from the very beginning off the air too. There was an adjustment, I'm sure, for both us - because he had to get to know me, and I had to get to know him, and everybody has their idiosyncrasies. And you always have to bend a little bit in any kind of relationship, especially with a broadcast partner. And if you're going to do 162 games or spend 6 months, literally, with someone, every day...

But there was never a time when I felt uncomfortable with Bill. And I had to kind of learn his ways, and learn his quirks, and it went beyond the 3 things he said I couldn't do. (Bill did not want his broadcast partner to say "Thanks, Bill..." when he turned the broadcast over to them, he disliked what he perceived as redundancies in phrases like "Early on" and "grand slam homerun," and he did not accept the term "swinging bunt".) You had to learn (that) he was so dedicated and he got this tunnel vision an hour, hour-and-a-half before the game started where he would get locked into his preparation, where you begin to learn: You don't make small talk with Bill King at 6:15pm before a 7:00pm game, because he's getting himself locked in. So those are the things you kind of learn.

I really felt it was important for me -- I was the #2 guy -- I wanted to do whatever I possibly could to make it easy for him. This was an iconic figure, a revered figure, and it was my job to fit in. And so the thing that I really tried to focus on was just getting the basics right. You're only doing 3 innings in those early days; I just don't want to mess it up. I want to get the score right, get the runners around the bases, the count. You're not going to make every game the 7th game of the World Series when you're only doing 3 innings. Steve Kroner, when he was doing the media column for the Chronicle, wrote a column about me when he said -- and I took it as a very positive thing -- where he said, and this was in my first or second year: "Ken Korach, working with Bill King, is like a good umpire. You don't notice him." And I actually took that as a positive, because it was Bill's show and it was my job to fit in...But Bill always reached out and made me feel comfortable. He went out of his way. And I've really said this a million times: I replaced Lon (Simmons) --

Nico: I know. I was thinking about that --

Ken: -- yeah, and that could have been a really difficult thing. And I'm sure it was a hard adjustment for A's fans. "Who's this new guy?" We were so used to 15 years of Lon and Bill. But Bill's endorsement of me meant the world to me, and I've always thought that maybe people were thinking, "If Bill King thinks this guy's ok then maybe he's ok."

Nico: At that point in your career you were fairly seasoned; you weren't a rookie. But I could also imagine where you would have butterflies that first broadcast, in a new market, replacing Lon. What was that very first (broadcast) like?

Ken: Well if you recall, the A's opened the season in Vegas --

Nico: Oh, that's right! I didn't remember that.

Ken: -- and I sat in the chair that I literally sat in when I was doing AAA games there. Like you said, I had been around -- I was 44 years old when we started working together. I've gone through my own growth, I think, as a broadcaster and as a person. You know, I probably wasn't as sure of myself back then as I am now, probably wasn't as confident, probably had a lot more self doubt back then. But generally I don't really recall being nervous. I was pretty confident that it was going to work out. And the A's were pretty confident too that it was going to work out. I had a 3-year contract when I started in 1996, which was nice.

Nico: Did Bill introduce you to some cultural things that you otherwise wouldn't have experienced? Because his range of interests was so vast.

Ken: I came to the table with an interest in art and in interest in going to art museums, which I had been doing -- not so much in the minor leagues, but UNLV games if we would be in a big city and I would be on the road, it wasn't unusual for me to do that. But the thing about Bill was every conversation was just so fascinating. And it was great, and that's one of the themes of the book is that so many people talk about how Bill -- like John Madden (talks about how Bill) was a great "getaway guy": that when you talked to Bill you got away, because there was so much depth to Bill. So those conversations were fascinating. And so many of them involved things other than sports; it ran the whole spectrum.

Nico: Did you usually do stuff together or apart when you went to the various cities?

Ken: We went to dinner a lot. We did go to art museums. I remember we went to a couple shows in New York --

Nico: I know he was big on ballet.

Ken: Yeah I don't think we went to the ballet. (Editor's Note: For some reason, as Ken said this I tried to imagine Ken wearing a tutu. I probably definitely need professional help.) We did go to On Broadway a couple times - at least once I remember going with his wife. But especially as Bill got older, he did less and less of that stuff. And towards the end of the book Hank Greenwald talks about that, how he felt that Bill was just getting so involved in his preparation. And Bill used to complain that the preparation was taking so much of his time. He stopped painting, stopped maybe reading as much as he used to.

But I remember on the airplanes with him it was amazing. He would sit down and he would have piles upon piles of newspaper and magazine clippings. And he would spread out, he'd read all the stuff and he'd have them all over the place, and if he found something interesting he'd pass it over to me. Which was great. I really appreciated it because we had a lot of similar interests and I can't say that I was at his level when it came to Russian history and all those things he was into. This was an off-the-charts brilliant guy.

Nico: I actually think one of the most fascinating moments in the book is the notion that (Bill) didn't want to cut back on working because he was afraid the A's would fire him?

Ken: Yeah -- yeah.

Nico: Can you talk about that. I mean for someone who was such a legendary figure in broadcasting, not just baseball, to have that level of "don't let up" --

Ken: As Hank Greenwald said, every game was an audition for him. I just think that he came from a time where that work ethic was really instilled. And I think he was self deprecating; and I think he was realistic, where he always used to say, "When I'm gone there will be a game the next day." (Editor's Note: Bill was right. It was a Cardinals-Astros playoff game.) He just was driven to be at his best all the time, and that really manifested itself in how hard he prepared.

I can't get so deep into his psyche as to fully analyze why he felt that way, but I think the feeling of being detached and not doing the games that year. Maybe part of it was just getting older, being in his late ‘70s. He had seen Ernie Harwell get fired, although they brought him back, Mel Allen, I mean things happen to people. And I said, "You're nuts, that's never gonna happen to you!" Because we had these conversations. But he just loved being on the air so much that I think he wanted to work even though he was in a lot of pain.

Nico: I can't ever imagine him retired. Do you have a sense of how 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.

In Part III, Ken talks about the unforgettable day when he, and the rest of the Bay Area, learned that Bill had been taken away from all of us. Part III runs next Wednesday to complete the series.