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Ken Korach: "It's Great to Have You with Us"
I can't pinpoint the exact date I began thinking about a career in broadcasting, but I imagine it was around the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and I first heard Vin Scully's voice on the radio.
It was 1958 and the move west proved to be the perfect marriage of baseball, broadcasting, and the new team in town. L.A. didn't have a baseball stadium ready yet, so the Dodgers spent their first four years in the cavernous Memorial Coliseum, where a diamond was fit awkwardly into a football configuration. It seemed like the field was a mile away from the seats, but because so many people brought transistor radios, following the game was easy. It was like a giant speaker system was placed all over the stadium.
It was Vinny who introduced Major League Baseball to a wildly growing population. L.A.'s history with pro baseball went back over a half-century to the early days of the Pacific Coast League. Teams like the Hollywood Stars and L.A. Angels featured players who would go on to become all-time greats and when visiting teams came to town fans got a look at young guys named Williams and DiMaggio.
But this was different. The Dodgers were the first MLB team in town, and Vinny's broadcasts introduced teams and players to a city that had only been exposed to the big leagues from a distance.
It's impossible to overstate the ubiquity of Vinny's voice. People listened in their living rooms, back yards, and at work. And because the Giants were the only other team west of the Central time zone, Vinny's voice during night games from the Midwest and East accompanied another growing reality of life in L.A. — rush-hour traffic. In 1964, Robert Creamer wrote a wonderful profile of Vinny in Sports Illustrated:
"Everybody" probably is not a mathematically precise description of the number of people who listen to Scully's broadcasts, but it is close enough. When a game is on the air, the physical presence of his voice is overwhelming. His pleasantly nasal baritone comes out of radios on the back counters of orange juice stands, from transistors held by people sitting under trees, in barber shops and bars, and from cars everywhere — parked cars, cars waiting for red lights to turn green, cars passing you at 65 on the freeways, cars edging along next to you in rush-hour traffic jams.
The fact the Dodgers only televised nine games each year abetted my growing fandom. If you wanted to follow the team, Vin's voice was the conduit. In a close game, he had you transfixed. Radio has a way of fueling the imagination, and Vin's colorful descriptions conjured all sorts of images for his audience.
I listened to every word of Sandy Koufax's perfect game against the Cubs in 1965. In the ninth inning, Scully said: "There's 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies." Even today, I imagine dozens of butterflies churning inside an anxious stomach.
The Lakers moved to L.A. in 1960, and so you had Chick Hearn to fill the fall and winter nights, and if I turned the radio just right at night, I could listen to the captivating broadcasts of a devilish-looking guy from San Francisco named Bill King.
My dad coached baseball and basketball in high school and junior college, so my exposure to sports probably came before I could walk. We spent every weekend going to games. It didn't matter the sport — football, basketball, baseball, track meets — we went to everything.
My sports claim to fame came somewhat vicariously. As seniors at Palisades High, we got on a roll and reached the L.A. City basketball tournament. After winning easily in our first game, we matched up against Jefferson High in the quarterfinals. Jefferson was led by Glenn McDonald, who became a first-round pick of the Celtics out of Long Beach State in 1974. We beat them to advance to the semifinals at Pauley Pavilion, where we beat Reseda High — which featured two players who had already committed to UCLA, Gary Franklin and Greg Lee, who was that year's City Player of the Year. (Lee was the point guard when Bill Walton went 21 of 22 from the floor against Memphis in the NCAA championship game in 1973.) We then lost in the finals to Jordan High. The local NBC affiliate televised the game and there were 8,000 fans in attendance, including my parents, but I was fastened to my usual spot on the bench.
I was the sports editor of our school newspaper, then majored in journalism at San Diego State. When my good friend Steve Karman became editor in chief of the Daily Aztec, he asked me to be his sports editor. This was 1972, halcyon days for the Don Coryell–coached Aztec football team. The '72 team, led by Bengals' first-round pick Isaac Curtis, went 10–1.
I transferred to UC Santa Barbara for my last two years and my major was an amalgamation of political science, anthropology, and sociology. Not exactly practical for a career in broadcasting, but a great education nonetheless.
* * *
My first job out of college was at a clothing store near the UCSB campus. One evening, a woman named Jackie Linden came in with her two kids. I left work two hours later wondering what I had gotten myself into.
Jackie ran Santa Barbara Group Homes, a treatment facility for delinquent kids who had been placed in her care by the authorities in Southern California. She had 24 kids living in four homes, with two adults serving as surrogate parents in each home. That night at the store, she asked me if I wanted to be part of a cross-country trip she was planning with the kids. It was a wild idea, but there was nothing in the world that deterred Jackie once she made up her mind, no matter the obstacles.
We took off from Santa Barbara with two dozen kids and five adults in three vans. I have no idea how she got approval from the state agencies, but she did. We covered 33 states and two Canadian provinces with a budget that would make a shoestring seem like a fortune. Three or four kids had issues during the trip and had to be sent home, and two of the adults left halfway through because of fatigue and stress.
To save what little money we had, we spent most of the nights camping at national forest campgrounds because they were free. If we were in an urban area, Jackie called youth organizations to see if she could find a place to stay.
We had a brush with fame in New York. Jackie had a hard time finding accommodations and the only place that would take us was a youth center in Spanish Harlem. That's where we stayed for a night, and we had a great time, but while we were there, word somehow got out that this large group of kids from California was hanging out in Harlem, and the local NBC affiliate sent a crew out to interview us. The legendary Tom Snyder was anchoring the local news and after the piece ran, the phone started ringing and Jackie could have had her choice of several five-star hotels if she had chosen to extend our stay.
After we limped home, I stayed on at SBGH and wound up as assistant director. It was fulfilling but taxing work; I was on call 24 hours a day. But it never felt like a career, and it wasn't long after we returned from the trip that I began thinking it was time to get serious about radio. There was one problem. I had no experience, at least nothing documented on tape.
* * *
My old friends will tell you that I was broadcasting games when I was 10 years old, because I did play-by-play out loud as we were playing pick-up basketball games on the blacktop after school. I was quieter when I went to games with my parents because I called the games in my mind.
My mom was instrumental at home. We set up a card table in my bedroom with a microphone, a recorder, and a scorebook, and I would turn the sound down on the TV and call the games.
I did four or five baseball games for the campus station at San Diego State, but that was the extent of anything that resembled a formal broadcast.
In need of an audition tape, I set out on a tour of California with my cassette recorder. This was in the late '70s, when the Oakland Coliseum was dubbed the Mausoleum at the end of the Finley era and I had whole sections to myself. That's where the baseball segment of my audition tape came from. I'd buy a ticket and sit in a lonely spot down the left-field line where no one would bother me. I learned years later that Giants' voice Jon Miller had done the same thing when he was in high school. Jon's spot was down the right-field line.
I recorded a basketball game at the Sports Arena in L.A. between USC and Utah, but getting a football tape was more of a challenge. I went to Candlestick Park for a 49ers game and sat in the upper deck, but there was a good crowd and I'm sure people around me were thinking, "What in the world is going on here?"
I completed my tape by reading news stories into a cassette player out of the local paper. The news accounts went at the end of the tape, after segments of play-by-play that lasted about five to 10 minutes for the three sports.
I got a huge break when my friend Kelly Wolfe became the head professional at Bennett Valley Golf Club in Santa Rosa, California. Kelly hired me as his first assistant, although I need to make one thing clear: I've always been a pretty good player, but I was never a pro.
Starting a radio career in a big city was going to be next to impossible, so living and working in Sonoma County was the perfect place to be. I sent my tape to several local stations, and to my surprise, I got a response almost immediately from KTOB Radio in Petaluma.
The station's program director, a talented announcer named Bob Nathan, called to say he had no openings in sports, but there was an opportunity on Saturday mornings to play records from 6:00 to 10:00 am. The pay was $3.35 an hour. It wasn't what I wanted to do, but it was a chance to get started, although I told Bob I had some trepidation because I had no idea how to cue up a record. His response: "We have a very understanding audience."
Sadly, small stations like KTOB have become dinosaurs, but working there was the greatest broadcasting education imaginable. Bob Lipman, KTOB's owner, believed in community involvement, and the station's programming reflected that philosophy. KTOB broadcast city council meetings live, produced comprehensive election coverage and local news shows, allocated two hours each morning for a talk show that focused on current events, and carried as many as a dozen sporting events each week featuring local high schools.
KTOB had a decent daytime signal — 1,000 watts — but the power shrunk down to 250 watts at night, so our voices weren't exactly booming all over Northern California. They had two broadcasters, Ron Walters and Kevin Rafferty, who were doing play-by-play when I joined the station. Walters hosted the morning show and was, in many ways, the Bill King of Petaluma because of his myriad interests and talents. He invited me to join him for a football broadcast in the fall of 1980 involving the small Catholic school in town, St. Vincent High. At halftime, Ron asked me if I wanted to do the second half — and that's how I made my professional play-by-play debut.
* * *
It wasn't long before I joined the regular rotation. The station focused on four local schools — Petaluma High, Casa Grande High, St. Vincent, and Rancho Cotate High, which was up the road in Rohnert Park.
My arrival at KTOB coincided with the Angels moving their California League affiliate to Rohnert Park and in 1981, Rafferty worked out a deal for the station to carry 50 games — 25 home and 25 road. Kevin traveled for the road broadcasts and he asked if I would like to work with him when the team was home.
It was at about the same time that Bob Nathan offered me a full-time job and I haven't worked in any other profession since. My assignment was to host the 10:00 am to 2:00 pm slot, co-host the noon news, and then record commercials in the afternoon.
My air shift was a potpourri. I played records and interviewed guests and we took phone calls. The show started with a segment called "Swap Shop," which was kind of a classified ads of the airwaves. Folks could call in and try to sell an old washing machine for $10 or something like that. I interviewed everyone from Barbara Boxer when she ran successfully for the first time for Congress to the lightweight boxing champion Sean O'Grady.
On the diamond, 1981 turned out to be a strike year in the big leagues and a large chunk of the middle of the season was lost. The games continued in the minors and, looking to fill a void, the Angels and Padres invited their California League teams to spend the 4 of July weekend in Southern California. The Pioneers played the Reno Padres at Anaheim Stadium on July 3, then the teams drove down to San Diego for a game the next day.
It was kind of incongruous because we lived so much closer to Dodger Stadium and Scully was the voice of my childhood, but my dad and I became bigger fans of the expansion Angels. Maybe it was an underdog thing or because my dad was never a big fan of Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, but I was more emotionally invested in the Angels even though we rarely went to games in Anaheim. I had listened to hundreds of games from the Big A and I got a taste of the big leagues when we worked the July 3 game in the Angels' home radio booth.
The Pioneers' pitcher that night was a right-hander named Ron Romanick. Ron went on to start 82 games in his career for the Angels, and 27 years after that Friday night in Anaheim, he joined the A's major league staff as bullpen coach and was elevated to pitching coach in 2011. He allowed three hits in seven innings, but the Padres won the game 2–1.
Ron was the first of several players whose games I broadcast in the minors who later became coaches for the A's. Matt Williams and Mike Aldrete, who are currently part of Bob Melvin's staff, played in Phoenix when I did games there in the mid-'80s. It's fun to reminisce about those early days and how we're still chasing baseball dreams after all these years.
The game in San Diego was a festival. The Padres sold tickets for a dollar, gave away free slices of watermelon in the parking lot, and the lure of postgame fireworks helped draw a crowd of more than 37,000 to Jack Murphy Stadium. The Pioneers earned a split of the two games with a 2–0 win.
The game was a homecoming for the Pioneers' manager, the late Chris Cannizzaro. Chris, who was an original Met, was also an original Padre, and was their first AllStar in 1969.
I had been told that if two players off a Cal League roster made the big leagues, it was better than the average. So for 90 percent of the players on those clubs, that weekend would be their only time playing in a big-league ballpark. It was the same for me. I had no idea if I'd ever work in a major-league press box again.
Life in the minors can be just as uncertain for broadcasters as it is for players, and the Pioneers failed to land a radio deal in '82 and '83. But at least I had my full-time gig at the station.
* * *
I was doing as many three high school games a week. During baseball season, we took a cassette recorder to the high school fields, sat in the bleachers and recorded the games for playback that evening. The challenge was making sure the tape didn't run out in the middle of an inning, especially if something dramatic happened. So if an inning was running long and there was a short break in the action, we'd say, "Now time for this tape-change time out."
ABC television put Petaluma on the map in those days because of the World Wrist Wrestling Championships, which were contested every year at the Veterans Hall downtown and featured on Wide World of Sports. We carried the thing live on the radio! I've done a lot of things in my career, but I'm not sure anything prepared me for doing wrist wrestling. "Their hands are locked at the start and it's a stalemate ... now, Smith has the advantage, but Jones is hanging on for dear life ... now Smith forces Jones' arm down toward the table ... he pins the back of his hand to the table and Smith advances to the next round!"
I came full circle in a way when Ralph Barkey guested on the show in 1982. Ralph was the basketball coach at UCSB when I was a student and he was as sharp as any coach around. Now he had just taken the job as the athletic director at Sonoma State University, which was resurrecting its sports programs at the Division III level. Ralph and I worked out a deal to broadcast the football and basketball games. I sold the advertising and bought air time from Bob Lipman on KTOB. I named my little enterprise Vintage Sports Productions. Ralph even did some color on the home basketball games, and he was as good as anyone. I grew up with a dad who was a great coach and I attended John Wooden's camps when I was a kid, but I learned more basketball from Ralph than anyone.
I spent three years doing Sonoma State's games. Coached by Dick Walker, they reached the NCAA D-III regionals in basketball in 1983, before they moved to D-II the next year.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "If These Walls Could Talk: Oakland A's"
Copyright © 2019 Ken Korach and Susan Slusser.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Dennis Eckersley vii
Chapter 1 "It's Great to Have You with Us" Ken Korach 1
Chapter 2 Leadoff (Super)Man Rickey Henderson 29
Chapter 3 A Mother's Legacy Ken Korach 41
Chapter 4 Brought Up with Baseball Susan Slusser 57
Chapter 5 Relentless Ingenuity Dave Kaval 67
Chapter 6 So You Want to Be a Broadcaster? Ken Korach 81
Chapter 7 From Harvard to Hatteberg David Forst 103
Chapter 8 So You Want to Be a Beat Writer? Susan Slusser 117
Chapter 9 Calm, Cool and Collaborative Bob Melvin 133
Chapter 10 Kings and Angells Cooperstown 145
Chapter 11 Steinbrenner, Martin and the A's Real MVP Mickey Morabito 169
Chapter 12 Moneyball: "It's Incredibly Hard" 181
Chapter 13 Groundskeeper's Field of Dreams Clay Wood 195
Chapter 14 The Best Games We Ever Saw 207
Chapter 15 The Man Behind the Future Stars Keith Lieppman 247
Chapter 16 All the President's Scribes Susan Slusser 261
Chapter 17 The A's Most Animated Fan Jonas Rivera 273
Chapter 18 Broadcast Tidbits Ken Korach 283
Chapter 19 The Doctor in the House Allan Pont 291
Chapter 20 Going, Going, (Always) Gone Baseball Travel 301
Chapter 21 Half a Century of Inside Dirt Steve Vucinich 313
Chapter 22 An Improbable 2018 321