Blazing Baseball Trails From Field To Executive Suite

Bill White, pictured here at the 1991 MLB All-Star Game, was the president of the National League from 1989 to 1994. He began his baseball career as a first baseman with the then-New York Giants and later became a broadcaster with the Yankees.

Bill White, pictured here at the 1991 MLB All-Star Game, was the president of the National League from 1989 to 1994. He began his baseball career as a first baseman with the then-New York Giants and later became a broadcaster with the Yankees. Rick Stewart/ Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rick Stewart/ Getty Images

When Bill White started playing professional baseball in the 1950s, he was the only black ballplayer in a Southern minor league. He dealt with segregation where he lived and where he ate, and on the ball field he faced the verbal abuse of fans shouting racial epithets from the stands.

White eventually made it to the major leagues, playing first base for the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies from 1956 to 1969. He went on to become a broadcaster, and then president of the National League.

But he says he didn't have the kind of love for baseball that, as the saying goes, he'd play it free if they didn't pay him.

"I looked at it as a business," White tells Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "It allowed me to at least feel that I could finish college, and of course then broadcasting and administering."

While you might love the game when you're a great player, he says, "when you strike out 100 times I'm not sure you love it."

Even in high school or college, White says he wasn't an elite sort of athlete. "I was about the third-string halfback in football," he says, "And in basketball I was the 10th man on a 10-man team."

Looking Back On A Career On The Field

Once he started playing for the major leagues, White says, he was given amphetamines and other drugs.

At one point, he says, "the ushers would take me upstairs at the old Cardinals stadium, and they would give me a shot of Novocain and I played six or seven innings. The pain would come back, they'd take me upstairs again and give me another shot."

Uppity by Bill White
 

And during his time on the field, White had some controversial opinions, which he doesn't shy away from in his book, Uppity. He felt at odds with Bob Howsam, the St. Louis Cardinals general manager who would get upset if players strayed outside the on-deck circle. Guys liked to inch outside it to steal signs from the catcher and communicate those to their teammate, but White was frustrated that Howsam didn't seem to understand.

"I don't think he ever realized that, because he was more worried about keeping the field manicured than winning ballgames."

On The Mic With Phil Rizzuto

Uppity: My Untold Story About The Games People Play
By Bill White
Hardcover, 320 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List Price: $26.99
Read An Excerpt

White went far after his major league career ended. He did play-by-play for Yankees games alongside Frank Messer and Phil Rizzuto, the onetime great Yankee shortstop who became one of the great institutions of New York City as an announcer.

Rizzuto had notorious quirks — like being afraid of lightning. White says he'd have to make sure he was at the mic at all times, "because Phil would get up and take off" whenever he spotted lightning, or just if he simply felt like taking a walk.

"He had a lot of phobias, but [he was a] great, great, great person," White says.

White says the two developed a close relationship from broadcasting together for 18 years. When Rizzuto died in 2007, White unexpectedly declined to speak at his memorial service. "I wouldn't be able to get through it," he writes In Uppity. "I would break down. To be honest, I was afraid because to me, breaking down in public was what lightning was to Phil."

White says in all his years as a broadcaster, he tried to control his emotions; and the same goes for Rizzuto's memorial service, or even his book.

"That book is about one-third of what I could have written ... but I don't want to write a 600-page book."

Excerpt: 'Uppity'

Uppity by Bill White
 
Uppity: My Untold Story About The Games People Play
By Bill White
Hardcover, 320 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List Price: $26.99

It was a hot, muggy night in the summer of 1954 when the team bus pulled into the gravel parking lot of a run- down burger joint just outside Wichita, Kansas. As usual, Dave Garcia, the team manager and part- time second baseman, got off the bus first to see if I could eat there.

My team, the Sioux City Soos, part of the New York Giants organization,had just played a night game against the Wichita Class A minor league team, the Indians, and now we were looking at a long, all- night bus ride back up Highway 77 to Sioux City. This roadside restaurant wasn't exactly a fine dining establishment — a few badly scuffed tables, dirty linoleum floors, a skinny cook hunched over the grill — but it was late, and the road ahead was dark, and we were all hot and tired and hungry. It was here or nothing. So while the rest of us waited, Dave climbed down off the bus, one of those old, round- topped Greyhound Scenicruisers, and walked inside to ask if the manager would be willing to serve the team's first baseman — that is, me. The reason it was a question is because I was a young black man, the only black player on the team.

Earlier in the season, when I had first joined the Soos, the entire twenty- man roster, me included, would have just walked into the restaurant and waited to see what happened. After all, we weren't in the Deep South, where blacks and whites were never allowed to eat together, where roadside restaurants that served black people, and only black people, were clearly marked with signs that said COLORED. We were in the Western League, with teams in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado — but still, you never knew.

Sometimes they would serve us — or, more specifically, me — without a word, although I could usually count on getting some sideways glances from some of the white customers. Sometimes I could hear them say things like "Oh, they're serving them in here now?" — and everybody knew who the them was. Sometimes the restaurant manager would let us eat, but only in a separate back dining room where the other patrons couldn't see us. And sometimes they would fl at- out refuse to serve us, at least not together, in which case the team would have to get up from the table and file back onto the bus and look for another place to eat. Finally Dave decided it was easier to ask first. More than half a century later, it's hard for some people, especially young people, even young black people, to believe that this happened in America, that the racism was so open and raw. But it was.

True, change was in the air. The Supreme Court had recently ruled on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which decided that "separate but equal" segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, setting the stage for numerous civil rights battles, not only in the South but across the country. The year after that, Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, prompting a bus boycott and introducing the nation to a man named Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights movement was just starting to discover its own power.

In sports, meanwhile, it had been seven years since Jackie Robinson, with great courage and dignity, had broken the so-called color line in baseball, taking the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black man to play in the modern-day major leagues. Jackie had broken the color line, but he had not erased it on the playing field or in the hotels, restaurants, and spring training camps where Jim Crow still ruled. Baseball, America's pastime, could never be fully desegregated until all of America was desegregated — and that would be a long time coming.

Which is why in the summer of 1954 a young black ballplayer still had to wonder if some dingy roadside restaurant in Kansas would allow him to sit down and eat a hamburger.

When I saw Dave Garcia come out of the restaurant and climb back aboard the bus, I could see on his face what the answer had been. He was pissed.

Dave was a good guy, old enough at thirty- three to be kind of a big- brother figure for me. We were roommates on the road, at least in the non-segregated hotels, and we often hung out together. He understood some of what I was going through. While he was a native of East St. Louis, Illinois, Dave's mother and father had been born in northern Spain, and although ethnically he was the whitest of white guys, sometimes at road games people in the stands would see his name on the roster and call him a "greaser" or a "spic."

Dave looked at me and shook his head.

There was an awkward silence on the bus. My teammates were for the most part decent guys. They didn't like what was happening, but it was a long road ahead and they were hungry. It was 1954 and that was just the way it was.

I mumbled something like, "Go ahead, you guys. Don't worry about it." After a minute, they started to stand up and file off the bus. They didn't look at me. Dave said he'd get a hamburger and fries and a milk shake and bring it out to me. He followed the team into the restaurant, and I sat in the bus, alone.

It certainly wasn't the first, or the worst, indignity that I'd experienced in my young baseball career. The year before, my first season in the minors, I was playing first base for the Danville (Virginia) Leafs, a Class B affiliate of the Giants that was part of the Carolina League — only the second black player ever in the league, and at the time the only black player in that Deep South league.

Excerpted from Uppity by Bill White. Copyright 2011 by Bill White. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

Uppity

My Untold Story About the Games People Play

by Bill White, Gordon Dillow and Willie Mays

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