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Korach: Bill King was a master, too

Korach: Bill King was a master, too

Ken Korach, the lead play-by-play man on A's radio broadcasts, this week signed a two-year deal with the team that will keep him behind the microphone in Oakland through 2011.

This will be Korach's 14th season with the club, and the first 10 of those years was spent as a partner to the late Bill King, a Bay Area broadcasting legend. The day after Korach's new contract was announced, Korach submitted the following essay in appreciation of King's life and work.

It is almost impossible to describe Bill King, and that's just the way he would want it. His life really defied description, but I often thought he belonged to another era.

If I was going to compare him to someone, the Impressionists come to mind.

Bill and I shared an interest in art, and that's where the comparison stops. Bill was a fine Impressionist painter, and Claude Monet was one of his heroes. In fact, Bill used to stop at a little bridge in the Fens on the way to the Boston Museum of Fine Art and imagine it was the famous Japanese foot bridge over the water lilies at Giverny that Monet painted many times.

I've seen photos of Bill's Impressionist landscapes. They are amazingly good, and an example how his interests outside of the broadcast booth brought texture to his broadcasts.

He was, however, private about his painting -- he never wanted anyone to praise or purchase anything because he was Bill King, the famous announcer.

Art despite anguish
Edouard Manet worked with Monet at Argenteuil in 1874, and although he resisted being included in the Impressionist camp, he has always been linked by time and style to Monet and his contemporaries.

I remember looking with awe at Manet's paintings at a 2002 Impressionist still-life exhibit at the Boston MFA. The paintings are vivid, belying that they were painted by a terminally ill Manet shortly before he died.

That Manet painted despite pain and partial paralysis -- his left foot was amputated 11 days before he died -- speaks to his love of his work.

Similarly, Bill worked almost literally until the day he died, but I want to avoid any confusion here. He was in generally good health for someone in his late 70s. He died as a result of complications from hip surgery, but, having worked next to him during his final year, 2005, it was clear he was in pain from the fall in Phoenix that wrenched his old hip replacement.

Yet, to listen to him that year, you would have never known he was hurting.

Bill often told me that there was nothing in his life that could match the feeling he got while he was on the air. It wasn't about the adulation, but the air that he breathed.

I thought Bill got better with age, and one of the reasons is that baseball broadcasting is best when delivered by a seasoned, mellow sound. Bill was a great storyteller and habitual about his preparation.

Bill would never even listen to tapes of himself. He was, however, a perfectionist. He would be inconsolable if he missed an important call.

Those occasions were seldom.

What you got from Bill was unvarnished, and he never tried to conform to what he or others thought he should sound like. It's a little like what Red Barber told a young Vin Scully when they started working together on the Dodgers' broadcasts in the early 50s:

"You should avoid listening to other announcers because you don't want to water your wine."

Stylish, driven to the end
One of Manet's most famous and influential paintings, LeBar aux Folies-Berjere (1882), was completed one year before he died, and the work reflected Manet's enjoyment of high society.

Bill certainly enjoyed some of the same things, to be sure, but those who knew him well knew a man of capacious taste.

He was into opera, ballet, music and fine wine, and late in life he developed a love of NASCAR. After a night of fine dining, he would breakfast on Cheetos. On our cross-country flights with the A's, he would devour a newspaper like a five-course meal.

When Manet was in his final years, friends used to bring him bouquets and he would paint them and they became still-life masterpieces. Robert Hughes, in Time Magazine, wrote that "the painting of flowers played an expressive consolation to him in his last years."

As I noted before, Bill did great work to the end, too. He was full speed ahead in the days before the hip surgery in 2005, looking forward to working a full schedule of A's broadcasts the next year.

He never looked forward to the home games -- the Bay Area commute drove him nuts -- but loved the more simple rhythms of the road, where he had his favorite lunch spots and he would feel very European after indulging in fine food and a few sips of wine.

Similar backgrounds
Many Manet biographers have written that, near the end, Manet was stripped of self-consciousness and his work reflected his love of life and style. He was a complicated man -- he didn't want to be defined, except that he had an intense focus on the integrity of his art.

Bill was that way in many respects, too, and the similarities don't end there.

Edouard Manet was born in Paris in 1832. His dad wanted him to study law, but after failing his naval exam, he went into the merchant marines instead. Bill King's education was self-taught, and he began broadcasting for Armed Forces Radio while in the service in Guam.

Like Manet, Bill hated to be categorized and never compromised, but he had a profound respect for the broadcasting greats who came before him.

While Manet traveled to Italy, Germany and Holland and learned from the legacies of Goya, Hals and Velazquez, Bill's influences were the Midwestern voices of his youth: Caray, Elson and Brickhouse.

So, both men were influenced by the great masters but were considered non-conformists.

Manet looked at life and painted spontaneous impressions. Bill King looked at ballgames and created audio masterpieces.

Bill always said he was apolitical but, really, he had an appetite for politics despite his disdain for most politicians. He was passionate about the environment and active in efforts to preserve the beauty and open spaces of Marin County, where he lived.

Manet expressed his political disillusionment. He was no fan of Napoleon and was angered by the Franco-Prussian war, but he was fascinated by the U.S. Civil War battle off the French coast, and "The Kearsarge" (1864) and his paintings depicting the battle and his view of the Kearsarge are action-packed, play-by-plays of war.

Even though Manet influenced and was influenced by the Impressionists -- especially Monet and Manet's sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot -- he didn't want to be represented as part of a group identity.

Bill wasn't much for the group thing, either. In fact, he was a legendary loner.

One of the ironies of his own self-portrait was that he would jokingly refer to himself as an "inconsiderate son of a [gun]." He was wrong about himself -- he was an unfailingly loyal and kind friend -- but the truth is that Bill was just as happy going his own way, and he lived his life totally on his own terms.

There was a raw passion in his work, and his emotional outbursts -- at the officials, umpires or bad play by his own team -- were legendary. He was a breath of fresh air, especially in his later years, when so many younger broadcasters began to sound homogenized.

I've always wondered where all the colorful characters went.

Nobody who knew Bill was shocked at his irreverence, but winding the clock back over 100 years earlier to the mid-19th century, Manet's use of nudes in Ledejeuner sur l'herbe (1862-63) and Olympia (1863) was shocking to the artistic public -- so much so that Manet was considered an abomination.

Like Bill, Manet was a man who treated conventional topics in his own unique way.

Legacies left
Bill and I never talked much about the Ford C. Frick Award, which recognizes one broadcaster each year during the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. When we did he was typically self-effacing.

But his sense of history and tradition and respect for the greats who came before him led me to believe he would have been deeply honored if he had received the award before he died.

I'm forever hopeful that Bill will one day be honored with the Frick Award, but it saddens me that it didn't happen while he was with us.

Manet, who went under appreciated in some circles earlier in his career, was eventually awarded the Legion of Honor -- a huge acknowledgment of his esteem -- but he was near death and too ill to enjoy the recognition he had long sought but had never before received.

His legacy lives on, of course, at art museums and galleries around the world, and in the influence he had on others. Last summer, the San Francisco Legion of Honor featured an exhibit, "The Women Impressionists," which was an ode to Manet and him impact on other artists.

Bill King's body of work is immortal, too, preserved by NFL Films on the classic Oakland Raiders' highlights and on the giant video screen at the Oakland Coliseum, as the A's celebrated their 40th-anniversary season in 2008 by replaying many of Bill's calls from his 25 years with the team.

And, like the great jazz players, whose vibes are passed through generations of young musicians, Bill has a family tree of announcers who were transfixed in their youth by his play-by-play and aspire to live up to his standards.

Jerry Howarth, the radio voice of the Blue Jays, is one of them.

"I first met Bill when I was working at the Santa Clara University athletic department," Howarth told me. "I was 27 at the time and interested in a career in broadcasting. The Warriors set me up with a pass, and I met Bill as he was all alone doing his homework in the darkened Oakland Arena two hours before the game. He gave me all the time I wanted to talk about sportscasting.

"When I returned to the Coliseum nine years later as a Blue Jays announcer, I reintroduced myself to Bill and told him the story of how we had met back in 1973. I saw how he prepared with his huge notebooks and the handwritten notes and meticulous attention to detail. It was the same preparation I remembered when I first met him as the Warriors' announcer."

Two men, Manet and King, of different professions and from different generations.

Manet resisted being grouped with the Impressionists, but as I see the link between these two men, it might best be described by the definition of the word impression:

"A strong effect produced on the intellect, feelings and conscience."

Ken Korach is the lead play-by-play man on A's radio broadcasts. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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