2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Bill White

This post is part of a series covering the 2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Managers/Executives/Umpires ballot, covering candidates in those categories who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present. For an introduction to the ballot, see here. The eight candidates will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Nashville on December 3, and anyone receiving at least 75% of the vote from the 16 committee members will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 21, 2024 along with any candidates elected by the BBWAA.

2024 Contemporary Baseball Candidate: Executive Bill White
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Bill White 38.6 32.0 35.3
Avg. HOF 1B 65.0 41.8 53.4
1,706 202 .286/.351/.455 117
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

In the rules for Era Committee voting published on the Hall of Fame’s web site, the provision regarding eligible candidates reads in part, “Those whose careers entailed involvement in multiple categories will be considered for their overall contribution to the game of Baseball; however, the specific category in which these individuals shall be considered will be determined by the role in which they were most prominent.” In theory, this makes sense, but in practice, the various Era Committees have produced rather inconsistent results when it comes to weighing candidates with contributions in multiple areas.

For example, the elections of Gil Hodges and Jim Kaat as players via the 2022 Golden Days ballot suggest an additive effect via their additional contributions — the former as a manager, the latter as a broadcaster — atop long, good-to-great playing careers that didn’t quite measure up as Hall-worthy in the eyes of BBWAA voters or previous committees (to say nothing of JAWS). Yet managers haven’t been treated similarly in the recent past, with Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella each falling short twice and seeming to get less credit for solid playing careers atop stronger (but hardly unassailable) qualifications as skippers. Should those careers put them ahead of similarly qualified managers with no major league playing experience, such as this ballot’s Jim Leyland? Does Felipe Alou, whose career WAR is greater than those of Johnson and Piniella combined but whose managerial record is limited by years spent with the impoverished Expos, belong in the same discussion? You can see how this quickly gets messy.

Bill White is a candidate who should benefit from voters considering the cumulative impact of his career, as he made major contributions in three separate areas, none of which by themselves would be enough to earn enshrinement but within a larger portfolio look more impressive. As a player with the Giants, Cardinals, and Phillies from 1956 to ’69, he won seven consecutive Gold Gloves and earned All-Star honors in five seasons. He helped the Cardinals win the 1964 World Series, but even before that, he made a bigger impact by speaking out against the Jim Crow laws that separated Black players from their teammates in segregated Florida during spring training, long after the color line had fallen.

After retiring from playing, White began an 18-year run (1971–88) calling Yankees games and working for national networks, one that made him the first full-time Black play-by-play broadcaster in any sport. After retiring from broadcasting, he spent five years (1989–94) as president of the National League, making him the first Black person to assume such a post and the highest-ranking Black executive in any sport at the time. It adds up to a unique and admirable career as an ambassador for the game.

William DeKova White was born into a family of sharecroppers on January 28, 1934 in Lakewood, Florida. He never knew his father, and his first home had no electricity or indoor plumbing. When he was three, his mother moved the family to Warren, Ohio, where she worked as a housecleaner before going to secretarial school and getting a civilian job with the US Air Force. The family lived in segregated housing, but White attended the mostly-white Warren G. Harding High School, where he was elected senior class president. By tradition the class president was supposed to have the first dance with the prom queen… but the school’s principal ended that tradition because the queen was white.

White lettered in three sports, but he was a better student (second in his class) than athlete. “I was first string in nothing. I was about the third-string halfback in football, and in basketball I was the 10th man on a 10-man team,” he recounted in 2011. He nonetheless received football scholarship offers but chose to accept an academic scholarship to Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. While playing for the baseball team as an 18-year-old, he drew the attention of Giants bird dog scout Alan Fey by homering twice in a championship game played at the Reds’ Crosley Field. Fey invited him to try out for Giants manager Leo Durocher, who saw him hit balls over Forbes Field’s right field wall (the team was in Pittsburgh). The Giants offered him a contract, which he agreed to once the team raised its bonus offer to $2,500. His mother let him sign with a promise he would finish college; he figured to pursue a medical degree if he didn’t reach the majors in three or four years.

White’s entry into professional baseball brought him face to face with some of the ugly realities of segregation circa 1953. In Phoenix, where the Giants trained, he was turned away from a movie theater that lacked a balcony for segregated seating. In the Carolina League, where he began his career with the Giants’ Danville (Virginia) affiliate, he was the circuit’s only Black player, a target for epithets and, in one game in North Carolina, death threats. In his 2011 memoir Uppity: My Untold Story About The Games People Play, he recounted one fan shouting, “You’ll be lucky if your black a– makes it out of here alive.” White only exacerbated the situation by giving the fans the middle finger. His teammates escorted him to the bus, which the mob pelted with rocks.

Despite the abuse, White hit well at Danville, Sioux City (1954) and Dallas (1955). He played just 20 games at Triple-A Minneapolis in 1956 before being called up to the Giants to replace slumping first baseman Gail Harris. Facing the Cardinals’ Ben Flowers on May 7, he homered in his first plate appearance, adding a double and a single. He held the job for the rest of the season, hitting .256/.321/.459 (108 OPS+) with 22 homers overall.

White’s career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army in 1957. While serving at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he quit the baseball team over teammates’ indifference to his being refused service in a restaurant, he missed the entire season and over half of the 1958 one, not returning until late July. By then the Giants had moved to San Francisco, and 20-year-old first baseman Orlando Cepeda was en route to Rookie of the Year honors. White made just 36 plate appearances in 26 games, mainly as a pinch-hitter. On March 25, 1959, he was traded to the Cardinals as part of a four-player deal, with pitcher “Toothpick” Sam Jones the key return.

The Cardinals had 38-year-old Stan Musial at first base, so White spent most of his time in left field, where he was solid; he often moved to first late in games. He hit .302/.344/.470 and was selected for both of that year’s All-Star Games (two apiece were played from 1959 to ’62). That began a six-year stretch during which he earned All-Star honors every year except 1962. For that time, he hit .301/.356/.475 (118 OPS+), averaging 19 homers, 10 steals, and 3.8 WAR per year; in his best offensive season, 1963, he hit .304/.360/.491 (131 wRC+) with 27 homers, 109 RBI, and 6.0 WAR thanks to excellent defense. Indeed, after swapping places with Musial, he won Gold Gloves annually from 1960 to ’66.

White’s 1964 season, his last as an All-Star, may have been his most rewarding. He hit .303/.355/.474 with 21 homers and 102 RBI — good for a career-best third-place finish in the NL MVP voting behind teammate Ken Boyer and the Phillies’ Johnny Callison — and helped the Cardinals finish one game ahead of both the Phillies and Reds in a tight three-way pennant race. In the season’s penultimate series, White went 7-for-13 in a three-game sweep of the Phillies. He went just 3-for-27 in the World Series against the Yankees, but two hits came in Game 7, where he singled and came around to score in a three-run rally that turned the game from 3–0 to 6–0.

Off the field, White had an even greater impact while with the Cardinals. At the time, the team trained in St. Petersburg, and Black players were required to find their own lodging, which they did with the help of local NAACP member Dr. Ralph Wimbish. When Wimbish declared in 1961 that he would no longer help them find separate housing — a move he hoped would lead to integrated quarters — the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his lawn.

When white players but not Black ones — including White, Curt Flood, and Bob Gibson — were invited to the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce’s “Salute to Baseball” breakfast that year, White reached his limit. He spoke out on the record regarding the unfair treatment to Associated Press reporter Joe Reichler — something that Black players just didn’t do in that day:

“When will we (Negro players) be made to feel like humans? They invited all but the colored players. Even the kids who never have come to bat once in the big leagues received invitations — that is, if they were white. How much longer must we accept this without saying a word? This thing keeps gnawing away at my heart. I think about this every minute of the day.”

St. Petersburg officials claimed the lack of invitations was a misunderstanding; a Cardinals official claimed he had not invited some players — Black or white — because the breakfast was early and they weren’t staying at the team’s downtown hotel (a segregated one, ahem). White declined his belated invitation, but the next year, the Cardinals insisted their players be allowed to stay in the same hotel, regardless of race. Musial and Boyer, both of whom usually stayed with their families in beach houses, joined the rest of the team at the hotel in a show of solidarity. With Black players such as the Tigers’ Bill Bruton similarly pushing for integration around the league, by the beginning of spring training in 1962, half of the 14 teams who trained in Florida had integrated their facilities. By the end, only the Tigers in Lakeland were holdouts; they would integrate the next year.

White had a strong season in 1965, but the Cardinals slipped to seventh in a 10-team league (albeit at just 80–81). General manager Bob Howsam decided to clean house, trading his three infielders over 30 years of age, namely Boyer, second baseman Dick Groat, and White, the last two to the Phillies as part of a six-player deal. In Philadelphia, White didn’t care much for manager Gene Mauch, calling him “a control freak,” but he had his fourth straight season above 5.0 WAR.

In December 1967, White tore his Achilles tendon in his right foot while playing paddleball. He underwent surgery but returned too quickly, reinjured the ankle during spring training, and was limited to 90 games, that with the help of regular novocaine shots and amphetamines. He hit just eight homers, breaking a streak of six straight seasons with at least 20. After one more season in Philadelphia, the 35-year-old White was traded back to St. Louis, where he served mainly as a pinch-hitter, and retired at season’s end.

White finished his playing career with respectable but not Hall-worthy numbers; among first basemen, he’s 50th in career WAR (39.6) and 48th in JAWS (35.3), six spots below Hodges — a weak selection as a player, to these eyes — but just above Boog Powell, Steve Garvey, and George Scott, cornerstones of multiple contenders.

That playing career set White up for bigger things. During his time with the Cardinals, he had hosted a radio show on St. Louis’ KMOX, and with the Phillies, he taped a pregame show for Philadelphia’s WFIL-TV, even meeting with the show’s sponsor, Tasty Baking, which had been the subject of boycotts over racial discrimination, to push them to hire more Black employees. After his playing days were done, he returned to Philadelphia to join WFIL’s Action News as its first sports anchor, and became the first Black broadcaster to call a National Hockey League game.

White’s work calling college basketball caught the ear of ABC Sports’ Howard Cosell. When the Yankees began searching for a play-by-play announcer to replace Bob Gamere, who lasted just one season, Cosell recommended White to Yankees president Mike Burke. Via Sports Broadcast Journal in 2021:

It was believed that Burke’s reasoning for hiring White was to expunge the Yankees’ stodgy image and appeal more to minorities. White though said, “I didn’t really want to be hired because of that (being Black),” adding, “the Yankees were one of the best-known teams and in the Bronx. It would be great for young Black kids to turn on the TV and see one of their own.”

From the New York Post’s coverage of the introductory press conference:

White blushed when somebody suggested he was the Jackie Robinson of baseball broadcasting.

“We hired him,” said Yankee president Michael Burke, “because he was the best man for the job.”

White became the first full-time Black play-by-play voice for any sports team, joining Yankees legend Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer in the booth for television and radio simulcasts. White, who had no previous experience calling baseball, flubbed a few calls in spring training and was briefly taken off play-by-play, but practice with Yankees public relations man Marty Appel and a tape recorder helped to smooth out his delivery. Years later, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully offered him important tips after listening to tapes White sent him.

The White-Rizzuto-Messer combination clicked even as the broadcast adopted “a schtick to keep things entertaining” (White’s words) amid the Yankees’ early 1970s struggles, with White often playing the straight man to Rizzuto and his antics. The trio lasted 15 years together (with others occasionally augmenting the group) through 1985, with White and Rizzuto continuing together through ’88. The rapport between the two was genuine, and they built a friendship away from the booth. From White’s SABR bio, written by Warren Corbett:

The former shortstop was a famously casual broadcaster, plugging his favorite restaurants, especially those that supplied free cannoli, and leaving games in the seventh inning so he could beat the traffic home to New Jersey. It was said that the most frequent entry in his scorebook was “WW,” for “wasn’t watching.” White blossomed as his on-air foil and straight man. Rizzuto always called him “White,” never “Bill.” … When Rizzuto was dying in 2007, White visited him in the hospital and silently held his hand. White said, “I loved Phil Rizzuto.”

White’s call of Bucky Dent’s shocking three-run homer at Fenway Park in the Game 163 tiebreaker in 1978 is considered one of the iconic calls in New York sports history.

Given the Yankees’ return to success, the trio worked WPIX broadcasts for the 1976, ’77, ’78, ’80, and ’81 American League Championship Series. White also did national work for CBS Radio, calling five World Series (1976–78, ’87–88). From 1977 to ’79, he also worked as part of a three-man crew for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball with Al Michaels and Bob Gibson, and did pregame reporting for the Yankee Stadium-based games for the 1977 World Series; he also presented the World Series trophy that year. Beyond baseball, he was part of ABC’s coverage of the 1980 and ’84 Winter Olympics.

According to White, twice he rebuffed offers from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to become the team’s general manager, which would have made him the second Black GM in AL/NL history after the Braves’ Bill Lucas (1976–79). Given the revolving-door nature of the job under Steinbrenner, the decision to decline may have served his career better.

In September 1988, NL president Bart Giamatti was elected to succeed Peter Ueberroth as commissioner. Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who headed the six-member search committee for Giamatti’s successor, called White three times in order to convince him to interview for the position. “My first comment was, ‘Are you serious?'” White said at his introductory press conference. He was reluctant to change his lifestyle and return to everyday work. “But in meeting with people, I found out they were dead serious. Once I knew that, we proceeded from there.” Both the search committee and the 12 NL owners approved White unanimously, and he received a four-year contract.

At the time of his hiring, Major League Baseball was under fire for its lack of Black executives and managers in the wake of Dodgers general manager Al Campanisracist remarks on ABC’s Nightline in 1987, in which he said that Black people “may not have some of the necessities” to be field manager or general manager. In nearly two years since that debacle, teams had hired just one manager (Frank Robinson) and few executives (most prominently Astros GM Bob Watson). “Let’s face it, they wanted a black National League president,” White told The New York Times‘ Claire Smith in 1991.

“Bill White was selected because he was the best man for the job,” O’Malley said at White’s introductory press conference. “He was the only man who was offered the job and, fortunately, he was the only man who accepted. Race was not a factor.”

“I can’t address the question of race,” White said. “To some people, I suppose this would be of symbolic importance. But to the search committee, I just met the qualifications. After 18 years of saying a guy hits a ground ball to first base, it’s time to move on.”

Henry Aaron, who had been publicly critical of baseball’s hiring practices, hailed White’s appointment, calling it “on par with Jackie Robinson.” Gibson told Smith, “Bill had no choice but to accept that job. Not for himself, but for other people.”

White became the highest-ranking Black executive in any sport, in charge of disciplining on-field personnel and supervising NL umpires (the two leagues’ pools would not be combined until 2000). In 1990, he clashed with Richie Phillips, the head of the umpires’ union, over Joe West’s handling of an ejection of the Phillies’ Von Hayes. He prohibited West from touching players when attempting to stop brawls and expressed a belief that both West and Phillips had misrepresented what took place. Calling White’s public criticism “an unprecedented lack of support for umpires,” Phillips appealed to commissioner Fay Vincent (who had replaced Giamatti after his sudden death in October 1989). White threatened to resign if he didn’t receive the commissioner’s backing; Vincent resolved the matter, upholding White’s prohibition, mandating that White and West keep future exchanges private, and instructing White and AL president Bobby Brown to construct a policy regarding umpires’ roles during brawls. The NL owners backed White as well.

White was involved in the 1989 decision to ban Pete Rose for gambling (he had nearly suspended Rose for shoving West just a week before the ban was handed down) and the ’93 decision to suspend Marge Schott for “her use of racially and ethnically insensitive language.” He additionally oversaw the selection of Denver and Miami as the NL’s two expansion cities in 1991 (the clubs would join the league two years later), a process that had begun in ’84. He and the three owners on the committee winnowed down 18 ownership groups from 10 cities to determine the two that would pay the league’s $95 million franchise fee.

The Rockies soon drew White’s ire, as they didn’t interview any minority candidates for their top front-office positions, a mandate initially put in place for all teams by Giamatti in 1989 and endorsed by Vincent. “Promises were made along these lines by these two new clubs,” he said. “I am surprised and disappointed… that no black people, no Hispanic people have been interviewed for any of these jobs.”

White’s public comments on hiring were a break from his efforts to keep his championing of affirmative action behind the scenes. “They hired me to run the league,” he told Smith. “Whatever I can do positive for minorities and women is a plus. But keep in mind, that is not my primary job here. And if I spend my time doing that and don’t do the job here, I’m gone. And… I am not sure that anyone else will get that opportunity again.”

White drew mild criticism for not making himself more accessible to the public, or to his employers, and became frustrated by the seeming impossibility of satisfying so many constituencies — labor and management, players and umpires. “There are just too many spheres of influence all working against each other instead of working to where you get one circle together,” he told Smith. In a 1992 speech to the Black Coaches Association, he voiced some frustration at the owners by saying, “I deal with people now who I know are racists and bigots. I’m bitter. I’m mad.”

The owners’ ouster of Vincent and installation of Bud Selig as acting commissioner did not sit well with White, who saw the consolidation of power as likely to erode the authority of the league offices. He retired from the presidency in 1994. From ’94 to 2001, he served as a voting member of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, most notably participating in the election of his old broadcasting colleague and friend, Rizzuto. Stronger selections during his tenure included former teammate Jim Bunning, integration pioneer Larry Doby, and Negro Leagues stars Leon Day, Bullet Rogan, Turkey Stearnes and Willie Wells.

When it comes to joining those men in Cooperstown, so far White has fallen short. In three years on the BBWAA ballot, starting in 1975, he maxed out at 1.9% (the Five Percent Rule was not yet in place). In both 2003 and ’07, he was considered on composite Veterans Committees ballots alongside managers, executives and umpires. Those slates were voted upon by all living Hall of Famers and, in the first of those years, also Spink and Frick Award winners. The committees failed to elect anyone, with White receiving 28% in 2003 and 30% in ’07. On a 2010 Veterans Committee ballot containing only executives, he was one of six candidates who received two votes or fewer from among the 12 voters; again, no one was elected.

Because he contributed in three different areas, White’s candidacy isn’t easy to evaluate, but his playing career was a notable one; if not Hall caliber, it’s not far off from the likes of the recently elected Hodges and the popular Garvey. Hodges’ post-playing exploits boil down to managing the 1969 Mets to an unlikely championship and two other seasons barely above .500 from among his nine on the job. To these eyes, White’s pioneering work as a broadcaster and executive trumps that — there’s one champion annually, after all, but it’s not every year that someone sets major firsts that open so many doors for others. Regarding Kaat, White’s about the same distance from the JAWS standard at first base (18 points) as the long-lasting lefty is from those among starting pitchers (19); the latter had a longer career in the booth but hardly as groundbreaking, and he never worked as an executive.

Considering all of that as well as the example White set by speaking out on the record regarding segregated housing as a player, which put his career at risk but led to swift change, I have to question how voters could think of turning him down. The breadth of White’s achievements and the impact he made upon the game in so many areas resonates and merits election. Particularly on a ballot where none of the other candidates appear to be slam dunks, I think White’s accomplishments make him the single most worthy candidate, and I believe the Hall of Fame itself would be improved by his addition. You can’t ask for much more.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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6 months ago

My mother loves talking about how Bill White came to speak to her class at Flynn Park Elementary School circa 1961.