49ers, Cal legend Joe Starkey fell backwards into broadcasting. It took him half a century to leave

Starkey looks back on his career in an interview with SFGATE

The voice of the Cal Bears, football announcer Joe Starkey at his broadcast position in the newly renovated Memorial Stadium on Saturday September 1, 2012, in Berkeley, Calif.

The voice of the Cal Bears, football announcer Joe Starkey at his broadcast position in the newly renovated Memorial Stadium on Saturday September 1, 2012, in Berkeley, Calif.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Gett

The voice behind Cal football will be hanging it up after this season. 

Last week, Hall of Fame broadcaster and long-time play-by-play announcer for Cal football Joe Starkey announced that he will be retiring after the 2022 season. Starkey, who also spent 22 years with the San Francisco 49ers, will celebrate his 81st birthday in October during his 48th and final season in the booth for Cal.

On a long phone call with SFGATE, Starkey looked back on his half-century in the booth, covering three Super Bowls and famously calling “The Play” between Stanford and Cal. He says football was never the plan. In fact, broadcasting wasn’t, either.

He thought he’d stay in his native Chicago and in business, earning an MBA from Loyola University. But the tumultuous summer of 1968, when the 27-year-old Starkey was called up to the National Guard as the nation convulsed amid Vietnam and the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, was enough to inspire a job search on the West Coast.

Starkey recalls a job interview he landed with Mattel, the toy company, where he was in combat gear and holding an M1 rifle.

“The man who came in to do the recruiting — and ended up being my boss — said, ‘Now why do you want to move to the West Coast and work for us?’” Starkey said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? Look at me!’”

He worked at Mattel for a year as a corporate recruiter before taking a banking job in Los Angeles. He was then transferred to San Francisco to serve as the bank’s head of human resources, but on the side he was busy working on something else.

Starkey launched his sportscasting dreams by taking a tape recorder with him to professional sports games. In the summer of 1972, with a few tapes on hand and a new vacancy in the broadcast booth of the California Golden Seals, a short-lived Bay Area NHL team, Starkey reached out to Charlie Finley, then-owner of the Seals and Oakland A’s, to set up an interview back in Chicago.

Owner Charlie Finley of the Oakland Athletics signs an autograph prior to the start of a MLB baseball game circa mid 1970's. Finley owned the Athletics from 1960-80.

Owner Charlie Finley of the Oakland Athletics signs an autograph prior to the start of a MLB baseball game circa mid 1970's. Finley owned the Athletics from 1960-80.

Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“I went up to his office on Michigan Avenue, I played him the tape, and in about 15 minutes he offered me the job,” Starkey said. However, things didn’t last very long – at all. With his HR background, Starkey offered Finley help with his infamous personnel churn. Instead, he became part of it.

“I said, ‘I might be able to help you with your hiring problems, because you seem to go through employees rather quickly.’ He fired me. 10 minutes after I started, he fired me,” Starkey said. “So I walked out of his office and went back to the West Coast.”

Still intent on getting his foot in the door with the Seals, Starkey tried a different approach. He instead reached out to Len Smith at KEEN, the flagship radio for the Seals, and got hired through the station. Not long after, Starkey got a call from Smith, who was seated with Finley in his booth during the 1972 A's-Reds World Series, and was telling the owner about the team’s new play-by-play announcer.

“So [Smith] starts playing my tape and Finley apparently gets up and starts kind of walking around the box,” Starkey said. “'Wait a minute,’ he said. ‘Where’s that voice? I know that voice. You don’t want me to hire that son of a bitch banker, do you?’ Oh yes he did! Those are the exact words he used. So that got me started in broadcasting.”

Starkey quit his job at the bank and never looked back, calling games for the Seals until they played their final game in Oakland in 1976. But hockey was just the start. In the summer of 1975, Starkey was offered the Cal play-by-play gig after frequently substituting on KGO’s sports shows.

“The last thing I ever expected to get was football,” he said. Starkey, whose goal was to broadcast baseball, played one year of junior college football. “I was a reserve, I wasn’t a good football player, but that was my entire football knowledge.”

Since then, Starkey has built a Hall of Fame resume. Along with 22 seasons with the 49ers and 47 with Cal, he spent a decade in the NHL, and even a few years here and there in the North American Soccer League and MLS.

Through all of these opportunities, announcing at Berkeley has always been the position he’s held onto.

“I never expected to get into football, but I found out that I really loved it,” Starkey said. “I really enjoyed the college game enormously. I mean, the bands, the cheerleaders, the whole atmosphere of 'rah rah,' there’s a different feel about a college game.”

Favorite moments

Beyond the tale of his beginnings as a broadcaster, Starkey has countless memories to share about Bay Area sports. Below are some of the favorites:

On his famous call of “The Play”: “When it unfolded, the first thing that struck me afterwards was that I screwed it up.”

On one of his favorite Cal moments: “When Marshawn Lynch scores the touchdown and then grabs the golf cart and starts driving around the field. …Absolutely hysterical” 

The Stanford band goes wild on the field at the end of the Cal-Stanford game in Berkeley, thinking they had won, as the scoreboard says, 20-19 with no time left, Nov. 20, 1982. Little did they know that Cal's Kevin Moen weaved his way through hundreds of people including the band to score a touchdown after time had run out, giving Cal a 25-20 win over Stanford.

The Stanford band goes wild on the field at the end of the Cal-Stanford game in Berkeley, thinking they had won, as the scoreboard says, 20-19 with no time left, Nov. 20, 1982. Little did they know that Cal's Kevin Moen weaved his way through hundreds of people including the band to score a touchdown after time had run out, giving Cal a 25-20 win over Stanford.

CARL VITI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Another Lynch story, crossing paths in an airport: “I stood up and I walked over and I stood in front of him and I said, ‘Marshawn, Joe Starkey, remember me?’ And he looks up, he says, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Of course not you son of a bitch. You wouldn't do any interviews.’”

On Aaron Rodgers: “I could not believe the 49ers didn’t draft him. Because at that point I’d been with the team for a long time and I’d actually told people in the front office, I said, ‘You need to draft Aaron Rodgers.’ And yet they were giving me the impression they weren’t going to do it.”

On his reputation as a Cal homer: “I have no problem being a supporter of Cal football in a broadcast. Nonetheless, I’ve always tried to be objective about how they’re playing and whether they’re winning or losing on merit.”

On other uses for his voice: “For years I was a member of the Monks. The Monks is a singing group on campus, mostly professors. And years ago they called me and said, ‘Would you like to be a Monk?’ And I said, ‘Well you know, I am married, I’m a little late for that.’”

On one of many favorite 49ers moments: “The Terrell Owens game. I guess I’m famous or infamous for because I screamed like an idiot when he scored the touchdown pass from Steve Young.”

On Joe Montana: “They used to call him Joe Cool. And I think that absolutely fits because I’ve rarely seen a guy who handled pressure better than he did.”

Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers looks to throw a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl XXIII on January 22, 1989 in Miami, Florida. The 49ers won the Super Bowl 20-16.

Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers looks to throw a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl XXIII on January 22, 1989 in Miami, Florida. The 49ers won the Super Bowl 20-16.

Focus On Sport/Getty Images

The most memorable call of his career: “Well for football, [The Play] is number one. But I also had the incredible privilege of being in Lake Placid and did the third period radio broadcast of the US-Russia hockey game."

A moment he wishes he could take back: “We got into overtime and we’re set to win the game. And our quarterback misses a wide-open receiver, and by missing that pass, Oregon ends up winning the game instead of Cal… I said on air, ‘I cannot believe how bad a pass that was. If so and so was in the middle of the Willamette, he wouldn’t be able to hit the water with a football.’ That did not go over well with his family or the athletic department.”

On retiring: “Melancholy is probably the right word. I mean, it’s been part of my life for so long… It’s been great fun, but I do think that this is probably the right time.”