Bill White, former all-star first baseman for the Cardinals, has written his autobiography in collaboration with journalist Gordon Dillow.
The book is called “Uppity: My Untold Story About The Games People Play” (2011, Grand Central Publishing). It is available on Amazon.
On the morning of March 23, 2011, I interviewed Bill White by telephone. He was gracious with his time and thoughtful with his answers.
That interview is presented here in the first of three parts on consecutive days.
Q: What prompted you to write this autobiography?
Bill White: We all think we’re young, but I’m 77 and I realized I really hadn’t done much publicly. You start thinking about how much longer you are going to be around and I decided I would put my life down on paper because it’s been a different life.
Q. Your major league debut, May 7, 1956, was in St. Louis for the Giants, and in your first at-bat you hit a home run off Ben Flowers. What is your recollection of that?
Bill White: The count was 2-and-2 and Flowers was a breaking-ball pitcher. He threw a curveball that I thought hit the outside corner. I started to walk toward the dugout. The umpire said, ‘Ball three.’ I turned back around and the next pitch was a fastball. I swung and it just cleared the right-field fence. St. Louis had that short right-field fence. It was just 322 to right-center field. I hit a line drive that just went over. I wasn’t elated. It was just what I was supposed to do.
Q: In March 1959 you are traded to the Cardinals for pitcher Sam Jones. What was your reaction to that deal?
Bill White: I was happy. I had gone into the Army in 1956, right after that first season with the Giants. I spent two years in the Army. Giants first baseman Orlando Cepeda had been rookie of the year and another first baseman, Willie McCovey, was down in Phoenix hitting .400. When I came back, there was no room for me. So I asked the Giants to trade me. St. Louis wasn’t my first choice, but it ended up that it was a great trade for me.
Q: Eddie Stanky, who was a special scout for the Cardinals then and had been your manager at Class AAA Minneapolis, had recommended you to the Cardinals, along with scout Ollie Vanek. Was Stanky a mentor to you?
Bill White: Yes. Eddie was a very good manager. He was a tough manager and he taught me a lot about baseball. He would question me during a game. He’d come up and say, ‘What’s the count? How many outs?’ That kept your mind on the game. And if you didn’t know the answers, the next day you might have to run laps. Stanky was very good to me about, No. 1, learning baseball, and, No. 2, keeping your mind on the game and not doing things that you couldn’t do well.
Q: In May 1960, you set a career high with 6 RBI in a game at the L.A. Coliseum, hitting two home runs, both off Don Drysdale. Your career batting average against Drysdale was .326 with seven home runs. Why were you so successful against him?
Bill White: Because he threw spitballs. It actually was oil he kept on the back of his hair. And when you loaded the ball up, it sunk. And I was a low-ball hitter. He was throwing to my strength.
Q: In the spring of 1961, you took a courageous stand against the segregationist practices going on during spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. Players were separated in living quarters according to race. A yearly community business breakfast invited only white players, not blacks. You made enormous progress in getting things changed. How were you able to do that?
Bill White: Mainly because of general manager Bing Devine, and publicist Al Fleischman. Bing Devine was a very religious man. He was one of my mentors in St. Louis. He helped me get a home in St. Louis that the owner didn’t want me to buy.
Bing actually thought that we, the black players, were happy being segregated in spring training. We got extra money. We got a car for ourselves. Nobody ever complained. We would show up at the park and do our work and we would go back to the black area afterward.
What happened is that Dr. Ralph Wimbish of the NAACP had a friend who was a dentist who wanted to dock his boat at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, and they wouldn’t let him do it. That upset me a little bit. Then one day when I went into the clubhouse I saw the list of people who were asked to go to the community breakfast and I said, ’Wait a minute. These business guys are leasing public property and they won’t allow a minority to dock his boat there. They evidently don’t want minorities.’ That’s what started it. Then it blossomed more and more.
St. Louis at that time was one of the most segregated cities in the major leagues. But they sold Budweiser beer, which owned the Cardinals. The black people in St. Louis said, ‘They aren’t treating our kids right. We’re going to boycott Budweiser.’
That was a perfect storm. No. 1, a private business club in St. Petersburg not allowing blacks in, and, No. 2, all of a sudden there was a possibility Budweiser would get boycotted in St. Louis and it might spread all over the country.
So I think that had a part in August Busch saying, ‘We better do something about this. We better nip this in the bud.’ So the next year everything was integrated.
In the end, we became a better club, because in ’63 we became close, and in ’64 we won it. We got to know each other as people. And that’s important.
Tomorrow, Part 2: Bill White talks about Johnny Keane, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson.