EDITOR'S NOTE: This column by Joe Posnanski first appeared in the Kansas City Star on Dec. 25, 2002.
Memo: To Sports Editor. Re: The Bill Grigsby story. It's impossible, boss. Impossible. I'm sorry. I know you wanted this nice Christmas story on Bill Grigsby, wonderful soul, all-time classic, Chiefs announcer for 40 years, Mr. Kansas City. But there's no way to do it. There's no way to even interview the man.
You ask Bill Grigsby a question, a simple question, something like "How old are you?" And the guy is off and running somewhere else, he's telling some story about a priest, a rabbi, two midget wrestlers and Tiny Tony Tinsley, a 26-inch jockey who likes to fish in bed.
I'm telling you, I can't make any sense of my notes. I've got something here about an island called Oogla Oogla. Got something about Bill beating Willie Mosconi in three-cushion billiards. There seems to be something in here about a one-armed paper hanger.
Never miss a local story.
I need more than just a translator. I need a World War II code breaker.
You know what? I'm looking here in the notes, and it seems that Bill Grigsby was a World War II code breaker. How about that? The guy entered the Air Force in 1942, they gave him a test and he scored genius. Even now, he shakes his head about that. The Air Force stuck him in the Aleutian Islands, brought him messages to decode or encode. Every so often, Bill says, they would drop one of the cryptographers on the Island of Oogla Oogla and leave him there for six months or until he went crazy, which always came first.
"We called the place 'Ugly Ugly,' " Bill says. "It was like 'Devil's Island' without the charm. It was so boring, for fun, you would count sand."
See what I'm saying? This is the kind of stuff you get interviewing Bill Grigsby. What can I do with that? Look, I tried everything. I tried to get him to tell the straight life story. He said, "That's fine, you lead the way." Managed to get out of him that he was born in Wellsville, Kan. His family moved when he was just six months old.
"But eventually, I found them," Bill says.
See? Bill grew up during the Depression. He went to sleep hungry most nights. He fell in love with sports listening to games on his neighbor's old crystal radio set. Mr. Crosswhite. That was the neighbor's name.
"There was nothing to do during the Depression," Bill says. "We couldn't afford any toys. But even then, you could always find a deck of cards. So I invented a baseball game with those cards. And I would sit at home and announce imaginary games."
Then he starts doing a baseball call from memory.
"Dale Alexander comes to the plate, the big man from Tennessee. They call him Moose. Lefty Grove goes to his belt. He checks Rabbit Warstler at first base. ... "
"You know, speaking of Rabbits, I saw Rabbit Weller play at Haskell Institute. He was one of the greatest athletes I ever saw. Those guys just couldn't tackle him. He just weaved right through the defense."
"And I saw Dr. Glenn Cunningham. You want to talk about an amazing athlete. Saw him run. He had his legs burned when he was 8 years old. They said he'd never walk. And he set the world record in the mile. He was something else. He was beautiful. OK, now where were we?"
This story is impossible, I tell you. Absolutely impossible.
Memo: To Sports Editor.
Re: Midget wrestlers ... excuse me?
Yes, that's a real story. You know, one of Bill's 4,398 different jobs through the years was as wrestling ring announcer and wrestling script writer. He also broadcast baseball for the Kansas City Athletics, announced Kansas basketball and football, refereed high school games, he once called seven NAIA games in one day, he ran his own brewery, he worked in the bank business, the insurance business and the fertilizer business, he was a United States marshal or something like that, he wrote obituaries for the Joplin Globe, sold advertising on radio, he worked with the nuns at St. Teresa's and he recruited nurses for St. Joseph's hospital.
What a time it was. Wrestling. Nurses. Beer. If the phone rang, Bill says, he did not know if it was Sister Bernice or Dick The Bruiser. He remembers one time a wrestler named The Sheik, who was the most vile and dangerous wrestler ever to come over from the Middle East (or the middle eastern part of New Jersey, anyway) ended a match, like always, by cheating.
The Sheik then looked out into the Municipal Auditorium crowd and realized that several alcohol-soaked fans were particularly not happy with his lack of sportsmanship, and his chances of getting out alive were rapidly decreasing. So, The Sheik decided to make a break for it. He was chased by 40 or so angry Midwesterners who didn't particularly appreciate sheiks from the Middle East or Jersey. The Sheik missed his dressing room door and instead ran out into the street.
"It was like 8 degrees outside," Bill says. "And there were 40 people screaming and chasing, and there was the Sheik, in his flowing robe, running for his life and screaming, 'TAXI! TAXI!' "
Sorry. That's not the story you wanted. You want the midget wrestler story. One day, Orville Brown, a wrestling legend, called up Grigsby. "I've got two midget women wrestlers," Brown said.
"Sorry, I'm busy today," Grigsby said.
"No, I need you to invent a story for them," Brown said.
Grigs loved that. He decided that the star was named Baby Doe, and she was born in Cairo, naturally, but moved to Johannesburg, of course, where she lived in an orphanage and developed superhuman strength. By a stroke of luck, Baby Doe managed to meet with the king of South Africa, and she mentioned to him that she was the finest midget woman wrestler in all the world.
Naturally, the skeptical king invited 32 of the greatest midget women wrestlers from the four corners of the earth to fight this wonder. None of them was any match for Baby Doe, and the king admitted that she was indeed unmatched when it came to women wrestlers who were also midgets. Soon, Baby Doe set sail for Madrid, where she beat the previously unbeaten woman midget wrestler Maria DeFrancesca two out of three falls, this in front of 32,614 angry Spaniards, ending any doubt about Baby Doe's magnificence.
Now, Baby Doe would make her American debut, as you might expect, at the armory in Kansas City, Kan. Bill played it up big. He told that crowd the whole story. Baby Doe stepped into the ring to wild cheers.
Then, someone in the crowd yelled: "Hey, since when is Armourdale in Johannesburg?"
Turns out Baby Doe was actually a meat packer from Armourdale.
Memo: To Sports Editor.
Re: How about more stories???
Sure, there are a million Grigsby stories. Here's one. When Bill was announcing Kansas basketball games, legendary old Jayhawks basketball coach Dr. Phog Allen used to lecture him about smoking. The good doctor had a Puritan streak in him.
Well, on the day they opened up Allen Fieldhouse, Allen pulled his Cadillac into the parking lot. And at precisely the same time, Bill drove his piece-of-garbage car in.
Bill looked over. And he saw Allen make a quick motion. Years later, he would find out that Phog Allen had been sneaking a smoke. And when he saw Grigs, he panicked and immediately flung the cigarette in the back seat.
It was a slick maneuver. The one problem: At halftime, the public-address announcer explained that the reason there were fire trucks in the parking lot was because Dr. Phog Allen's car had caught fire.
Some of Grigs' stories are not stories at all. They are simple one-liners. Bill's old baseball partner, Merle Harmon, used to get terrible migraine headaches. Bill's take: "He was a great partner. I would do the drinking, and he would get the hangovers."
Or this one about working for the Athletics back when nobody would come to games: "People would call and say, 'What time does the game start?' We'd say, 'What time can you get here?' "
Or this one about being a pool hustler in Joplin: "The problem with hustling is that no matter how poor you are, there's always somebody with less money. And that's the guy you have to worry about."
Or this one about talking to God in the old Grund Hotel in Kansas City, Kan.: "Funny to find God there. It was an old fleabag hotel back then. But you have to remember, that was before it started really deteriorating."
Or this one about what it was like after announcing a record seven NAIA games in one day: "For a week, I didn't even know who I was. I started calling my wife, 'Fran, a shooting guard from Georgia Southern.' "
And there is the favorite story, the one people always want to hear, about the time he and former Chiefs coach Hank Stram drove up to Leavenworth for a speaking engagement.
"How much will we get paid?" Stram asked.
"I don't know, Henry," Grigsby said. "But whatever we get is more than we got."
They arrived, and Stram spoke first. While he talked, the person in charge gave Bill the envelope of money. He rushed to the bathroom, steamed open the envelope and found $400 in there. That was much more than either had expected. Without thinking twice, Grigsby took a hundred out and slipped it into his pocket. He resealed the envelope. When Stram finished, Grigs gave him the envelope and gave his speech.
Then, with Grigs finished, the two headed back.
"How'd we do?" Bill asked Hank.
"I was great, and you were awful," Hank said.
"No, I mean, how did we do money-wise?" Bill said.
"Great," Hank said. "We've got $200 to split right down the middle."
Memo: To Sports Editor.
Re: We really need that Grigsby story ...
I'm sorry, boss. I know we could use the story for Christmas. But it's just impossible to make sense of this. All I have are 10,000 wild stories. Some, as the old joke goes, are even true. There's just no way to find the man in the middle.
Here, after reading and re-reading my notes, is what I can tell you about Bill Grigsby.
He asked his wife of 53 years, Fran, to marry him on their very first date. She did. Three years later. "Toughest sell of my life," Bill says.
He has five grandchildren. Two of them are doctors, one's a lawyer, all are close.
He was radio announcer of the famous 1957 Final Four with Wilt Chamberlain, and of the Class C Joplin Miners, when they had a shortstop named Mickey Mantle. He called the first game at Allen Fieldhouse, the first Super Bowl, the first Royals game at Royals Stadium. He has met pretty much every famous athlete of the last 50 years.
He has been at every Chiefs game except two. "I want them to win," he says, "but I don't lose sleep when they lose. You can't. That's the great thing about sports. If you win, you feel great. And if you lose, it's over."
He is an absolute sucker for a cause or a pretty face.
When asked his age, he inevitably will say: "I'm 108."
He never stops. Ever. That's probably the most overwhelming quality of the guy. Grigs does a million speaking engagements. I was looking at our wedding video the other day and found out that Grigsby was the master of ceremonies. He constantly visits hospitals, works with three dozen charities, pulls off three or four random acts of kindness every day.
How does he keep going? I suspect Bill Grigsby is driven by the Depression. Most Depression babies are. They remember when the world was broken, when there was no money and no food and no jobs. I think that's why Bill has rushed madly through life, driving buses and chauffeuring nurses and taking every odd job he could find.
"I never did quite feel comfortable," he admits.
Sure, there's some pain there. He doesn't talk about it. But his mother died young. He has lost good friends. His brother was killed in World War II. A couple of weeks ago, Grigsby was at Whiteman Air Force Base for a speech. He saw an empty chair lighted by a single spotlight. Bill cried and cried and cried. You don't live to be 108 and not have pain.
A few minutes later, at that Air Force Base, Bill told funny stories.
People, when they talk about Bill Grigsby, never talk about the pain. They talk about the love of life, the endless hours spent raising money for kids, the way he shouts, "BEEE-YOOOO-tiful."
The man has thousands of friends. I have 500 quotes from people about Grigsby, but every last one is the exact same quote, whether it's from Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson or Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt or legendary groundskeeper George Toma or the best Chiefs player who ever lived, Bobby Bell, or anyone else who has been around Kansas City the last 50 years.
"Bill is a classic," they all say. "An absolute classic."
Dawson adds this.
"He's the happiest man I've ever known."
I tried, boss. I really tried. I even asked Bill Grigsby what makes him so happy. Like everything else, his answer was a mishmash of a thousand things, but his main secrets to happiness have been exercise and laughter, never looking back, never being mean, finding Fran, good friends, having no regrets and always being enthusiastic, no matter what you're feeling inside.
"Also," he said, "it doesn't hurt to have two vodka martinis every night."
With that, Grigs smiled.
"You don't have a story here, do you?" he asked.