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June 30, 2011

Book Notes: Uppity

---- — Baseball has gone through some major changes during its history, especially since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Since then we have seen teams change cities, the expansion of the two leagues, teams split into divisions, the introduction of the (ugh!) designated hitter, interleague play, the wild card, work stoppages, the cancellation of a World Series, and  the steroid era. It’s enough tomake your head swim!

Into this mix comes a new book from a baseball man who has lived through all these changes. Bill White is someone you may not have heard of, but he is an authoritative source on the “maturation” of the game. White played 13 seasons in the majors, teamed with Phil Rizzuto for 18 years broadcasting the New York Yankees, and served for five years as president of the National League. He knows the game inside out and is brutally honest about what he thinks of it.

White just published his memoir, “Uppity: My Life in Baseball.” I didn’t think much of it when I first got my hands on it because White was an average player and an unassuming executive (how many people actually knew he was the NL President?). But the tantalizing title left me curious to find out what this man was all about.  I’m glad I took the bait.White experienced a fascinating life in baseball and beyond, and was never shy about sharing his opinion.

He is an ideal person to get a different perspective on the events and personalities that have changed the game.

One of the things that makes White unusual (besides his brutal honesty) is that baseball was not a lifelong ambition. He literally stumbled into it. He originally had planned to go to college and become a doctor but fate intervened.

White was an average athlete in high school, but he must have developed an innate ability to hit a baseball.

A scout noticed him playing in an amateur tournament and it led to him being signed by the Giants. Even then he only agreed to a contract because he thought the money would help pay for college.

White’s first season in professional ball was a culture  shock as he was exposed toracial epithets and discrimination that he hadn’t experienced before.

He had grown up in the seemingly progressive town of Warren, Ohio (“progressive” because the racism was covert instead of overt). In the minor leagues he often couldn’t eat or sleep in the same establishments as his white teammates.

One incident showed that White wouldn’t take the taunts lying down. He once “flipped off” a hostile crowd  in North Carolina comininto the dugout at the end of an inning. The fans were so angry that they blocked the path to the team bus following the game. White and his teammates wielded bats at the crowd to make sure they got out of there alive.

Even in the major leagues White was shocked to find the treatment wasn’t any different.

He was once denied  entry into a movie theater inPhoenix, Arizona, because it didn’t have a balcony where he could sit (the equivalent of the back of the bus). In 1961, when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals, he precipitated the integration of the team’s spring training hotel by speaking out about the inequities of separating white and black teammates. He later faced racism when he tried to buy a house in St. Louis.

White had a passable career with the Giants, Cardinals, and Phillies but his outspokenness opened up other opportunities.

He eventually became the sports director at a local TV station in Philadelphia.

Howard Cosell was impressed with his talent and arranged for him to audition for a broadcasting job with the Yankees in 1971.

He landed that gig and started a lifelong friendship with broadcast partner Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee Hall of Fame shortstop and fan favorite. Rizzuto had a legendary quirky personality, but was so lovable you could never stay mad at him.

For instance, he would often split from games early to beat the traffic and leave his broadcast partners in the lurch. He could be so absent-minded that he once actually read a mistaken clue card at a pregame show and said “Hello, I’m Bill White.”

After 18 years of broadcasting the Yankees White was ready to hang it up. He was tired of the constant travel and wanted to spend more time with his family. But then another challenge arose.

Bart Giamatti was about to be promoted from his post of president of the National League to become Commissioner of baseball. A search committee asked White if he would like to become the new NL President.

White was certainly qualified having spent 35 years in professional baseball in one capacity or another. The fact that he was outspoken and African American didn’t hurt either. So he took on the new responsibility and stayed until 1994.

His experience at that position offers insights into the personalities and issues that have greatly affected the game. To put it mildly, he doesn’t have a high opinion of Pete Rose, Marge Schott, Fay Vincent, or even Bud Selig (the fans who boo him every Hall of Fame weekend would probably agree). He also has an interesting take on the players today versus the ones from his era.

When White retired from the game he was given a free pass to any game he wished to attend. He’s never used it. Baseball was not “life” to him and he was content to let go of it.

He is an unusual athlete  with a different perspectiveon the game. His book is well worth reading.