On a connecting plane returning to the Bay Area from back east in 1975, the paths of two now-legendary sports announcers crossed for the first time, when they were at vastly different stages of their storied careers.
San Francisco Giants broadcaster Jon Miller was just a 23-year-old kid, returning from announcing a little-watched North American Soccer League match in Toronto.
Bill King, at age 48, was a veteran Bay Area announcer coming back from calling the Golden State Warriors’ first NBA championship win, against the Washington Bullets.
Both teams’ flight plans — they flew commercial in those days — converged in Chicago, where the plane filled up to fly to San Francisco.
Miller spotted King in the back of the plane with NBA legend Rick Barry and got up the nerve to introduce himself to the man he’d grown up listening to.
“Bill’s got champagne, he’s barefoot, he’s with Rick Barry. He says to Rick, ‘Give him some champagne,’” Miller said this week.
“He said he heard me do a soccer game and he was amazed. He’s asking me how I call a soccer game,” he said, incredulous. “I said, ‘I do it like you taught me how to do a basketball game.’ It was totally surreal and exciting.”
Miller recalled the legendary three-sport announcer as King was being honored this weekend with the Ford C. Frick Award at the baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, New York.
“The Warriors just had the greatest day in the history of the franchise and here’s Bill celebrating with these guys, and he’s grilling me about how to do soccer games,” Miller mused. “He had this great in-the-moment quality.”
King, who died in 2005, is the 41st winner of the Frick Award for major contributions to baseball broadcasting, joining the likes of Vin Scully, Jack Buck and other masters of the booth. Miller won the honor in 2010.
“Bill King’s enthusiasm for every game he called carried through the airwaves and into the hearts of fans throughout Northern California for 25 incredible years with the Oakland Athletics,” said Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in a statement announcing King’s selection.
“From his distinctive word choices in describing the action to his unabashed love of Oakland and the Bay Area, King crafted a career that became synonymous with the action at the Oakland Coliseum and throughout the sports world.”
King spent a quarter-century as the radio voice of the A’s, from 1981 until his death in 2005, calling some of the team’s most memorable moments, often with his “holy Toledo!” catchphrase.
But his career spanned decades longer and covered every major sport and then some — which is why some believe his Cooperstown honor was late in coming. He was a finalist six times before his selection.
Born in 1927 in Bloomington, Illinois, King was stationed on the island of Guam toward the end of World War II, where he began his broadcasting career. He took the newswire printout of games and converted them to sort of live play-by-play accounts.
He called his first minor league baseball game in 1948 in Peoria, Illinois. Later, he called college basketball and football games.
He moved to the Bay Area in 1958, when the San Francisco Giants hired him as an announcer, filling in for future Frick Award winners Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges, before landing the job as the basketball play-by-play voice of the San Francisco Warriors in 1962. He called Warriors games through 1983.
In 1966, King added the duties of Oakland Raiders play-by-play to his schedule, becoming one of the signature voices of the National Football League when the American Football League merged with the NFL in 1970.
He called Raiders games through 1992, including the 1978 “holy roller” 21-20 win against the San Diego Chargers on KGO radio:
“The ball, flipped forward, is loose! A wild scramble, two seconds on the clock, Casper grabbing the ball — it is ruled a fumble! Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play.
“(John) Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it’s real. They said yes, get your big butt out of here! He does! There’s nothing real in the world anymore! The Raiders have won the football game! Fifty-two thousand people minus a few lonely Raider fans are stunned. This one will be relived forever!”
King was reunited with Simmons when he joined the Athletics’ broadcast team in 1981, and he called the A’s action during the “Billy Ball” years with manager Billy Martin in the early 1980s, and from 1988-90 for the “Bash Brothers” teams that won three American League pennants and the 1989 World Series.
He and Simmons worked together in the A’s booth through 1995, when Ken Korach joined King. The pair shared the booth until King’s death in 2005.
Korach, who wrote the 2013 book “Holy Toledo: Lessons from Bill King, Renaissance Man of the Mic,” is credited with keeping King’s name among Frick Award candidates in the years after his colleague’s death.
There was some concern that King was so good at multiple sports, not just baseball, that Cooperstown would overlook him.
“That was a factor,” Korach said. “I heard from some people that because he did all three sports, his greatness for all three might have diminished in a way his baseball work — or at least he wasn’t seen in some people’s eyes as strictly a baseball person, like so many Frick Award winners.”
Like Miller, Korach looked up to King before becoming a colleague.
“I’d grown up listening to him. He meant so much to me as a young broadcaster before I even met him. I can’t even express how much he influenced me,” said Korach, now in his 22nd season with the A’s.
“He was very gracious. He didn’t act like he was the No. 1 guy. There was no condescension. He didn’t want me to be an acolyte.”
King, with his handlebar mustache and sometimes-unusual sense of fashion, is often described as a Renaissance man. His interests included sailing, opera, art, ballet and history.
He was an accomplished impressionist painter, Korach said, but he declined offers for exhibitions because he worried people might buy the art because of his name, not because they liked the piece. He studied Russian history. Miller remembers on that 1975 flight that King knew the goalkeeper for the NASL’s San Jose Earthquakes, Mike Ivanow, had a Russian background.
“Then he starts grilling him,” Miller said. “He had some family history with Rasputin. Then Bill starts speaking Russian to him.”
“It’s so amazing to think about the depth of his knowledge,” Korach said.
When the pair would go out on the road, Korach said King typically wore flip-flops, even with dressy outfits.
“He didn’t like shoes and he didn’t like socks. He was a colorful character. He was an original,” Korach said. “He taught all of us the importance of being yourself.”
In addition to his fashion taste, King could also have odd eating habits.
Korach said they visited a taqueria in Anaheim, where King would always order calf brain tacos for breakfast.
“But he loved fine dining, too,” said Korach, who planned to travel to Cooperstown for Saturday’s ceremony. “There was an authenticity about him. He was as revered a person as I’ve ever met.”
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @loriacarter.