Most Yankee fans remember Bill White as the beloved TV and radio announcer for the Yankees from 1971 to 1988. Having previously done short TV segments on stations in both St. Louis and Philadelphia, when White signed on with WPIX he became the first African American to be the regular play-by-play announcer for a major league team.
Teamed up with Frank Messer and Phil Rizzuto, White was on the microphone for some of the most iconic moments in Yankee history but was largely appreciated for the day-to-day dependability of delivering sound analysis in his typically direct and candid manner of speaking. When teamed with Rizzuto (whose personality could best be described as the polar opposite of White’s) and the traditionally trained Messer, White was part of a broadcast booth that played a special role in many great memories of Yankee fans who were fortunate enough to watch and listen in that era.
Yet prior to becoming part of Yankee history as an announcer, White was not only a very good player in the National League for 13 seasons but played a key role in dismantling some of the segregation practices that were still ongoing in MLB long after Jackie Robinson’s retirement. (You read that correctly – ‘retirement’, not ‘debut’.) After his career in the booth with the Yankees, White was far from done in trying to improve the game we love and became another ‘first’ in the process when he was named President of the National League in 1989. His career is far too long and accomplishment filled to fully cover today, but in honor of Black History Month let’s take a quick walk down memory lane.
After putting up 3.1 WAR as a rookie first baseman with the New York Giants in 1956, White missed all of the 1957 season and most of 1958 as he served in the military. In his absence, the Giants replaced him with future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, and the organization also had a kid named McCovey tearing up Triple-A pitching at the same time. This necessitated trading White to St. Louis, which turned out well for him and both teams.
White was an NL All-Star in his first season with the Cardinals and would be named to the NL squad in five of his first six seasons overall in St. Louis. He’d win six straight Gold Glove awards as a Cardinal (and another later on with the Phillies) and twice finished in the top 10 in the NL MVP voting. Playing in likely the most difficult era in baseball history to hit, White didn’t put up gaudy numbers like the Mays, Aarons, and Clementes of the world, but he was a powerful, and incredibly consistent middle of the order presence on some great Cardinal teams — including the one that beat the Yankees in the 1964 World Series. From 1962 through 1966, White averaged 23 HR and 96 RBI per season with a 126 OPS+, which was only surpassed by Cepeda among NL first basemen. Overall, he averaged 5.3 WAR per season over that five-season stretch which was the best among all MLB first basemen by a pretty good margin.
Yet his biggest impact came off the field. After incidents earlier in his career — one in which he fraternized with a famous actor at the Giants’ spring training complex but wasn’t allowed into a theater to see the actor’s newest movie that same evening, another in which, while wearing a U.S. Army uniform, he wasn’t allowed into a restaurant to eat with his white friends wearing the same uniform — White was out of patience for such things after a few years in St. Louis. While in spring training in Florida, White and his Black teammates were still segregated from their teammates off the field. They and their families weren’t allowed to sleep in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants, or use the same recreational facilities as their white teammates, among other demeaning situations.
White had enough and told an AP reporter at length about how nonsensical and humiliating such treatment was, and how tired they all were of being told to be patient, things would get better. (We know in 2022 such behavior can put one’s career in jeopardy — it’s hard for most of us to put into proper perspective exactly what White was risking.) Fortunately for all, White’s bravery in speaking up garnered him support from some key members of the media, the advertising world, and eventually the Cardinals’ organization. That started the ball rolling that led to the desegregation of players in spring training facilities across MLB, two years prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1989, White accepted a four-year appointment as President of the National League. He was the first African American to hold that position, and as he liked to point out, was also the first former player to hold an executive position that high. Being a 13-year NL veteran came in handy when a prominent NL manager wanted White to discipline another team due to its pitchers scuffing baseballs, or when a prominent umpire tried to spin a not so honest take on player-umpire confrontations on the field.
Among the usual fun things a league president needs to address, such as a baseball legend receiving a lifetime ban for gambling and an umpire’s strike, White also was charged with handling the highly publicized issue of a National League owner who had a habit of using racist terminology both in public and in private — a job made very difficult due to the absurd fact that the owner had many, many supporters, despite her history. After his four-year appointment ended, he stuck around temporarily to assist in finding his replacement while the search for a new MLB Commissioner began.
As White said in his autobiography, he “wished he got out sooner.” What wasn’t completely clear to most at the time but we know with the benefit of hindsight, was that the goal wasn’t so much finding a new commissioner as it was to severely limit the commissioner’s powers, turning the position more or less into a figurehead. With future Hall of Famer Bud Selig elevated to said position, as he stated in his autobiography, White was fine getting out at a time when it became OK for teams to lose, as long as they turned a profit.
Important issues aside for a moment, we’re Yankee fans here on Pinstripe Alley, and we remember how much fun it was listening to White and his booth mates, particularly in the late ‘70s when the Yankees were great on the field. Of course, his most famous call, “Deep to left!” came just before Bucky Dent earned himself a new nickname among Boston fans in 1978:
Two Octobers prior, White was on the microphone for WMCA radio when Chris Chambliss sent the Yankees to the World Series for the first time in 12 years. As an interesting side note, White was never George Steinbrenner’s favorite announcer, as “The Boss” felt White was too objective and not enough of a “homer”. When White pointed out on air that Chambliss never touched home plate and that might be problematic should Kansas City protest, he fell a few spots lower on George’s favorite announcer list.
Of course there were too many memorably great on-air interactions to cover here, and reciting them in print doesn’t even come close to doing them justice. Yet, I’ll never forget the instance in which Frank Messer was telling us viewers about Gary Pettis, the young and highly regarded Angels’ prospect. The Angels loved everything about Pettis, according to Messer, except there were questions about whether or not he “could hit the fastball.”
“Then what is he doing in the major leagues?!?” White shot back seemingly before Messer even finished. (Hey, if you never heard White, I told you earlier he had a habit of being direct.)
I’m also certain I’m not the only fan who remembers the instance in which Rizzuto spilled his own coffee on himself and the hilarity that ensued between him and White for the remainder of the inning. Listening to the longest, most drawn out “Holy cow …” of Scooter’s career followed by White’s genuine laughter and good natured ribbing might be the hardest my family and I have ever laughed together during a baseball game.
It’s fun to be nostalgic about what was a great era in Yankee history, and although Bill White never wore pinstripes on the field, he was an enormous part of that great era to Yankee fans, and an enormous part of the organization. Yet it’s also important, at all times but especially during Black History Month, to acknowledge his contributions to equality in baseball and by extension, to society as a whole. Although his contributions may not be as well-known as those of other players, they aren’t any less significant.
If Scooter was still with us Mr. White, I’m sure he’d still say to you, “White, you huckleberry!”