THE BAY AREA RADIO MUSEUM
PRESENTS A TRIBUTE TO
HALL OF FAME BROADCASTER
By Brian Fisher, The Fresno Bee
Published Monday, May 19, 2003, 5:58 AM
He went from a salesman at KMJ radio to broadcasting San Francisco Giants’ games on KSFO radio and back to Fresno again to serve as the then-Class A Giants’ general manager. Throughout his life, Bill Thompson proved there was little he couldn’t do and little he wouldn’t try.
Thompson, the winner of the first Al Radka Award in February, honoring a Fresno-area individual who left an impression on the community through athletics, died late Saturday, May 17, 2003, from complications following surgery at Community Medical Centers. He was 79.
“He’s really going to be missed,” said Lon Simmons, who worked with Thompson for nine seasons with the San Francisco Giants and whose friendship dates 64 years to their days at Burbank High.
Quick-witted and hard working Donald William Thompson arrived in Fresno in the late 1950s and went to work for KMJ. His sudden start behind the microphone came when one day the station manager told the salesman to help out on-air.
Thompson’s initial work began with a 15-minute daily sports show. Not long afterward, he was doing three shows a day that included commentary as well as scores, unprecedented in the Fresno market.
He later went on to broadcast Fresno State and Fresno Giants baseball games, and in 1962 became the first sports director at KMJ, Channel 24 television, which later became KSEE.
“He was one of the first local sports personalities people identified with here in town,” said Gus Zernial, a friend of Thompson’s for 40 years, who currently works as a radio broadcaster for the Fresno Grizzlies. “He made a lot of friends because he was so personable. He was just a good guy.”
Those attributes, along with his relationship with Simmons, helped him earn a ticket into San Francisco’s radio booth.
During an exhibition game in spring training in Fresno in 1965, Simmons and his KSFO partner Russ Hodges had Thompson call a couple of innings during a trial run.
“We needed a producer for the coming season, and Russ liked what Bill did,” Simmons said. “[Hodges] told the managers at KSFO that Bill was the guy we needed to hire. And that was that.”
Thompson, known for his vast knowledge of sports trivia, initially did little on-air other than give score updates from other games around the majors.
But Hodges, a Ford C. Frick award winner in 1980 with a reputation for being a generous person, gave up one of his innings — the sixth — to Thompson later in the season.
Soon thereafter, the sixth-inning call became Thompson’s trademark.
“That was unheard of,” Simmons said. “Russ did six innings a game, and I did three. For him to give up an inning, no one did that kind of thing. Later on, people always could tell where the game was by who was broadcasting it. If they heard Bill on the radio, they knew it was the sixth inning.”
After Hodges retired, Thompson became the station’s No. 2 broadcaster and would move to No. 1 when Simmons was off covering San Francisco 49ers games.
“Bill did a great job,” Simmons said. “He was one of smartest guys in baseball. He understood the game, and I think that really helped him with his broadcasting.”
After 11 seasons with the Giants, Thompson returned to Fresno in 1975 and worked in radio until he took over as the Fresno Giants’ general manager in 1978. He held the position until the Giants’ moved their affiliation to San Jose in 1987.
During his tenure, he was named the California League executive of the year twice.
“He was such a tremendous person, and the interesting thing about him is he was so highly successful in many things,” Simmons said. “Neither of us ever planned on getting into radio, and he did it so well. And he never had any experience being a GM. But he did that well, too.”
Thompson, who was named to the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in November, got out of baseball following the Fresno Giants’ move. In recent years, he occasionally broadcast a couple of innings for the Fresno Grizzlies.
But mostly, Thompson enjoyed retirement by traveling to places such as China and France, fishing and golfing, said his daughter, Kathie.
Thompson, who played junior college and semi-pro baseball, was on a California state-champion men’s fast-pitch softball team and served in the military, is survived by daughter Kathie, son Brian and two grandsons.
A memorial service is being planned, Kathie Thompson said.
Copyright © 2003, The Fresno Bee