The 10-year period between 1955 and 1964 was, quite likely, the most successful in Yankees history. They made an incredible nine (!) World Series in 10 years, winning four and losing five, and boasted some elite talent on their rosters every year.
That 1964 season, which ended in a Fall Classic loss, marked the end of an era. From 1965 until 1976, the franchise wouldn’t appear in another World Series. In the late 60s, many Hall of Famers retired — Whitey Ford did so in 1967, and Elston Howard and Mickey Mantle said goodbye a year later — and a transition period ensued.
Outfielder Roy White wasn’t a household name in 1968. He had stints in the majors in 1965, 1966 and 1967 but hadn’t been able to establish himself. He had enjoyed some success in the high minors, though, suggesting he could eventually carve out a role.
1968 statistics: 159 games, 660 plate appearances, 17 home runs, 89 runs, 62 RBI, 20 stolen bases, 11.1 BB%, 7.6 K%, .267/.350/.414, 137 wRC+, 3.8 fWAR.
Out of nowhere, he broke out big time in the 1968 campaign. In the three years prior, he had accumulated -0.4 fWAR (of course, WAR was far from a thing at the time, but you get the point) but that season marked his breakout party: he hit .267/.350/.414 with 17 home runs, 89 runs, 62 RBI, 20 stolen bases, and a 137 wRC+. His WAR output that campaign alone was 3.8.
Baseball historian James Lincoln Ray explained the kind of offensive year White had:
“For the season, White batted .267 with 17 home runs and 62 RBI. At first blush those numbers appear respectable, but when viewed through the prism of 1960s baseball, which was a time period dominated by pitching, they are actually quite impressive. White’s .267 batting average was 37 points higher than the American League average of .230. His 62 RBI were the most of any Yankee, and only Mantle, who hit 18 home runs, surpassed White’s total of 17. In fact, White’s season was so good that when the baseball writers voted for American League MVP that fall, the Yankee youngster finished in 12th place.”
One aspect we rarely talk about when discussing White’s career and, more specifically, his 1968 season, is his elite plate discipline. The man was just impossible to strike out. Yes, baseball was much more contact-oriented in the 60s, but a 7.6 percent strikeout rate is impressive in just about any era. So was his 11.1 percent walk rate.
From hitting .224/.287/.290 with a 76 wRC+ and -0.7 fWAR to finishing 12th in the MVP voting in a year’s time, White’s 1968 campaign has to be one of the most surprising in Yankees’ history. The best was yet to come, though. His fWAR outputs ascended for three straight seasons: it was 4.2 in 1969, 5.7 in 1970, and 5.8 in 1971. Over a five-year span from 1968 to 1972, his wRC+ ranged between 133 and 145, and he was a threat to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases any single year.
Lincoln Ray called White “a quiet, graceful leader on the New York Yankees during a transitional period in the club’s history. His strength of character and remarkable versatility enabled him to survive, and even excel, in the shark tank that is so often New York Yankee baseball.” White “steadily evolved from speedy utility player to the team’s cleanup hitter and one of its top sluggers,” per the historian.
White had several 5.0-WAR seasons in his career, but that 1968 campaign marked the birth of another sneaky star player from the Yankees. He wasn’t in the same stratosphere as Mantle, Howard, Ford, Roger Maris, and other teammates, but he made two All-Star teams and accumulated 41.0 fWAR. Not too shabby.
Roy White was a pretty good hitter in the Yankee lean years. pic.twitter.com/rjOVvg76bx— Stirrups Now! (@uniformcritic) June 25, 2022
It would take a while, but with White on the roster, the Yanks would return to where they belonged in 1976: the World Series. They lost that year, but won the next two with the underrated White in the outfield as usual. 1979 would be his final season in pinstripes and the big leagues.
White was an underrated Yankee with a brilliant career, but you wouldn’t know it from his MLB performance in his first three seasons there. It was in 1968 when he took a gigantic step forward and became a reliable, everyday contributor for the winningest franchise in baseball.