Familiar voice back on the airwaves
LISTEN. Listen to those Hawaii Winter Baseball games these November nights. That delivery! That voice! It sounds just like a big league play-by-play guy.
It is a big league play-by-play guy and after all these years that old familiar voice is home again. Here. Home.
How do you think he became a big league guy?
"Dick Enberg was out here on vacation," Ken Wilson says. So many years ago, Dick Enberg was so inspired by what he'd heard, before he went back to the mainland he called up KGU.
"This is Dick Enberg."
"Yeah, right," Wilson said.
But it was. He'd been listening to the Islanders on the radio, and he'd heard that voice. It was a big league play-by-play guy's voice. We just didn't know it yet.
KEN WILSON'S STORY begins with a line that should be set to music, an actual Jackson Browne lyric: "In 1969," he says, "I was 21." He'd come to Hawaii straight out of college, gotten a room at the YMCA. The next day he did the only thing he could think of: He went to the ballpark.
"My second day here I was selling Cokes at Honolulu Stadium," he says. "That was the beginning."
The Hawaii Islanders, Honolulu's beloved minor league baseball team, were big then, and Wilson started hanging around.
"There was an old guy and a young guy," doing the games. He was just a kid. They were Chuck Leahey and Al Michaels. This was the big time, even in the minor leagues.
Wilson hung around the ballpark. He got a job as a DJ at KKUA. But he was 21, he had a girlfriend on the mainland. After a few months, he followed her to Philly, got a job there. Then, one day, a letter came. "In those days everything was by letter," he says.
The secretary at KKUA: "The Islanders are looking for you." Would he be interested in being on the broadcast team?
In Philadelphia, Wilson rented a tape recorder, squeezed into the press box, made an audition tape. Got the gig. It was his big break. He was just a kid. But he was coming home, to the big time. Home, even if he didn't know it yet.
WILSON HAS DONE more than 25 years of big league sports broadcasts. He's been the guy for the Mariners, the White Sox, the Reds, the Cardinals, the Angels, the A's. See a TV replay of Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb's hit mark? That's Wilson's voice. He's called Kenny Rogers' perfect game, Gaylord Perry's 300th win, George Brett's 3,000th hit, Cal Ripken Jr. tying Lou Gehrig for consecutive games played.
He's done soccer and horse jumping and speed boats and the Goodwill Games and Mike Tyson fights. For years, he was the national TV voice of the NHL.
He was the voice of the St. Louis Blues for 20 years.
It all started in the Termite Palace, selling Cokes.
Now he's here again. On those Hawaii Winter Baseball broadcasts, it's his voice again in the Hawaii night.
It's a funny thing, a broadcaster's voice. It's bathed in memories. It's magic, in a way. Les Keiter's calls make us feel young again. Jim Leahey will forever be a reminder of the moment Hawaii finally beat BYU.
And so pilgrims come to a pizza shop in Kailua. St. Louis Blues fans come dressed in jerseys. They hold out pens. Wilson knows why they're coming. They know that he knows.
"Say it," they say. "Please say it."
Wilson throws his head back.
"Oh, baby!" he says.
HE WAS SMART in those early days. The UH basketball broadcast rights were up for bid, and so Ken Wilson put in the best bid, and won. Not for any particular station. No, Wilson as an individual. And then he went to the station, and he said, Well, I have UH basketball, and so do you, if you have me. But here's what I want to do.
And so he and Chuck Leahey called the Rainbows games in those Fabulous Five days. And Wilson did the Islanders with Al Michaels and then with Les Keiter. And he did TV, at KHON. And because of the deal he made with KGU, he did what he calls "the second (radio) sports-talk show in the country" -- "Hawaii Sports Huddle."
Well, the second in the country -- the idea was revolutionary. "I always tell my wife that I was famous in Hawaii," Wilson says, who left here in 1977. And so on a mid-'90s trip back he took her to Columbia Inn, to see where they did the show. Just to imagine. But there, on the walls, were all the old pictures, still there. He and all the famous people he'd interviewed! Wow! See?
And then, at the end of the bar, a voice: "Ken Wilson!" the man said. See! "Hawaii Sports Huddle!" the man said. See!
"Are you coming back?" the man said. After all those years!
Wilson laughed with delight. "I'm a legend!" he told his wife, half kidding. At least half.
"It was almost like I planted the guy!" Wilson says, laughing again.
DICK ENBERG CALLED, and he wouldn't be the last. Wilson was a finalist for a couple of major league jobs, and by that point he knew it was only a matter of time. Then the Mariners wanted him, and Enberg and the Angels, too. In the end he went to Seattle. In the end he left the Termite Palace and the HIC and went out and saw the sporting world. He loved Hawaii, it was home. But this was his chance. It was time to go. He had to go.
Broadcasting was as competitive and sometimes tense a business then as it is now, and, looking back, Wilson wonders if he didn't go national in part because the competition locally was so tough. Joe Moore was a sports guy. Jim Leahey was on his way to becoming Jim Leahey. If Wilson would have stayed in local TV and radio all those ensuing years where would he have fit in?
"What would I have done?" he says.
Funny. He faces the same question now. In the end, the business got him, too. After 20 years the Blues decided to replace him with the son of another legendary Blues play-by-play man. Sometimes, that's how this business goes.
With the 2004-05 NHL lockout looming, Wilson and his wife, Marlene, were planning their exodus back to Hawaii. Still, something like that is always tough to take. And it cut down the options Wilson was hoping to have.
But they'd already bought a house. Now they have a pizza place, Mama's Island Pizza in Kailua. Sure, it's a crazy dream. But no more so than most of his. This is a guy who in 1997 helped found and own a minor league baseball team (and build a stadium), which was like juggling. While traversing a tightrope. On a unicycle. While on fire.
"I was writing a check for $300,000," Wilson says. "I don't have $300,000!"
After that, they can handle the restaurant business. (And incidentally, he says the team was a roaring success.) He's a pizza man now. "I've done everything I wanted to do," in broadcasting, he says.
Then came the call to do Hawaii Winter Baseball. It was a blessing, for love and money.
It's tough to make ends meet in Hawaii. You know that. Everybody knows that. And those big league paychecks aren't coming in anymore.
But he's home now. He's at the ballpark in Honolulu, calling baseball, his voice going out into the airwaves, into the Hawaii night. That voice. Listen. You can hear it. He's home. He's home.