Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bill King

Last weekend, after listening on the radio to the Cal Bears' dreadful performance against Oregon, I got to thinking of the irony that the two most famous play-by-play calls in Bay Area sports, "The Catch", the Joe Montana to Dwight Clark TD pass in the 1981 49er play off game against Dallas, and "The Play", Cal's 1982 five-lateral kick-off return against Stanford in the closing moments of "The Big Game" were both called by Joe Starkey, the worst play-by-play announcer in the history of Broadcasting (though I've obviously not heard all play-by-play announcers, I say this with confidence; I've heard way too much Starkey). It's ironic too that fans who are familiar with him only from these two calls may think that his call on Montana-Clark play, "Montana rolls right...has Clark in the end zone...TOUCHDOWN 49ers!!!!" was typical of his performance on the radio. Not so. His identification of Clark's location on the field and of the outcome of the play were uncharacteristic of Starkey. His excitable incoherence during the Cal play is far more what we expect of him.

In contrast to Starkey, I got to thinking of the best play-by-play announcers. Although I think Lon Simmons' deep voice, laconic delivery, and deadpan humor are ideally suited to baseball announcing and by themselves almost made Giants' games worth listening to, Bill King is the best I ever heard. His clipped, precise delivery made him ideal for Basketball as the Warriors' play-by-play man, and his love for the game and the time and effort he put into research (once sitting down with Billy Martin after a 1981 A's game and going over the game, batter by batter,to learn what Martin had in mind as the game progressed) made him very good at baseball. It was at football, however, as the long-time announcer for the Raiders, that he truly shined. His "Old Man Willie" call of Willie Brown's 75 yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XI perfectly captured his affection for the players and his exhuberance. King also broadcast the "Heidi game," "the immaculate reception," the Warriors' 1974-1975 championship season, and the A's' World Series appearances from 1988-1990. He handled them all with wit, style, and class.

I was reminded of this as I drove home from work today and heard on the radio that King died last night, at perhaps age 78, of complications following surgery.

There are a lot of good announcers around today, but I can't imagine anybody filling King's shoes, handling as many assignments as superbly, as entertainingly, as he did.
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