Bill White Biography
Baseball player, broadcaster, league executive
When Bill White was named president of baseball's National League in 1989, he became the highest-ranking black executive in all of professional sports. With a salary of $250,000 per year in a demanding administrative position that requires resolution, judgment, and a thorough grounding in the game of baseball, White was not only expected to bring a new wave of integration to the all-white halls of baseball management, he was also expected to do a very good job. As Rich Ash-burn put it in the Philadelphia Daily News, "The National League should be in pretty good hands.… Bill White is intelligent, articulate, firm and fair. And he's determined." By 1994, however, White had left the office, openly noting his frustration at working with baseball owners.
At the time of White's appointment, blacks were well represented on teams in virtually every American sport, but they remained rare in managerial and executive positions. But White did not necessarily see his appointment as a means to correct that imbalance. Both he and the baseball team owners who chose him agreed that it was his experience, his maturity, and his love of the game that made him the man for the job. Peter O'Malley, chairman of the search committee and owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, remarked to the New York Times: "Bill White was selected because he was the best man for the job. He was the only man who was offered the job and, fortunately, he was the only man who accepted. Race was not a factor."
For his own part, White had this to say about the position. "I've been in the game since 1952," he told the Boston Globe. "It wasn't integrated. When I came into baseball, spring training wasn't integrated. The country wasn't integrated. I think we've both come along. I'm here now, and there have been quite a few improvements in hiring at certain levels. I feel that will continue, and the people here feel the same way.… I've told people the most important thing that has happened in baseball history was Jackie Robinson getting a chance to play. It gave a lot of people before who had no hope a lot of hope. I'm glad for the opportunity, and I will do the best that I can. If I didn't think I could do this job, I'd be foolish to take it."
Born in Lakewood, Florida, in 1933(?), White attended Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio, before attending college at Hiram College, near Cleveland. White earned a reputation as an outspoken player almost from the moment he signed with his first major league team in 1953. Perhaps because he came to professional baseball after several years in college, he was quicker to address injustices than others, and more forceful in demanding that changes be made. As New York Times correspondent Claire Smith wrote: "Bill White has long prided himself on being a person who cannot be easily fitted into any mold. In the early 1960s, when it was safer for one's career as well as health to acquiesce quietly to the nation's Jim Crow laws, White was among a vocal minority of black players who spoke out vociferously against inadequacies at Florida spring-training sites and in minor league cities throughout the South." White originally agreed to play baseball with the New York Giants merely as a means to earn college tuition (he was enrolled in pre-med courses). He made the Giants' roster in 1956, however, and moved with the team to San Francisco, embarking on a fine 13-year career.
White hit 22 home runs as a rookie with the Giants. In 1959 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he batted .286 and played first base. The beginning of the 1965 season found White with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he played until the end of 1968. For his last season he returned to the Cardinals, performing well despite severe injuries to his Achilles tendon. His career statistics are far above the average for a sport that uses players like fodder: in 1,673 games he had 5,972 at bats, with 1,706 hits, 202 home runs, and 870 runs batted in. Six times he was named to the National League All-Star team, and seven times he brought home the Gold Glove for first base.
After retiring from baseball, White found work as a radio and television announcer in St. Louis and then in Philadelphia. Howard Cosell happened to catch White doing play-by-play for a college basketball game and recommended him to the New York Yankees. In 1971 White entered the broadcast booth with Phil Rizzuto and began an 18-year tenure as the Yankees' play-by-play man for televised games. White carried his strong opinions on affirmative action with him into the booth, but he resisted using his power to become a spokesman for special interest groups. Instead he concentrated on baseball and became immensely popular with the hard-to-please Yankee fans.
White never made any bones about it: he loved being an announcer for the Yankees. The job paid a princely salary of $300,000 per year for about 60 days' work each summer, allowing him to purchase a stately home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for his family of five children. In 1989, White told the Philadelphia Daily News: "The Yankees took a trip to the West Coast last summer. I worked a game in Seattle and then I flew to Alaska and fished for five days. I flew back to Oakland for a game and then fished another four days in northern California. That's the kind of thing I'm going to miss."
His years of experience with baseball notwithstanding, White was surprised when he was approached about taking the presidency of the National League. White told the New York Times: "My first comment was, Are you serious?' But in meeting with people, I found out they were dead serious. Once I knew that, we proceeded from there." White was the unanimous choice of the National League team owners to succeed A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was named Baseball Commissioner. As president of the league, White arbitrated disputes between players and umpires and supervised contracts for the league's professional players. He also determined the rules under which the teams play. Most importantly, he presided over a major expansion of major league teams, expected to bring baseball into a number of new American cities.
What White did not do as league president was actively champion the recruiting of more minorities in managerial positions within baseball. When he took the job, White told the Boston Globe: "My goal is to be the best president I can be. I hope that in the opinion of the committee, I met those qualifications. I know my hiring will be symbolic and important to some people. To me, it's getting on with my life and doing something that I enjoy." As president, he told Ebony that "I haven't used my position to try and be visible to do anything except do my job here." But he was very clear that he hoped that his example of effective management would make it evident to everyone that blacks could handle positions of responsibility.
By 1993, however, White had grown increasingly frustrated with the difficulties of his position. Team owners were not interested in following the guidance of a strong league president, and backstage political gamesmanship meant that White was often thwarted in his efforts to institute new practices or overruled by the more powerful commissioner of baseball. Most frustrating of all was the aborted search for a new commissioner. Though White was asked by the owners to lead the highly-publicized search, in fact the owners fully intended to renew the contract of the current commissioner, Bud Selig. Unwilling to be a pawn in the owners' games, White announced his intention to leave office in March of 1993. When the owners had taken little action to replace him nearly a year later, he stepped down in March of 1994. Asked by Frank Dolson of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service to describe his feelings about his job, White said "it's been a great experience, gave me a lot of insight. It gave me a chance…to evaluate the owners and form opinions of them." Prompted to describe his opinions of the owners, White—who always strived to uphold the honor of the game—replied diplomatically: "they vary."
Since his retirement White has largely disappeared from the public eye, though he does serve on several committees for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Boston Globe, February 4, 1989; February 13, 1989.
Ebony, August 1992, p. 52.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 22, 1994.
Philadelphia Daily News, February 16, 1989.
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 4, 1989.
New York Times, February 4, 1989; February 5, 1989; September 17, 1990.
Sports Illustrated, September 17, 1990, p. 81.
Washington Post, February 4, 1989.
—Mark Kram and
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