The book: “Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play”
The author: Bill White, with Gordon Dillow
The vital stats: Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, 303 pages, $26.99.
The pitch: So here’s what up with the ex-president of the National League, longtime New York Yankees broadcaster and former All-Star first baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies — he’s got some things to get off his chest.
And if you’re going to call him “uppity” about it, he’s heard it before.
“Uppity,” he writes, is what they used to call his grandmother, “who always made it a poitn to look people straight in the eye — black people, white people, it didn’t matter …. In the South it was a sign of insolence. … but Grandma didn’t care. It was a trait she passed on to my mother, and to me.”
Meaning, Bill White was going to tell you exactly what he thought, and why, and he was willing to walk away at anytime. You see, his goal was to go to medical school, but he happened to be good at baseball, so he saw a future in making a living doing that.
But that meant playing baseball in the Jim Crow South during the 1950s, and getting called the N-word at many turns. In one game, he said he jogged off the field, raised his left hand and “gave the crowd along the first base line the finger, the digital version of ‘screw you!’ I was never sorry I did it but in retrospect I realized that it was probably a foolish thing to do.”
It did earn him respect, from teammates, opponents and, perhaps most important to him, Jackie Robinson.
White’s tale is somewhat sad in a way, as he admits: “I did not love baseball. Because I knew that baseball would never love me back.” He also says that he doesn’t wish to attend games today because the “entertainment” factor seems to override the competitive aspect of the game he thought was more important.
White writes about the many times he spoke out for things he believed were unjust, and sometimes, they were fixed. After spending 18 years as Phil Rizzuto’s broadcast partner with the Yankees, several baseball owners thought enough of him in the aftermath of the Al Campanis debacle to recruit him to a front-office position, starting with four years at the NL president. That happened to come just before the passing of commissioner Bart Giamatti, leaving White to struggle with Fay Vincent (“he had the uncanny ability to do exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time”) as his boss.
“Uppity” should be interpreted as “honestly” in this attempt to tell his side of things, a version that actually brings out the best in what he tried to accomplish in his baseball life. Such as the time he turned down an offer from George Steinbrenner to be the Yankees general manager because, as he can say now, “I knew I could never work” for the combatant owner. “I knew the first time he screamed at me, the first time he called me an idiot or a moron or an errand boy or any of the other invectives he directed at his employees, I might have decked him.”
White also admits that he as much as he admired with former teammate Curt Flood was doing in the late ’60s about free agency, “I publicly backed” him, “but privately, I thought Curt was nuts.”
From page 191, after White started as the NL president:
“I remember once, early in my term, I was sitting in my office with Bart Giamatti, who had just moved up to the commissioner position, with L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda called. As I put him on speakerphone, Tommy started bitching and moaning about some baseballs he claimed had been doctored by a Houston Astros pitcher in a recent game against the Dodgers.
‘I’ve got the balls right here, and I’m going to send Orel Hershiser over with them so you can see them!’
“Tommy had balls, all right. He had balls pulling that sort of thing with me. I looked over at Bart and started laughing.
”Tommy, the umpires are the people who would have to give me the balls, not you. After you’ve had them, the balls aren’t evidence anymore. And I want you to know that I used to hit against Don Drysdale and other Dodgers pitchers and I know for a fact that they doctored balls, too. So don’t try to tell me this is something your team has never done.’
“Tommy was like a lot of good managers. He would lie awake at night trying to think of any little angle that would give his team an advantage. So he blustered and bitched, and I just laughed.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: Big ups to Bill White for coming to the plate carrying a big stick, and reminding us all who followed the game that when he had a say in things, it mattered.
Further reading: A 2007 piece on White by MLB.com entitled: “Whatever the job, White got it done” (linked here). Bill White for the Hall of Fame? You can make a good argument.