Full Name: Roy Hilton White
Born: December 27, 1943 (Compton, California)
Yankee Years: 1965-79
Primary number: 6
Yankee statistics: 1,881 G, .271/.360/.764, 300 2B, 51 3B, 160 HR, 123 wRC+, 46.9 rWAR, 41 fWAR
One of the best switch-hitters in Yankee history, Roy White was a quiet, confident leader who helped keep the locker room afloat during the organization’s dip into mediocrity and was instrumental in pulling the team up to relevance again. White first landed on the Yankees radar as a transcendent multi-sport athlete in Compton, California. Team scout Tuffy Hashem liked what he saw, and promptly signed White when he graduated high school.
It was the right call, and then some. White struggled in his early minor league days, missing home as a fresh-faced teenager, but as he did often in his career, he made the adjustment. White was adaptable, with a can-do attitude and streak of benevolent leadership. This affability made him beloved by managers and players alike and helped him carve out a steady role in the Yankee Stadium outfield for 15 seasons from 1965 to 1979.
White came onto the major league scene in 1965, when the dynasty of the ‘50s and early ‘60s was winding down with key pieces aging into their twilights. The Yankees wouldn’t see an equal run of success for decades—five straight pennants between 1960 and 1964 set the bar high—and the core group was beginning to falter. An injury-and-substance-abuse-riddled Mickey Mantle was in decline and Elston Howard was nearing the end.
White played second base in the minor leagues, but shifting to an outfield spot gave him the best chance to stick on the roster. His first two seasons, he slotted into left field on a part-time basis when Tom Tresh played third base. White began his Yankees career in a locker room full of stars, many with their best days behind them.
The Yankees gave him a shot as a late-season call-up in a lost season — they played tepid baseball as a whole in ‘65 and finished 77-85. White may have joined a roster going downhill, but he put up a 131 OPS+ in 47 plate appearances over the month of September, taking full advantage of the limited opportunity. Because there were so many long-term questions about the roster and organization itself, his solid contribution flew under the radar going into 1966. The hype began to rise when he won the award for best rookie in camp at spring training in an offensive and defensive showing that impressed even the greats observing from the dugout. He continued the momentum into the regular season, hitting a blistering .353 in April and .381 in May. The league countered, and he cooled down considerably, struggling after the season’s first two months. He finished with just a .225 batting average, a huge step back in his first full taste of MLB competition.
Around him, the team plummeted to an even worse record of 70-89-1, dead last in the American League. Looking up and seeing every other AL team, including the Red Sox, was humiliating for an organization that had put on a clinic of winning the previous two decades. Manager Johnny Keane was fired twenty games into the season, replaced by Ralph Houk. Mel Stottlemyre and newcomer Fritz Peterson carried a decent pitching staff, but the Bombers hit just .235 as a team and run production was inconsistent. Mantle had an excellent year, no sure thing in his later years, but it wasn’t enough. The team was floating, uncertain, without a definite brand of baseball or the decisive big hit to win close games.
White’s mediocre showing landed him a ticket to Triple-A to begin 1967, where he took care of business and found himself back in New York by midsummer. He once again failed to make an impression with 238 plate appearances, turning in another similarly overmatched season. The Yankees finished 72-90, and the team’s dry spell extended for a third year. The pitching staff allowed the most hits in the American League, and the team was dead-last in runs scored. Not the best way to put together a winning season. The lean years were in full effect, and the early Sixties heyday was just an interstate daydream.
The team’s complexion started to undergo complete change during the 1968 season. Howard, Ford, and Roger Maris were all gone gone. Mantle embarked on his farewell tour — 61 in ‘61 was seven short years prior, but felt like ancient history. The future was completely ambiguous, and so was White’s place in it.
In his second season as general manager, Lee MacPhail got to work salvaging a rebuild. Younger players like White, Bill Robinson, and Staten Island local Frank Fernández were poised to get a shot in ‘68 to show their stuff. Newcomer starting pitcher Stan Bahnsen got his first chance at a full season of 34 starts and pitched well.
“People ask me: what happened to all the Yankee stars? I tell them that Roy White is as good a player as any of the old players we used to have.” -Mickey Mantle
To start 1968, White was deployed as a bench player and defensive replacement at multiple positions. The inconsistent playing time didn’t deter him, which impressed manager Ralph Houk and his affinity for utility players.
Versatility wasn’t White’s only asset — in ‘68, he finally broke out offensively. By putting up a 137 wRC+ that year, he began a run of eleven straight above-average offensive seasons in pinstripes. The team didn’t set the world on fire, finishing 83-79-2, but it was a start. Houk actually slid White into the cleanup spot behind Mantle late in the season because of all his walks, knowing White’s contact skills could always make something happen with a runner on base.
Into the abyss
The season came to an unceremonious end, and just like that, Mantle, Whitey Ford, and all the pillars of the dynasty were gone. This gave the newcomers the chance to take center stage in 1969. They were ready — Houk’s choice to give the youngsters plenty of playing time in ‘68 made sure of that. Former budding prospect Bobby Murcer came back from military service and added another promising young player. The team put up another season around .500, but it was clear a new era was beginning. Yankees fans would just have to wait a few more years until everything fell into place once again.
For White’s part, he had 543 plate appearances holding down the left field job, a 133 wRC+, and a .392 OBP. He walked significantly more than he struck out in ‘69, a commodity still regarded as elite. He also received his first All-Star selection.
In 1970, for both White and the team, things began firing on all cylinders. After trusting the process and enduring a few rough years, the Yankees and their young talent put together a 93-win season. Houk and MacPhail saw the fruits of their labor pay off in the form of a dynamic roster full of juice and hungry to taste a winning season.
White played out of his mind, entering into all 162 games, drawing 712 plate appearances. You just don’t see a 700-PA season very often anymore. He put up an elite 5.7 fWAR, somewhat unexpectedly becoming the team’s most productive hitter. Another All-Star selection came at midseason. A new offensive core of Murcer, White, and Thurman Munson took the reins that season to superb results. Unfortunately for them, the Orioles, stacked with Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Jim Palmer won 108 games, blowing the Yankees out of the water in the AL East. That was tough to swallow, but the big picture finally looked optimistic.
Heading into ‘71, the Yankees were better, but a mediocre 82-80 year took the wind out of their sails. The growing pains weren’t over quite yet. Individually, Murcer had a stellar season and finished as a top-10 finalist for the MVP. White wasn’t too shabby either, topping his previous season and accumulating a career-high 5.8 fWAR. The pitching staff wasn’t overly effective, and once again the young Bombers couldn’t find consistent clutch performances.
The Yankees stalled out as a team over the next couple of years. The winning progress stopped, and they finished around .500 in ‘72 and ‘73. The good news was the offensive core was firmly in place, but still the success only came in short spurts. White stayed locked in during the final two truly lean years, once again clearing 5 fWAR in ‘72, but taking a minor step back in ‘73.
In 1974, things began to turn around in earnest, even as the old Yankee Stadium underwent renovations and the team played at Shea. After nine seasons of mostly losing, the Yankees won 89 games in ‘74. Nothing crazy, but it was a start. White was 30 at this point, but still contributing steadily. He walked more than he struck out in 11 of his 15 Yankee seasons. Contributions from Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles gave the offense a boost, and once again things looked a bit promising. This time, it would stick. An 83-win season in 1975 was the final growing pain, but Nettles and Bobby Bonds both had solid years. Catfish Hunter put up a 144 ERA+ as the definitive ace of the staff.
In ‘76, Yankee Stadium reopened and White’s generation of Yankees got their first sweet taste of postseason baseball. They won 97 games and were crowned AL East champions, and White inserted himself into the thick of things with another 5 fWAR season. Mickey Rivers came on strong as another outfielder to complement White and Munson was voted AL MVP. Rotation additions Ed Figueroa and Dock Ellis contributed amply.
The Yankees won a hard-fought ALCS with Kansas City to punch their ticket to the World Series. White waited a long, long time to sniff a playoff at-bat, and he didn’t let his first chance go to waste. He notched five hits in the series victory with three of those hits being doubles. He also picked up five walks, in classic fashion.
The 1976 World Series is one that the Yankees would like to forget. They were swept convincingly by the Big Red Machine, Johnny Bench gashing them for eight hits in 15 at-bats. White, meanwhile, had just a pair of hits in his 15 at-bats. The Reds were simply the better team, but the Yankees would be back, and real soon.
The Bronx Zoo
In White’s final years, the Yankees rewarded his twelve fruitless years of hard work and gave him back-to-back World Series rings in 1977 and ‘78. They blazed through the playoffs, defeating the Royals once again in the ‘77 ALCS before taking down the Dodgers in the World Series. It was a fitting last chapter for White, who was known as an elder zookeeper of the raucous young stars.
Roy White is probably the nicest Goddam guy on the club. He’s quiet. He’s well respected by everybody, and he’s very classy, he and his wife both. - Sparky Lyle
Despite the praise of his leadership, White didn’t spend his final years as just a wise presence in the dugout. He continued his solid work on the field at age 33, putting up 3.0 fWAR in the triumphant ‘77 season. His patient approach at the plate aged quite well into his thirties. He didn’t play much in the postseason, but after the Game 6 victory against the Dodgers, the Zoo gave their OG a ring.
In 1978, White put together one last solid season in a diminished role. He put up a 110 wRC+, again aided by his walk total. The imposing Reggie Jackson again bolstered the offense in an All-Star season, and Ron Guidry led the pitching staff with a legendary Cy Young campaign as New York overtook Boston in a dramatic AL East race.
In the postseason, White was back to a central role in his penultimate campaign. White went yard in Game 3 of the Fall Classic and scored the game-winning run in Game 4 when fellow vet Piniella singled him home. White hit .325 that October, playing in every playoff game up to another Game 6 victory against the Dodgers.
1979 was a quiet end to White’s career in which he only played in 81 games. The 35-year-old had exhausted his talents after 15 loyal years as a foundational piece of the organization. The Yankees missed the playoffs, and White took his leave having contributed 41 fWAR and intangible leadership.
White wanted to kept playing, though. He took his talents to Japan and at age 36, he clubbed 29 homers with an .879 OPS in 128 games for the Yomiuri Giants. He put in two more commendable seasons before hanging up his spikes for good. In the years since his retirement, White has remained connected to the Yankees with many Old-Timers’ Day appearances and coaching stints here and there.
White is remembered as rock-solid. Steady, with a slow heartbeat. He stepped into the playoffs after 12 seasons without it and hit the ground running, no small feat. His postseason accomplishments between 1976-78 gave the Yankees a huge boost from a player who guided them through a dark period and never let them down. White easily merits his spot in the Top 30, and he made an indelible mark on his era of Yankees baseball.
Staff rank: 32
Community rank: 37
Stats rank: 17
2013 rank: 26
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Cohen, Robert W. The Lean Years of the Yankees, 1965-1975. McFarland & Co., 2004.
Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Ray, James Lincoln. SABR Bio