Years later, when White was president of the National League, buttoned-up became his enduring image. He was wary of the media, disdainful, hiding his hostility behind a flurry of press releases, content to do his thing so far behind the scenes he was in a different area code.
And now White has written a fascinating book about his playing days, about his broadcasting career, about his turbulent time as National League president from 1989-94, about his problems with commissioner Fay Vincent.
The book is called "Uppity." That's shorthand for the degrading phrase, "uppity black guy" that bigots used to describe African-Americans who dared to speak out against discrimination and other issues.
White handled the name-calling. Shrugged off the threat of sticks and stones, too. Spoke out about segregated housing in spring training in the early '60s, and got the Cardinals to do something about it
"I wasn't alone," White said. "Bob Gibson was in on it. Curt Flood, George Crowe, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, who was president of the St. Petersburg NAACP.
"Things changed because the owner realized he wasn't going to sell a lot of Budweiser beer until things changed. Plus, Arizona was trying to lure teams out there for spring training."
White, a Phillie from 1966 to '68, is a tough, defensive interview, still wary after all these years. If they gave out Gold Gloves for smothering controversial hits, White would have an attic full of them. He offers clues to explain his attitude.
"I was invited to speak to a convention of black football coaches," he recalled. "It was in Atlanta and I flew down there. Ron Dickerson, the Temple coach, asked me a question about racism in baseball.
"I gave him a history, told him that the owners voted 15-to-1 against allowing Jackie Robinson to play, about the teams that were slowest to sign a black player, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Phillies. I recounted some of the [bigoted] things I went through in the minors.
"There was one AP writer there, taking notes by hand. He wrote a story that was headlined, 'White Calls Owners Racist.' Those guys hired me [as NL president], how dumb would it have been to call them racists?
"I learned that the writers did not write the headlines. I also learned first hand, what the New York writers were like, working alongside them all those years as a Yankees broadcaster."
White worked alongside Phil Rizzuto all those years. Well, alongside Rizzuto until the late innings when Rizzuto would sometimes vanish to beat the postgame traffic. Those were fun years and White describes them joyfully in the book.
"There are a lot of broadcasters who don't get along," White said. "There's jealousy involved. We were both former ballplayers and we got along really well. Phil said we worked together 18 years and never had a problem and that was true."
He seldom goes to a ballgame now. "I'm not a spectator," he explained.
He regrets what he calls "the merging of the two leagues" and says the National League is better because it doesn't have the designated hitter. He is proud of how he dealt with the umpires.
"I talked to them and said people came to see the players. And then I talked to the players and said if arguing turned into profanity, into name-calling, they were gonna get tossed.
"Shag Crawford's son, Jerry, got involved in a spitting match with Lou Piniella. I sent him the videotape and said, 'Jerry, please watch this.' He calmed down after that and wound up being voted the No. 1 umpire in the league. I called Shag and told him about it. Shag appreciated that."
It's a good book, but what is White doing, on the cover, juggling a baseball in a ballpark, if he doesn't go to ballgames anymore? As tough as he is, as stubborn as he is, surely he had input into the cover.
Just a thought. *
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