Picture your childhood hero. It could have been an athlete, a singer or mu sician, a movie star – someone you admired from afar and never had the slightest hope of meeting.
Now imagine that a lifetime later you got to have lunch with that person. Then you’ll know how I felt having lunch with Bobby King.
Most of us have multiple heroes when we’re growing up. Kids’ tastes are nothing if not eclectic. King was a hometown hero, a shortstop for the Boise Braves in an era when boys were bewitched by baseball. I went to Braves games, even sold concessions in the stands, but the thought of actually meeting the great Bobby King would have terrified me. He was an idol, and therefore unapproachable.
I mentioned King in a recent column about that baseball-crazy era, and to my surprise the responses included an e-mail from him suggesting that we have lunch.
Unapproachable? He turned out to be one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.
King played for the Boise Pilots, Yankees and Braves for much of the 1950s, when baseball was without a close second as the national pastime. A lot of players came and went during his years on the teams, including several who advanced to the big leagues. The best known was Bob Uecker, who went on to play for the Milwaukee Braves and become a Major League announcer, humorist and actor.
Uecker signed my catcher’s mitt – one of the treasures my mother threw away when I left for the Navy – but it was King who was my favorite player. Mine and that of about every other kid in town. He never made it to the big leagues, but there was just something about him. Over soup and sandwiches – he goes by Bob instead of Bobby now – I asked him what he thought it was.
“Well, I kept coming back,” he said, laughing. “Most other players would be there a year or two and move on, but I was there for most of a decade. That and I hustled like mad. I was a little guy – 5 feet 8, and I weighed 150 pounds. I think people liked that, the fact that I had that limitation but was back every year working against the odds.”
He did more than beat the odds. In one of his years with the Boise Yankees, he missed having the Pioneer League’s highest batting average by three-thousandths of a point. He was a good fielder and clutch hitter. Whether we were in the stands or listening to an away game on the radio, we knew we could count on Bobby King when the chips were down.
Our hero joined the Marine Corps just in time for the Korean War to end. With no battles to fight, he was assigned to a Marine Corp baseball team and played against, among others, the great Willy Mays.
In an exhibition game between the Boise Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates, he played against the equally great Roberto Clemente.
“There was a play where Clemente fielded the ball on the first baseline and made a throw to third like a bazooka. I’ve never seen anyone else make a throw like that. And he was such a wonderful philanthropist and human being.”
Players like Clemente inspired King. But it was Uecker who made him laugh.
“We were staying at the Bannock Hotel in Pocatello on a road trip when the Bannock was the best hotel in town,” he said. “Someone had thrown a bunch of dirty, stinky clothes in the bathtub. No one wanted to wash them so Uke set them on fire. There were fire trucks everywhere.
“… He had false teeth. When we’d go to his house in Boise, he’d offer to get up and get someone a beer. The refrigerator was in a little space under the stairway, and he’d hit the wall there to make it sound like he’d banged his head. When we’d go to check, he’d be lying on the floor with his teeth out. We fell for it every time, and it was always funny.”
King and Uecker became lifelong friends.
“He told me he was treated better in Boise than he was anywhere else in baseball. We loved this place. … And there’s nothing like minor league ball. There was such a camaraderie in it. Why did I stay so long? It’s a disease. It’s just such a great game. You become immersed in it.”
He’s still immersed in it. King saved enough money with his $175-a-month baseball salary to get a teaching degree from Idaho State University. He taught at South Junior High while playing summers and, to my surprise, spent two years as principal of Boise High School a few years after I graduated there. He has Ph.D in leadership and human behavior from San Diego State University and for 25 years has been a scout for the Houston Astros. He lives half of the year in San Diego and half in Garden Valley.
So all this time that I’ve been wondering what happened to my childhood hero, he’s been just a short drive away – and is every bit the role model I hoped he’d be. Knowing that was worth waiting a lifetime.