After getting a ringside view of Muhammad Ali bludgeoning an opponent, Bill White had seen enough boxing.
White and Cardinals teammate Curt Flood met Ali, then known by his birth name of Cassius Clay, in Florida in February 1961. Ali, 19, was early in his professional boxing career after having won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics. White, 27, was the first baseman and Flood, 23, the center fielder for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals had opened an advance training camp in Homestead, Fla., near Miami, on Feb. 12, 1961, before they would move across state to their St. Petersburg base at the beginning of March. White and Flood were among the veterans who attended the early workouts at Homestead to get in extra hitting.
Ali was preparing for his fifth professional bout, a match with Donnie Fleeman, 29, an experienced heavyweight from Midlothian, Texas.
Meet in Miami
Seeking a break from small-town Homestead, which primarily was an agricultural community, White and Flood drove the 35 miles to Miami.
In his book “Uppity: My Life in Baseball,” White said he and Flood “went to the Sir John Hotel in the Overtown section, an area earlier known as Colored Town, where a lot of black celebrities stayed and performed.”
White said he and Flood were standing outside the hotel when an acquaintance approached and offered to introduce them to a friend of his.
“The friend was a tall, good-looking black kid named Cassius Clay _ later, of course, Muhammad Ali,” White said.
On Feb. 21, 1961, Ali fought Fleeman before 2,076 spectators at the Miami Beach Auditorium. White accepted Ali’s invitation to attend the fight and was given a ringside seat.
Ali, using what the Associated Press described as “a speedy jab and a rock-hard right cross,” earned a seventh-round technical knockout of Fleeman.
Ali twice opened a cut over Fleeman’s right eye and bloodied his nose, according to the Associated Press.
“At the end of the sixth,” wrote the Associated Press, “the bleeding Fleeman pointed to his midsection … and asked that doctors examine it. Dr. Alex Robbins said Fleeman had a rib injury and recommended that the scheduled eight-rounder be stopped.”
Said White: “In typical Ali fashion, he had boasted to me that Fleeman would never lay a glove on him _ and in typical Ali fashion, he was right … By the time he knocked Fleeman out in the seventh round, I had flecks of Fleeman’s blood all over my clothes. I never went to another professional fight.”
Nine years later, in 1970, when White had retired as a player and gone into broadcasting, he was asked by Howard Cosell of ABC television to join him in working a fight in Italy.
“Howard persisted,” White said, “and while I was flattered by the offer, in the end I turned him down. Although I often watched boxing on TV, I hadn’t been to a fight since Ali spattered me with Donnie Fleeman’s blood in Miami in 1961. I just didn’t think that I was ready for such a high-profile assignment in a sport I had never covered.”
Message of hate
During their February 1961 introduction to Ali, White and Flood were invited to join the boxer at a Nation of Islam meeting at a Florida mosque.
In his book “The Way It Is,” Flood said Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson attended the meeting, too.
Said White: “After being searched for weapons at the door, we went in and sat down and listened as a speaker talked about separating black people from the ‘white devils’ and how Black Muslims wanted to inflict mayhem on their enemies … After about 10 minutes, Curt looked at me and I looked at Curt and then we got up and left. Ali left with us.”
Said Flood: “Our wallets and watches were impounded at the door … The speeches _ or sermons _ were rampantly, savagely racist. The only discernible program seemed to be destruction of the hated ‘white devil’ and substitution of black rule.”
Said White: “I wanted to support anyone who was fighting against the oppression of black people, but the Nation’s philosophy really wasn’t my kind of thing.”
Said Flood: “I simply happen to doubt that black pride need be accomplished by racism … We ought to have learned enough about racism to avoid it in ourselves.”
Of Ali, Flood concluded, “Anyone who expects me to attack Muhammad Ali or the Black Muslims can forget it. I respect Ali. I would be surprised if he were a racist fanatic.”
Previously: Bill White interviewed about autobiography