When Bill White hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, he began a journey of solidity that garnered career statistics of 1,706 hits, 202 home runs, and a .286 batting average. Beginning his career in 1956 with the Giants, White also played for the Cardinals and the Phillies. Although more than a decade had passed since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, White suffered racism into the early 1960s, along with other black players—and he refused to be silent about it.
In his autobiography Uppity, written with Gordon Dillow, White described an incident in 1961 involving the Cardinals during Spring Training—St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Salute to Baseball” breakfast excluded black players on the Cardinals.
“That was bad enough,” wrote White. “Then I saw that the list included a couple of rookies who had never swung a bat in the majors. The idea that the local bigwigs wanted to honor unproven players while ignoring proven players because of the color of their skin rankled me.
“No, it more than rankled me. Combined with all the other crap that black players had to take, it made me furious.”
White told Joe Reichler of the Associated Press. Reichler’s story hit newspapers, triggered threats of a black boycott of Cardinals owner Anheuser-Busch, and spurred an invitation to the event at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club; Elston Howard of the Yankees also received an invitation. White refused. “I hadn’t wanted to eat with those bigots anyway. All I had really wanted, what all the black players wanted, was simply the opportunity to say no,” explained White.
For Yankee fans of certain ages, White is fondly remembered as an announcer on WPIX-TV, sparring verbally with Phil Rizzuto, who brought continuity from the Yankee glory years of the 1950s, further reinforced by Yankee icon Billy Martin managing the team.
Rizzuto’s non sequiturs about the best Italian restaurants in New Jersey and other personal items may have seemed goofy, or even annoying, had White not provided the slightly teasing manner necessary to let the viewers know that Phil’s personality ought to be embraced, not endured. Frank Messer was the third broadcaster in the WPIX triumvirate, a “consummate professional” offering erudition, but not the same synchronicity with Rizzuto that White enjoyed.
“He genuinely liked Phil, and would play around with him on the air, but there was always a light tone of disapproval in it—and I think the listeners picked up on that,” wrote White.
When White took on the responsibility of the National League presidency, he confronted the Pete Rose gambling scandal in his first year. White held the post from 1989 until 1994, when he resigned. His hiring took place in the wake of a firestorm created by Al Campanis’s 1987 appearance on Nightline, when the Dodgers executive questioned whether black players “may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or general manager.” Further, Campanis opined that black players may not want a position in the front office after they retire from playing. To some baseball insiders, it was a curious statement; Campanis roomed with Jackie Robinson during his playing days.
The incident ignited action; White became the first black National League president. Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote, “But no matter who the other candidates were, Bill White was as qualified as anyone else, and surely much more qualified than most. If he happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black executive, that is as historically important as it was 42 years ago when Jackie Robinson happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black player.
“Of all of Bill White’s credentials, the most comforting is that he has been in baseball all his adult life. He understands baseball and he understands its people.”
Among his many duties, White dealt with player suspensions, minority hiring, and National League expansion.
In his Foreword to Uppity, Willie Mays, a mentor of White, provided insight regarding White’s approach to baseball and life. “But even as he got older, and his jobs changed, in some ways Bill was always the same as that young player in his first major league game way back in 1956,” wrote the Say Hey Kid. “He was never loud or flashy about what he did, never thought that he was bigger than whatever team he was playing for or whatever job he had taken on. He just went out every day and did his best—and he was never afraid to speak out for what he thought was right.”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 26, 2016.