December 22, 1999
Details tell the story of our beloved departed friend, Bill Koenig
By Paul White
The laugh is silent. The desk
is empty. A friend is missing.
We lost Bill Koenig last week, a heart attack suddenly stealing from us a man who is more than the byline you've seen week after week in Baseball Weekly. Who is so much more than his title -- senior writer -- can convey.
How about master writer? Or wordsmith? Those are deserved accolades that would embarrass Bill. But he knows that's how we feel about his work. Today, we desperately hope he knows how we feel about him, that he is the heart and soul of our newsroom.
If present tense seems awkward here, it's because we're having difficulty letting go. Colleagues stop at his desk and silently stare, expecting him to approach any second with his unique jaunty walk. We're unprepared for the suddenness. We can't -- won't -- believe the twinkle that was his entire face, from dancing eyes to leprechaun-like smile, could be extinguished at the age of 50.
It has been a week when all of us have found ourselves compelled to hug our kids an extra time, stick close to our spouse a bit more than usual, make that phone call we've been putting off to someone special.
Yet, as we share stories of our friend and lament our loss, we don't find ourselves questioning why this had to happen. Instead, it seems, the question inevitably becomes how to describe Bill's laugh.
Robust, some say. Hearty, others offer. Convulsive comes closer. The laugh began deep in the smallish body where the giant heart and soul resided and eventually consumed his entire torso.
"I can still see him, half doubled over," said Dennis Fisher, who worked with Bill many years ago at the Lancaster (Pa.) New Era, not far from his native Reading. "Face bright red, one hand waving for mercy, the other struggling to remove his glasses, all the while trying to get a hankie out of his pocket to wipe away the tears."
Why take such pains to explore the details of a man's laugh?
Because detail and finding the perfect words were what set Bill apart in his profession. You're probably familiar with his work. We reprinted some of the best examples on the next page. And because, in typical Bill Koenig style, he had prepared several more sparkling stories well in advance of his deadlines, you'll get to read more in the upcoming weeks.
And because the laugh set him apart as a friend and a colleague who couldn't help but touch every life that came near him. He couldn't help the passion for his chosen craft, couldn't help seeking out the good in just about anyone, even couldn't help the infrequent but vehement outbursts of outrage that could erupt so suddenly.
That's the Bill Koenig we hope we can help you know and appreciate a little bit better.
Those outbursts -- you could be certain it was because Bill felt the little guy was being trampled again. Baseball's politics and money issues annoyed Bill, especially when he felt fans were the victims, but he never lost his affection for the game. He appreciated the history of baseball and when he got a chance to meet an idol like Ted Williams or chat with Don Zimmer, the kid in him came out.
If you merely looked at Bill, you might believe he was the little guy. Not just because he was small in stature but because he carried himself like he truly believed he was no more than the guy in the seat next to you in the upper deck, where he often was on days off at Camden Yards with wife Marlene.
He just as well could have been next to you at a college basketball game -- his other great athletics passion. He was a devoted booster of his alma mater, Temple University, and had season tickets at Maryland.
Watching him create at his desk was a memorable experience. With well-organized notes at hand, he would stare at his computer, all the while rocking forward and back. (I'll never be able to watch Leo Mazzone on the Atlanta Braves' bench without thinking of Bill.) Then would come the flurry of fingers, usually in short bursts followed by a lull.
He would jut out his lower jaw, a habit he claimed not to be aware of until one of us pointed it out. You could see his lips move, maybe repeating the last sentence, maybe forming and reforming the next. Don't bother to ask which. When he was writing, he likely wouldn't hear you anyway.
The result would be something that probably touched your life in some way. He wrote our Joe DiMaggio tribute last March and co-authored a story on the dangers of chewing tobacco in April 1998. His story on the 50th anniversary of Babe Ruth's death was acknowledged as "Notable Sports Writing of 1998" by Best American Sports Writing. But he also could handle the lighter side, taking readers inside a blimp over Yankee Stadium (he worried about dropping his pen from the gondola) or the Green Monster at Fenway Park (probably his favorite assignment because it can now be told he was a long-suffering Red Sox fan).
The senior member of our staff, Bill always was the first to befriend a young reporter or an intern. He had the same reputation in Rochester, N.Y., where he worked before becoming our minor league writer when we began Baseball Weekly in 1991.
He'd gladly take our newcomers to their first major league press box and clubhouse, show them the ropes, tell those big leaguers to take care of the kid. He was responsible for Lisa Winston joining our staff and eventually succeeding him on the minor league beat.
She introduced herself to him in 1991 when she was covering the Prince William Cannons of the Carolina League. "Oh, I know who you are," Bill said. "I've seen your name all over the men's room walls here."
It turns out the team posted her game stories there and Bill had taken notice. He eventually convinced the reluctant rookie to send in a resumé.
If he had a fault, it was being too low-key. Only because more people didn't get a chance to know him and his sense of humor, didn't discover this wonderful source of information and lore, this ambassador for our publication, this irreplaceable friend.
But you didn't have to spend a lot of time around him to figure out how much he loved and adored his wife, Marlene. They are the true soulmates that most people can only dream of having.
Less known was his love of animals.
Assignment editor Scott Zucker learned that in a strange moment when Bill called in to update one of his stories. While on the phone, Scott heard Bill softly say, "I love you, Buddy."
Somewhat taken aback, Scott finally realized when Bill said, "Now, jump down off my lap," that Bill was referring to his beloved cat, Buddy.
Bill, like everything else you put into words, we couldn't have said it better.
We love you, buddy.