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AN Exclusive: Interview With Ken Korach, Part I

The cover of "Holy Toledo," published by Wellstone Books.
The cover of "Holy Toledo," published by Wellstone Books.

As a former play-by-play announcer, I am probably drawn more to great broadcasters than I am to great players. So it was -- to put it mildly -- a true pleasure to sit down with one of the best in the business, Ken Korach, to chat about one of the best sports announcers in history, Bill King.

Ken is promoting his recently released book, "Holy Toledo: Lessons From Bill King, Renaissance Man Of The Mic," and in this 45-minute interview Ken talks about the process of writing the book, his relationship with Bill, and the impact Bill had on his life as well as on the lives of so many in the Bay Area.

I have broken the interview into 3 installments that will run each of the next 3 Wednesdays. Part I today focuses largely on how and why the book got written. Part II focuses more on Bill King himself. Part III is mostly Ken's reaction to a live sampling of Cindi's new "Seizure Salad," in which we learn that anchovies really do spoil if left out too long.

Nico: What is it that solidified the idea of writing a book? Because I'm sure that in the back of your mind that idea was in and out at some times, but what brought it together?

Ken: What solidified it was, near the end of the season Steve Kettman (award winning and best selling author of What A Party!, Letter To A New President, and One Day At Fenway) approached me with the idea of writing a book about Bill. And it really resonated with me because several years ago, maybe 3 or 4 years ago, I had been approached by a publisher who came to me with the idea of writing my own story. And I really felt -- and I still feel this way -- that I hadn't done enough and I didn't really think anyone really cared that much to write my own story. But that planted a seed in me that if I was going to write a book - because I've always had the interest in writing a book, and that goal in mind -- and if I was going to sit down and write a book, what would be the subject that would inspire me, that I had the passion to write about. And it was clear to me even then that it was Bill.

I don't remember exactly the sequence. I think Steve and I had probably talked about that a couple times over the years. But to backtrack, writing a book was always an impossible dream, a daunting assignment. I never thought I would have the discipline to actually sit down and do it. It seemed overwhelming...But when Steve founded Wellstone Books, his own publishing company, that really provided the impetus because I had never written a book before, I don't have an agent as a broadcaster or as a writer and I certainly a novice as a writer. But here was a man who has not only had New York Times best-sellers of his own, but had now started his own publishing company --

Nico: -- so you knew you had a chance.

Ken: Now I had a vehicle. I knew that if we could complete the project we could get the book published. And so it was almost literally a year ago that I came up to the Bay Area and met with Steve, and at that time he had this brain child of starting what he called a "mentor series," where he would approach people like myself who had a great experience with someone who you would consider a mentor or had a major influence in your life, professionally or otherwise, and he would get 4-5 people to take part in a series of shorter books that he would put together as a mentor series of books, maybe 4 or 5 books -- and that I would write a story about Bill. But it would be a personal reflection --

Nico: And shorter.

Ken: And shorter, only about 20,000 words, not one which took on the form of this book, which included 55-60 interviews. So that the first crossroads, when I went to Steve and said, "You know, if I'm going to write a book about Bill I just don't think I can do it and just make it my personal story. I think the story has to unfold through the voices of the people that he touched, both professionally and otherwise.

Nico: Did you have a sense, when you started, all it was going to entail? I'm almost wondering, "If you knew then how much it was going to be..." would it have changed your thinking about "I can do this"?

Ken: No, not really because the reality is we actually had to scale it back. There were several times when Steve would say, "We're up to 40,000 we're at 60,000 words" and at some point you have to stop. (But) the writing of the book was never drudgery. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed all the interviews. I had no idea the form the book was going to take when I started. I really didn't have an outline of the direction the book was going to go. So a lot of my writing, especially in the early days (because I had never written a book before) was very meandering. There were all these tributaries going out in all these different directions, and that's the beauty of having a publisher in Steve, and an editor...I knew I didn't just want to focus on the A's. I knew I wanted to also emphasize that he was a man who had broadcast for 3 major league teams in this market. So it wasn't solely going to be an A's book. I had to go after the Raiders people, I had to go after Warriors people, I obviously had to go after A's people. I had to deal with all of his other interests. So all this was in the back of my mind that we had to touch on these things and deal with them. But it was never tedious, I never had writer's block, I never sat down and thought "I don't want to write today." I was always inspired to write.

Nico: It must be hard when you have 35-40 strands to figure out how it should come together. If you didn't have an outline at the beginning, how did you come to the format that you settled on in terms of the pieces and how they fit together?

Ken: A lot of it really came, I don't want say by chance, necessarily, but it came because...The way I do things -- and it's one of the things I do in preparing for a broadcast -- is I'm not afraid to free-associate where if something is interesting to me, maybe it'll lead me down a certain road, I'm not afraid to explore that path. And I try to do that sometimes when I'm trying to do preparation for games.

And so I tried to write about things that were important to me, that resonated emotionally with me, and one of those things was for instance when Bill took time off over Labor Day weekend during the winning streak in 2002. That was a profound moment in our relationship and it meant so much to me...the way he was so gracious to not cancel his vacation, when I wouldn't have blamed him if he had. But I thought "I really want to write about my own feelings about that." But then I thought -- and this is an example of how a chapter came together -- I thought, "Well there's a lot more to the story than just Bill taking time off." You have Hatteberg's homerun. You have Bill's phenomenal call of Hatteberg's homerun. You have the Moneyball movie. You have the fact that Bill's call was used in the movie, and really was the punctuation of the movie. And so...go talk to Hatteberg about that at bat. I'll talk to Billy Beane about the movie. We'll talk to Art Howe about pinch-hitting Hatteberg in the 9th inning of the game. And talk to Fosse about being in the booth with Bill during that game. And so that's how that chapter came together.

And I really thought that Bill's career was intertwined with the history of Bay Area sports. I've heard from people in the media who have said, "I learned a little bit about the history of Bay Area sports." And I thought I wanted to weave that into Bill's story, not only for context -- to set up why Bill's calls were so important, and why what he was doing was important -- but also to kind of frame his career that way. It's hard to separate Bill's career from the history of the area.

Nico: You heard (Bill) a lot when you hadn't met him, right?

Ken: Yes, absolutely. I listened to him for 30 years before we worked together.

Nico: So when you worked and traveled with him, how did that compare to what your vision of who he was, or what it would be like --

Ken: He was exactly the way I thought he would be, and he was exactly the same person that I had listened to in the 1960s listening to the Warriors. Same guy. I mean there were certain quirky elements about Bill I try to bring out in the book that I wasn't fully aware of: All his eccentricities, all the dimensions of Bill I'm not sure I was totally aware of. But I remember that when the job came open, I really was confident that I felt like I knew Bill, even though I really didn't at all, and I thought, "You know, I think this has a good chance to work." Because I grew up listening to this guy -- I mean I spent hundreds of hours listening to him.

Nico: He's just also not the kind of person who -- I mean, "what you see is what you get" was my impression.

Ken: Absolutely. Yeah he wore his emotions on his sleeve, he was his own man. And he really reached out to me to make me feel comfortable, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. I mean in a small way it's my way for me to repay him for how much those 10 years meant to me.

In Part II next Wednesday Ken continues talking about Bill, delving more into their relationship in the booth when Ken joined the A's in 1996, discussing some of the stories in the book, and recalling the news of Bill's unexpected passing in October, 2005. See you then!