NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The recognition of Bill King and Claire Smith this week by the National Baseball Hall of Fame takes me back to the very beginning of my career in the 1970s.
Smith was elected as the first female recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Writers' Association of America for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, and King was named the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting. It was his sixth time on the ballot.
I broke in as a freelance writer based in San Francisco, working for newspapers and magazines all over North America. Bill was the ubiquitous and eccentric play-by-play radio broadcaster in the San Francisco Bay Area for the Warriors, Raiders and ultimately the A's. Claire was on the sports desk at the old Philadelphia Bulletin and often edited my stories.
Bill was a voice on the radio and soon-to-be wonderful and supportive presence in the press box. Claire was a more-than-kind voice on the phone. We finally met when I was hired by the San Diego Union-Tribune to cover the Clippers and Padres, and she broke new ground by joining the Yankees' beat for the Hartford Courant.
They both became dear friends, so I reveled in the collective joy shared by many on all ends of the spectrum this week. Bill died suddenly from complications after knee surgery in October 2005. Echoing Mike Krukow -- the former Giants pitcher and broadcaster for the team since 1990 -- my only regret is that Bill isn't around to enjoy it.
Claire was at the BBWAA meeting on Monday and poignantly accepted the honor.
"It's really my first inclination to say, 'Why me?'" Claire told me after the meeting. "There are so many talented women who kicked the door open. I don't pretend to be one of them. I came on a little later, but I'm so proud to be what they call an ink-stained wretch."
True story. I arrived in San Francisco in 1975 just about a month after the Warriors swept the then-Bullets to win their first NBA title. I had a few published clips, some cassette audio tapes and a resume in my arsenal only two years removed from graduating with an English Literature degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J.
In college, I was sports editor and editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper and sport director of the radio station. In that capacity, I traveled around the country calling basketball games for three seasons, patterning my play-by-play style after Marv Albert, the young and famous radio voice of the Knicks in the New York area, during their championship years.
I loved doing basketball on the radio, and my career could have gone in either direction. In the end, it headed toward the written word, but in 1975, I was open to anything.
So, among the calls I made looking for work, I contacted the Warriors. Their public relations director, Hal Chiles, invited me to his office in downtown San Francisco for an interview. This was heady stuff for a 22-year-old.
As I sat at his desk, he asked me what I wanted to do. I said quite precociously that I wanted to do play-by-play for the Warriors. He responded that that would be great.
"But we already have this guy named Bill King," Chiles said.
That was the first time I heard his name. I soon learned that Bill was quite the character but open to any young writer or broadcaster who needed his advice. His staccato tone and signature call of "Holy Toledo" to punctuate a key play made him a legend in Northern California sportscasting.
As my friend Bruce Magowan recalled, there was another even more significant side to Bill.
"He always made himself available to younger broadcasters such as myself, and he'd encourage them. He'd never, ever tell you he was too busy," he said.
Bruce went on to a long career covering sports in the Bay Area and doing talk radio for KNBR, still the Giants' flagship radio station.
In both of our cases, our relationship with Bill led to long talks about sports, the arts, ballet, opera -- you name it. Long after we established ourselves in our respective vocations, that friendship with King remained. And our experiences were multiplied by the hundreds.
Bill was one of a kind. He lived on a house boat in Sausalito at the southern tip of Marin County, wore sandals and shorts to the ballpark and had a handle-bar mustache and a white goatee. When he was hired in 1966 to broadcast the Raiders, the great owner Al Davis took one look at Bill and told his staff to get rid of him.
"I'm not hiring a hippie," Davis said.
He then heard King call a football game and was sold for all eternity.
Obviously, King never cared about his clothes or possessions of any kind.
"He was an eccentric in so many ways," Krukow said. "He was eccentric in the cars that he bought. I think he'd spend $500 on a car, drive it until it craped out, park it, walk away and go get another one for 500 bucks."
Magowan, who is also from Marin County, recalled driving into the city one day with King and noticing a weird dimension to the car.
"He's got some classical station on and we're talking -- nothing about sports, of course -- and suddenly I notice it's very cold in the car, and I notice there's a big hole in the floor about the size of a fist," Magowan said. "So, I said, 'Bill, what's this?' He says, 'That's just natural air conditioning. Don't worry about it.'"
It's my belief that it took Bill so long to win the Frick because he never had a national platform. There was no ESPN or Internet at that time to pick up his sound bites. And unlike Vin Scully or Dick Enberg, he never worked games on national TV. His reputation was well known in California but took a while to catch up with the rest of the world.
So, did Claire's. But not for the people who know and love them. Now it's their time. The recognition has arrived. And on July 29 at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y., they will both have their moment in the national spotlight.