End of an era: Starkey retires after 20 years as 49ers’ voice

The 49ers have not always played an exciting brand of football in the past few seasons. One of my neighbors, Tripper, told me last year that he did not always make a big effort to get in front of the TV to watch the games.


He found he had a lot more fun listening to Joe Starkey’s descriptions on the radio.

A couple years ago, I was in line at my favorite deli on a Saturday afternoon. Cal had already kicked off against Oregon in a big game (but not The Big Game). A lady in front of me made a phone call to ask someone if there was a score. I asked her not to say what was happening because I had the game recording at home.


“Aren’t you going to listen to the game when you’re driving home?” she asked.


When I answer that I had not planned on listening, she shot me a look as if I were from another planet.


“Listening to Joe Starkey is better than watching it, anyway,” she said.


Today, Starkey announced his retirement from the 49ers play-by-play position he has held since 1989. Starkey will call the 49ers’ final two games of the season. He said he plans to continue to broadcast Cal football in future seasons.


“Our fan base owes Joe a great debt of gratitude,” 49ers chief operating officer Andy Dolich said.


Starkey, who identifies himself as “over 65,” said the travel demands of calling college and pro games on back-to-back days had taken its toll on him physically. He pointed to a situation last month in which he called the Cal-Stanford game on a Saturday, had a 12:45 a.m. flight to Dallas. He arrived in Dallas with just enough time to go to a hotel room to clean up before heading to Texas Stadium to call the 49ers-Cowboys game.


The following week, Starkey got ill. He missed his first game in a career of nearly three decades because of a bout of laryngitis. Starkey did not call the action the following week, either.


“That trip that put me out of action,” an emotional Starkey said. “The last couple years, the travel was almost impossible to deal with.”


Starkey cited the cutbacks in flights, which made connections more tenuous. He said he has considered ending his association with one of the teams for several years.


“One way of another, one team had to go,” Starkey said.


He decided he would stick with Cal because he felt like he can continue to call games at the college level for a long, long time. Starkey has been the voice of the Golden Bears since 1975.


“It’s a testament to Joe that he could bring the level of enthusiasm and professionalism going through the experiences he talked about,” Dolich said.


Starkey worked as the 49ers’ sideline reporter during games in 1987 and ’88 before replacing Lon Simmons as the voice of the team for the 1989 Super Bowl season.


The 49ers will name a replacement for Starkey in the offseason, Dolich said. He declined to name any candidates. (Joe Fonzi filled in for Starkey during the two games he missed.) Dolich said the team plans to have Gary Plummer back for his 12th season as the analyst.


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Dolich is correct when he says the fans owe Mr. Starkey a debt of gratitude. Heck, we all owe Joe a big thanks.


It’s been a pleasure getting to know you through the years. And thank you for helping make Sundays a lot more enjoyable. In describing his contributions, I can only think of a few appropriate words: “What a bonanza!”


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