Bill White: Freedom Fighter, All Star, Stand Up Guy
Posted by athomeatfenway on January 16, 2012
When you think of Bill White, do you think of a player that led integration of the Carolina League ? A broadcaster who suffered & delighted in decades of cannoli talk in the Yankees broadcast booth with Scooter ?
How about the 4x all Star ? The 6x Gold Glover ? The announcer who had a good grip on (and kept a distance from) George Steinbrenner. The N.L. President who was smack in the middle of the Pete Rose – Bart Giamatti pot boiler. The guy who stopped the A.L. owners from blackmailing 50% of new franchise fees from their N.L. counterparts.
White is also the guy who watched from close range the self-destruction of Fay Vincent after Bart Giamatti’s sad passing, and the establishment of the Pseudo-Commissioner Era in which we currently live.
White’s life has been one successful string of accomplishments weaved through a sequence of important milestones for Our Game.
Uppity. My life in Baseball. My untold story about the games people play. By Bill White with Gordon Dillow. Grand Central, 2011.
Bill White titled his autobiography Uppity because as a black man that helped integrate Baseball, he carried an assertive attitude into the Carolina League in 1953 and maintained it until his playing career ended in 1969. He was Uppity. He likely still is.
In 1953, while batting on the road in Winston-Salem, he heard one obnoxious cracker chant, nigger ! nigger ! nigger !
White took his anger out on the ball, drilling it over the right field wall.
Then he heard the same cracker yell, “Well, Bill White, after that home run I guess I’ll have to call you Mister Nigger !”
The cracker crowd then chanted “Mister Nigger ! Mister Nigger ! Mister Nigger !”
Despite the ever present attempts at intimidation, White never backed down from a racist. In fact, he found that every time he stood up for himself, the racists backed down. Even on the road in the Carolina League.
White describes the impact that Jim Schoolboy Tugerson had on him as he suffered indignities in the minors.
Tugerson, a 6’4” sidearm pitcher who roomed at one time with Hank Aaron in the Negro Leagues, signed with the Arkansas Bathers for the 1953 season. The Cotton States League then kicked the Bathers out of the League for hiring black players. The Bathers then moved to Knoxville in the Mountain States League. The Knoxville Smokies finished with a fine 70 – 55 record and Tugerson won 29 games. He moved up to AA Dallas the next year, but he was already 31 years old and was destined to call it a career after 5 years in the Big D.
Tugerson’s advice was simple.
“Stay focused on the game.”, Jim would constantly tell me. “Don’t react to those racist rednecks in the crowd calling you names. They’re trying to sidetrack you, take your mind off the game. Don’t let ‘em.”
It was good advice, from someone who had been there, and I took it. I still heard the racist slurs coming from the stands, but I never let myself show any reaction to them. I didn’t give the bastards the satisfaction.
In Uppity, White gives us more than his memories of racism and civil rights progress through which he lived.
Among the precious recollections is a trove of anecdotes from the 18 years he broadcasted Yankee games with the Scooter, Phil Rizzuto.
Here’s a great on-air exchange involving Scooter & part-time announcer Fran Healy:
They were in Seattle, and they and the team stayed in one of those tall, modern, cylindrically shaped hotels.
Healy (on-air): What did you do last night, Phil ?
Rizzuto: Well, I didn’t like the room I had.
Healy: Why ?
Rizzuto: Well, it was a round room and I couldn’t corner my wife.”
White shares how his family escaped poverty in the great black northern migration when he was a baby. His mother insisted that African Americans came from a highly-evolved, even superior culture. He was indifferent to a stingy contract offer by the NY Giants after Leo Durocher watched him whack home runs in Forbes Field during a private tryout. (After 2 homers, Leo hustled White off the field in hopes that Rickey hadn’t seen him.) But he signed after Leo OK’d a sweetener.
White developed into a strong hitter and slick fielder through a 4 year progression through Danville, Sioux City, Dallas and Minneapolis. He arrived in the Polo Grounds for MLB duty under Bill Rigney in 1956, where he rang up a .256, 22, 59 season. In addition to those rookie totals, White made the NL Top 10 with 15 SB’s and 4 HBP’s. Not a bad start, but Uncle Sam would delay his sophomore year in the Bigs.
White served his Country in 1957 and 1958, then returned eagerly to the Giants, then just relocated to San Fran. He got only 29 at bats. He was now stuck behind future HOF’er Orlando Cepeda, who was having one of the greatest ROY seasons in history with .312, 25, 96.
More competition was on the way. San Francisco had another 1st Baseman killing it in AAA Phoenix with .319, 14, 89. A 6’4” swatter named Willie McCovey.
In the Fall of 1958, Cepeda’s promise prompted the Giants to send White to St. Louis principally for Sam Jones. McCovey would later inspire the Giants to trade Cepeda away, too.
The Giants thus played 3 young 1st Basemen successively in 9 years, a cluster that would produce a combined .283 BA, 1,102 Homeruns, and 3,760 RBI over the course of their careers. Boy, could the Giants pick ‘em .
White’s trade to St. Louis was a dream come true. Despite that city’s reputation for racial bias, White was well treated and team ownership had his back. There was an overt act of discrimination when White tried to buy a house in the suburbs, but the Cardinals pushed the sale through. Once settled, White found his white neighbors sane and friendly. (The developer was the dog.)
White put up great numbers in St. Louis, batting over .300 4x, named to the All Star Team 5x, and capturing 6 Gold Gloves. Even better, after the Cardinals hoodwinked the Cubs out of Lou Brock in 1964, the Cardinals became a hot team, moving from the middle of the pack to capture the NL pennant on the last day of the ’64 season, and knocking off the Yankees in a 7 game series.
The wine was sweet. The adulation intoxicating. All was swell in St. Loo, until White publically corrected GM Bob Howsam at a team celebration. White openly attributed the Championship to former GM Bing Devine. Moments earlier, Howsam had stood up and taken all the credit for himself.
White was goose hunting in mid-October, ’64, when his car radio carried the announcement that he had been traded to the Phillies with Dick Groat and Bob Uecker.
The best part of his playing career was done. White’s Cardinal stats totaled a .299 B.A., 140 Home Runs, and 627 RBI in 7 years. Plus the All Star appearances and GG’s.
He would play 4 more MLB seasons but his numbers declined steadily.
White was uncharacteristically accepting of the end of his playing career. “The game will tell you when it is time to leave, if you are willing to listen.” So rare.
He listened. And he didn’t mind leaving. He had things to do.
You get so much value in this book. The player memoir. The broadcaster memoir. The Baseball Executive memoir. 13 years playing. 18 years broadcasting. 5 years as League President.
The 40 pages on his time with Rizzuto are a hoot. The chapter on Steinbrenner confirms (once again) that George was a sociopath. The Executive story shows how an honest man can hang on, barely, in the shark tank with billionaires proficient in the art of gain.
This book is a pleasure to read and packed with history.
Don’t miss it.