The Former Phillie Everyone Should Know

Bill White talks baseball, race, owners and Philadelphia

People should know Bill White. But unless you’re of a certain age, or a total baseball nerd, there’s a good chance you don’t.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bill White was a very good baseball player for the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies. He was a first-rate broadcaster for the New York Yankees through the ‘70s. In 1989, he became the first African-American to be named president of the National League. [SIGNUP]

The fact that Bill White is all but forgotten is not particularly unusual when all that seems to matter sometimes is what’s happening on CNN or TMZ in this very moment. But it’s particularly egregious in White’s case—not simply because of what he accomplished, but because of how he accomplished it. The man compromised nothing in an era when people of color were routinely compromised, ballplayers of color included.

After his life in baseball, White disappeared. He retired to his home in Bucks County to go fishing and take trips in his RV. He avoided anybody that came looking for him, especially anyone with a notebook—never his favorite type of guy.

Bill White is now 78, and he still looks strong enough to slam a whistling drive into the right-field corner at Connie Mack Stadium. We know this because Bill White is back in our midst again. He has written an autobiography; it’s called Uppity, and last night, in front of a couple dozen people, he spoke about it at Barnes & Noble on Rittenhouse Square.

The former slick-fielding first baseman said he knows people think of “uppity” as an old-school slur, a word used by white people to describe blacks who didn’t know their place. He knows, too, that people puzzle over why he would use the word as the title for his book. “I use ‘uppity’ as a point of pride,” he said. “I demanded to be recognized for what I accomplished, nothing more. If people thought that was uppity—and many did—so be it.”

White spoke quietly and eloquently at length about things he experienced. He even threw in a little baseball, a game he no longer watches or follows, not out of anger or bitterness, but because enough of one thing for so many years is enough.

Playing minor-league baseball in the South in the ’50s, he said, was something he won’t forget. “I was only 19, but I refused to let anyone scare me. I guess I was a little crazy. I would look people straight in the eye. Once I shot a particularly ugly crowd the finger. Afterward, my teammates had to escort me to the bus with baseball bats.”

White made the All-Star team eight times and was awarded the Gold Glove for being the best defensive player in the game seven times. But the most money he ever made in a single season was $64,000. “The owners never wanted to part with their money. They’d try to get you to sign every year for the same money they gave you the year before.” He would get a raise because he told the owners he’d quit if he didn’t. “I meant it. I never thought I needed baseball. I always knew there were other things I could do. The key was being unafraid.”

He didn’t want to come to Philadelphia in 1965 when he was traded here from St. Louis.

“I didn’t like playing for [Phillies manager] Gene Mauch. He was a control freak,” he said. “The way to win is to let players play. But I liked Philly. I’ve been living here since I first came here, so I must like it here.”

White spoke of how much he enjoyed broadcasting Yankee games with Phil Rizzuto (“though I was never a Yankees fan”) and how he hated dealing with team owners when he served as president of the National League (“It’s how I got this gray hair”); baseball was a great game to play, he said, and the players today are stronger and better than the players of his era. But it was the black players of his era that made it easier for players of color today.

Back in his playing days, he recalled, he used to visit dozens of Philadelphia inner-city schools in a tour sponsored by Tastykake. “I would tell kids my story and how important it is to believe in yourself,” he said. “You can do anything. No one can tell you what you can’t do. I would emphasize that. No one.”

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.