Every city and town in America has a Bill Grigsby. And no other place on earth but Kansas City has a Bill Grigsby. That’s about the only way I know how to tell you about my old friend. Cities across America have certain people who are only famous within the boundaries of their hometowns. They are distinctive disc jockeys or longtime newspaper columnists or local politicians who fight the good fight. They are storytellers or local historians or police officers or former mayors or people who seem to be involved in every charity or just quirky characters who are famous because they are famous, and you have to live in the town for a little while just to understand. They are the backdrop for the places where we live.
Bill Grigsby was an announcer for The Kansas City Chiefs for almost 50 years. This would be the way you would describe him to people outside Kansas City if they asked, “Who is this Bill Grigsby guy?” But that description is like calling chocolate “A food produced from the seed of the Cacao tree.” It is technically right. And it entirely misses the point.
Bill Grigsby was an announcer. He was also salesman. He was a promoter. He was a storyteller. He was a businessman. He was a bar owner. He was an insurance salesman. He was a pool hustler. He was a job recruiter. He was a guy who worked for the Kansas City A’s in the years when they were dreadful and largely irrelevant — this would cover all the years of the Kansas City A’s — and when people would call the office to ask what time the game started he would reply: “What time can you get here?”
He was a guy who was a part owner of the short-lived Kansas City Scouts NHL hockey team … and with his sports background he helped scout players. Unfortunately, he did not know a single thing about hockey and so he helped by picking the ones whose names sounded most to him like hockey names. This was how the Scouts got players like Simon Nolet, Guy Charron, Jean-Guy Lagace, Wilf Paiement, Bart Crashley and Butch Deadmarsh. This was also how the Scouts won only one of their last 44 games before moving to Denver.
He worked for a while with the nuns at St. Theresa’s school and at that same time he was a wrestling promoter, which led to one of his favorite lines, which was that when the phone rang he could never be sure if it was Sister Bernice or Dick the Bruiser. He claimed to beat the great Willie Mosconi in three-cushion billiards, though when asked if he was a successful pool hustler he would say: The thing that scares you about hustling pool is that you will run into somebody with less money than you have.
He used to say that he had a lot of stories, and some of them were even true.
One of those true stories was about the time he went up to St. Joseph to do a speaking engagement with former Chiefs coach Hank Stram. There was a long version to this story, and an even longer version, but the short one is that they had decided to split the money. While Stram was speaking, they handed Grigsby an envelope. He sneaked off to the bathroom and saw there was $400 in there — way more than he had expected. He skimmed $100 off the top, resealed the envelope, and came back. When Stram was finished talking, Grigsby gave him the envelope and did his talk.
When Grigs was finished, he went over to Stram and said: “How’d we do Henry?”
And Stram said: “Great. We’ve got $200 to split right down the middle.”
If I tell you that Bill Grigsby had literally an unlimited number of these kinds of stories, I would still not be doing him justice. I used to say to him that he must sit at home and think them up. He did not deny the charge. I think that’s what struck me most about him. Bill saw life through a prism of stories and one liners and wonderful little memories. “I will never forget …” is how he began so many of his sentences, and he never did forget, and he sometimes remembered a bit too happily, which he saw as the greatest gift of all.
He once announced seven basketball games in one day. He relayed this by saying that for weeks afterward he would call his wife “Fran, a shooting guard from Georgia Southern.” He was radio announcer for the Joplin Miners when they had a raw and young shortstop named Mickey Mantle. He remembers this with the line: “Mantle made so many errors at shortstop that after games I used to have to hold his beer for him.” He called the famous triple overtime National Championship game between Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas and North Carolina. “Wilt was the greatest athlete I ever saw,’ he would say.
“No funny line?” I would ask.
“Wilt was the greatest athlete I ever saw,” he would say again.
He lived life at a frenetic pace. He often told me he never felt comfortable, not after growing up during the Depression. If he wasn’t doing something, he was dying. And Bill had no intention of dying, not before his time. “I’m 108 years old,” he said whenever anyone asked his age. I thought that was telling. Satchel Paige stayed 39 forever. Most people want that. Bill Grigsby was 108 years old long before he was even 80.
“Enthusiasm is what keeps me going,” he would say. “I believe in enthusiasm. I think it’s the best medicine. I think it’s the best exercise. I think it’s the best way to live.”
He became known in town mostly for the way he said the word “Beautiful” before Chiefs games. That was his trademark. He would growl a bit at the beginning, and stretch out the vowels as long as he could — especially the E — so it sounded like BEEEEEEEEEEEE-yooooooo-teee-fuuul. Every day was beautiful, of course, even when the rain turned the field to mud, even when cold turned the streets to ice, even when the sun and humidity turned Kansas City into a sauna, even when the economy was bad and the news was bad and there was sadness lingering in the air. It was OK to feel sad, he thought. But nothing could keep the day from being beautiful.
A few weeks ago, another Kansas City character, an old trumpeter named Tony DiPardo died at 98. With Tony, like with Grigs, a one word summation like “trumpeter” feels entirely wrong because his life was so much richer than that. He was known in Kansas City for playing the trumpet at Chiefs games from the very beginning, but his life was one of music and family and bringing joy to people who knew him. Then again, in Kansas City, people knew him. They knew his heart. People in Kansas City didn’t need too many words to trigger their own feelings about Tony. The word “trumpeter” was enough.
And so it goes with Bill Grigsby. Outside of Kansas City, most people didn’t know his name. He never minded that. Inside Kansas City, he was loved. Bill Grigsby died Saturday. He was 89 years old. I could tell again his story of the midget women wrestlers or the one about Len Dawson at the first Super Bowl or the many about A’s owner Charlie O. Finley or the one about golfing with Tom Watson or a thousand others. I’m sure I will tell many of those stories over the rest of my life. For now, though, I think only of that one word, his favorite word, the word that doesn’t just describe his life but how he felt about life. The word, of course, is beautiful.