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Mudville: April 16, 2024 6:16 am PDT

The Classiest Yankee

Roy White is beloved by Yankees fans of a certain age. And rightfully so.

White wore the pinstripes with class and was an integral part of Yankees history.

During those down years in the late 1960s until the mid ‘70s, White gave Yankee fans something wonderful to watch, a complete ballplayer, who did his job – even when that job meant hitting fourth behind Mickey Mantle – and then went on to play a key role in the Yankees late ‘70s World Series resurgence.

The two-time All-Star totaled 1,803 hits, 160 home runs, 964 runs, 300 doubles and 233 stolen bases, including stealing home five times. A switch-hitter, his career slash line was .271/.360/.404. In addition, White was a terrific left fielder, a true all-around ballplayer.

No one has played more games in left field for the Yankees than Roy White with 1,521.

White is seventh in games played by a Yankee with 1,881, up there with legendary names. He is 11th in Yankees history in hits, eighth in walks (934) and my favorite, second in sacrifice flies with 69.

There’s more.

According to my friends over at Elias Sports Bureau, White produced 1,533 hits over a 10-season span from 1968 to 1977, the second most hits in the American League over that span behind Hall of Famer Rod Carew (1,747).

Roy White is 77 now.

It is my hope the Yankees find some space in Monument Park for a plaque to honor White this season and when the 2021 postseason comes along, it would be wonderful for White to get the opportunity to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

In all, White played 15 years, long enough to see his World Series dreams come true with the Yankees’ return to glory in 1976 with an American League pennant and a trip to the Fall Classic.

In 1977 and ’78 the Yankees won the World Series. In the 1978 comeback against the Red Sox, White was a monster down the stretch, hitting .337 in September with a .417 on base percentage. In the ALCS he batted .313 in the win over the Royals. Then in the World Series hit .333 with a .429 on base in the victory over the Dodgers.

Roy White, quiet and graceful, was the steadying hand in the Bronx Zoo.

His story is The Story this week at BallNine and there are so many fascinating parts of his story that need to be told.

Let’s start with this, the Yankees stunning Game 163 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park and Bucky Dent’s home run in 1978. Roy White was on first base with Bucky at the plate.

There is something you need to know about Bucky’s magical home run over the Green Monster.

“That was my bat,’’ White told BallNine.

Imagine that. Here are the details.

“It was a bat that I had given to Mickey Rivers because I didn’t like the model,’’ White told me. “What happened was that in batting practice that day, Bucky had been in a slump, he hadn’t been hitting well. And he used a bat that was an R-161 model, it had kind of a big barrel and the handle was smaller and it was like maybe 35 inches long and 32-33 ounce and he choked up on it.

“I had ordered that same model mid-season, only it was 34 1-2 inches and only 32 ounces. I tried them out. I didn’t really like it. They didn’t feel right to me, so I gave the order to Mickey Rivers. In batting practice that day, Bucky was hitting and he was kind of whining a little bit, you know, his swing didn’t feel right, that kind of thing. I said, ‘Hey Buck, why don’t you try one of these bats right here, it’s your same model but a little shorter and a little bit lighter.’

“When I signed with the Yankees as a kid, way back in 1962 I said, ‘Well when I get to the Yankees, I’m going to be in the World Series every year.”

“I had given that bat to Mickey. So Bucky tried it and said, ‘Yeah, that feels pretty good.’ So, during the game he was using a bat that wasn’t the game bat actually, one that he had taken from Mickey. It was more of the batting practice model. When he fouled the ball off his foot and came back into the on-deck circle. Mickey saw his bat and said, ‘Hey, why are you using that one.’ The bat had a little chip in the knob, a little crack there.’

“Bucky said, ‘I didn’t want to use your game bat.’ Mickey said, ‘No, no, take this one.’ “

The batboy gave Dent the bat.

“So Bucky went up there and hit the home run,’’ White said.

With Roy White’s bat.

The Red Sox 2-0 lead was gone and soon the Yankees were on the way to postseason glory, eclipsing that 14-game deficit along the way.

“Over the course of several years,’’ White said with a laugh, “I keep hearing the story on the banquet circuit: ‘It was Mickey Rivers’ bat that Bucky hit the home run with.’ I was going, ‘No, it’s really my bat, but even I was starting to believe it, maybe it was a Mickey Rivers model that he was using.’ ’’

White produced 1,533 hits over a 10-season span from 1968 to 1977, the second most hits in the American League over that span behind Hall of Famer Rod Carew (1,747).

Several years later, White was doing an autograph signing in Cooperstown during Hall of Fame Weekend. The signing took place on Main Street. White asked someone who was heading over to the Hall, “See if you can find the bat that Bucky hit the home run against the Red Sox because it was on display at the Hall of Fame and let me know.

“He comes back three or four hours later and said, ‘It’s not there, the bat is on tour. But I talked to one of the guys at the Hall of Fame and he said he’d check on it and he would email me with the information.’

“I kind of forgot about it,’’ White said. “Then all of a sudden three or four months later I get this email from the guy and he says: ‘It was your bat. Your name was on it.’ ’’

It’s known as Mickey Rivers’ bat that Bucky Dent hit the fabled home run, but it was Roy White’s bat.

There are more amazing chapters of the Roy White story that you have not heard until now.

White was signed by the Yankees in 1962 out of Centennial High in Compton, California, part of an outstanding LA talent pool. Another future All-Star Reggie Smith was a high school teammate of White’s.

“When I signed with the Yankees, the scout who signed me, little did I know, signed me without asking the Yankees,’’ White told me of his signing by scout Tuffy Hashem. “Spring training camp was in Haines City, Florida. I get to the hotel after the first plane flight of my life from Los Angeles to Tampa and then get a bus to go to Haines City. I check into the Haines City Motel.’’

White talks to his roommate, gets the 411 about breakfast, the workouts and transportation to the complex and goes to work. Remember, this is the Deep South in 1962.

“I’m doing that every day for two weeks, going to the complex, players from all over the United States,’’ White said. “There is a Black player named Leroy Reams. We’re talking, we became friends. One day he says, ‘Hey, Roy, how come I see you every day at this complex working out, playing in the games, but I don’t see you at night? Where are you staying.’

“I say I’m at the Haines City Motel.

“He says, ‘Roy, you’re not supposed to be there. It’s white only.’

“I say, ‘Really.’

Air Roy: No one has patrolled left field with the Yankees for more games than Roy White, with 1521 games played.

“Now you have to realize, I’m from a mixed marriage and my hair was pretty wavy back then, I could look Latin and I had much lighter skin after not being in the sun for 30 years like now. So I say, ‘That’s where I’m at.’ I end up starting the season in Greensboro and when I got to Greensboro, the white players got off and the manager Vern Rapp said, ‘Roy, you wait here.’

“So the Yankees figured out I wasn’t a white guy by then,’’ White said.

Flash forward to 1969 and White is at a dinner in the offseason.

“Johnny Johnson was the Yankees director of the minor leagues,’’ White said. “He is sitting next to me and he says, ‘You know how we signed you?’

“I said, ‘How did you sign me?’’

Johnson, who went on to become the president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, essentially the commissioner of 176 minor league teams, told White: “One day we opened the mail and we had five signed contracts from California and we didn’t know any of these guys. The scout had just signed five guys on his own and your contract was one of those contracts. We had to honor them. That’s how you wound up a Yankee. You are the only guy out of those five that got to the big leagues.’’

The Yankees had no clue about Roy White until he started playing in their system.

“That’s how I wound up in the Haines City Motel,’’ White said with a laugh.

What a story. What a career. White said he had some good teammates along the way in the minors who helped him get through those times, noting, “We had some guys who refused to eat at some restaurants unless they let us in. Myself and one of the other guys.’ They came back on the bus and said they were not going to eat there unless they let us eat there.’ There were some good moments, some great people.’’

As Black History Month comes to a close, it is important to remember what Black players of that era had to endure.

“For my first four years in the minor leagues,’’ White said, “basically I never stayed in the same hotel with my teammates down in Greensboro in the Carolina League and in the Southern League, in Columbus Georgia.’’

In the Southern League the Columbus team was called the Confederate Yankees.

“The team would get off the bus and go into the hotel and a cab would come and pick up myself and the other Black or Hispanic player and we’d go over to the other side of town and have to stay in a Black home or a hotel or motel that was in the Black section of town.’’

All that was shocking for someone who grew up in Southern California.

via Twitter @Jamesyankee

“It hit me hard,’’ White admitted. “Growing up in California where it was a lot more liberal. You read a little about it but you never really experienced any of it. That first year in Greensboro we went to Raleigh, North Carolina, I remember. Our bus stopped and the guys got off to get some lunch, so I’m sitting on the bus. I kind of knew I couldn’t go anywhere, but I got up and said, ‘Let me walk around. I’m kind of hungry.’

“I started walking in the downtown area and I looked in this restaurant. I saw they had Black waitresses in there so I said, ‘Oh, this must be okay.’ I go in and sit down. Got a menu on the table. I’m looking at it. I’m ready to order. Five minutes go by, nobody comes. Ten minutes. I’m looking around. Fifteen minutes and the waitress finally comes over and I say, ‘I’d like to get some hamburger and some fries’ and she says, ‘Oh, you can’t eat in here. You can get it to take out but you are not allowed to eat in here.’

“I lost my appetite that minute and said, ‘Just forget about it,’ walked out and got back on the bus. I was kind of depressed.

“There were a lot of racial epithets that occurred during games,’’ White said. “I was a good mark because my last name was White. I’d get a lot of heckling at times, ‘Hey that ain’t true. Roy White. You’re not white.’ ’’

Remember, this is 15 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors. There was a Confederate flag patch on the sleeve of his Columbus uniform. “You had no recourse in those days,’’ White said. “I’m 19 years old. I’m just working hard every day to get better to try to make it to the major leagues.’’

Now you know much more about the character and the toughness of Roy Hilton White.

White did get better. Wally Moses, who played 17 years in the majors, batting .291, was one of his hitting coaches and helped him along the way. Moses told him, “Roy the reason I’m not talking to you too much is that you have a pretty good swing. You just have one thing that gets you in trouble. You have a quick bat from the left-hand side. Sometimes you wait too long and then try to be quick all at once. When you do that, that is going to make you come out of that crouch a little bit and pull up and then you are going to hit ground balls and you are going to get in trouble. Just make sure you get it started a little earlier.’’

Pure gold from a hitting genius.

“That turned out to be true for basically my whole career,’’ White said. “Whenever I got in trouble, I had to slow it down and get ready early enough.’’

White first made it to the Yankees as a September call-up in 1965. He was a second baseman throughout his minor league career and started out there in the majors but was moved to the outfield. In 1966 he played 115 games for the Yankees. The next season he started in the minors and was on loan to the Dodgers, tearing up the Pacific Coast League, batting .343 at Spokane. Dick Howser broke his arm and the Dodgers allowed White to go back to the Yankees. They stuck White at third base. Not a good move.

In 1968, Ralph Houk made White a full-time outfielder. He was on the bench the first five games of the season, started a game in Anaheim against the California Angels, went 3-for-4 with a home run and never looked back. White played left and soon moved to No. 4 in the batting order. Not only did White hit cleanup behind Mantle, after his Yankees career ended he went to Japan for three years and batted fourth behind Sadaharu Oh, who blasted 868 career home runs.

“I hit cleanup behind two of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history,’’ White said.

In Japan, White had a wonderful relationship with the fans.

“When I went over to Japan I said, ‘Hey this is their baseball, I’m going to do everything they do,’’ White said of his three years in Japan. “They had their own style. I’m not going to be a complainer and say, ‘We didn’t do this in the majors.’ And I think the fans saw that and that I was their type of player, quiet and calm and pretty reserved. I developed a pretty good (Japanese) vocabulary. I think they liked that attitude. They thought I was part Japanese.’’

With Willie Randolph (30) in the cage, Roy White, Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles look on. (Photo via Twitter @Jamesyankee)

After his playing career ended, White worked in the Yankees front office and as a scout. He was sent to Japan for three weeks when Hideki Matsui was a young player. Years later, in 2003, the Yankees would sign Matsui. The Yankees, in their scouting work on Matsui, looked back at White’s original reports. White gave Matsui good grades and said he would be able to adjust to the major league fastball. A Yankee scout later told White that was one of the deciding factors the Yankees opted to sign Matsui.

White was the Yankees outfield coach in 2004-05 and had a strong relationship with Matsui. White played for the Yomiuri Giants – as did Matsui – so they became the only players to have played for both the Yomiuri Giants and Yankees. Two star left fielders, known for their talent and durability.

As a Yankee, one of his best moments came in 1976 when Chris Chambliss hit the home run against the Royals in the playoffs that sent the Yankees to the World Series, their first visit since 1964.

“That was one of the most exciting moments in my career,’’ White said, “because when I signed with the Yankees as a kid, way back in 1962 I said, ‘Well when I get to the Yankees, I’m going to be in the World Series every year.’’

Chambliss’ ninth inning leadoff home run off Mark Littell created bedlam on the field at Yankee Stadium as thousands of fans poured onto the diamond.

“It took me 11 years to finally get to that World Series that I thought I was going to be in every year,’’ White said. “So when Chris hit that home run I was the happiest guy trying to congratulate him. That was an unbelievable moment. We had the whole chaos with Chris trying to get around the bases and that changed baseball as far as what kind of security they had after games so that could never happen again. They took home plate and all the bases disappeared.

“The funny thing about that is as a kid my favorite team was the Cincinnati Reds,’’ White said. “I loved the Reds with the cut-sleeve uniforms. They could hit: Gus Bell, Wally Post and Ted Kluszewski. It’s ironic the first series I get in is against the Reds and the Big Red Machine.

“But 1976 was the most fun I ever had playing baseball, because we got Mickey Rivers and I got to hit No. 2. I could bunt, hit and run, we had a sign with me and Mickey when he was going to go, and I could go through the hole. We both scored 100 runs that year. Our goal every game was to get Thurman (Munson) some RBIs.”

The Yankees lost the World Series in four games but were on their way. They won 100 games in 1977 and beat the Dodgers in six games.

“I had the opportunity to have my parents at the World Series, and I was a little bitter in ’77 because I didn’t start a game in the World Series,’’ White said. “I was mad at Billy (Martin) because he had told me prior to the start of the Series that I was going to play against the right-handers and Lou (Piniella) was going to play against the left-handers and he was going to switch us around because of the DH and it never transpired. In retrospect, I was mad at myself and said I should not have been so bitter and enjoyed it more, that we actually won a World Series.

“I always thought I was a Billy kind of guy. My skill set was Billy Ball, hit behind the runner, lay down a bunt, steal a base, do all the little things. I felt kind of betrayed that that happened, but that was Billy, you either loved him or hated him.’’

The next year, White put it all behind him and had a tremendous year.

“In ’78 it turns all the way around, I end up playing every game in the World Series,’’ White said. “Had a chance at MVP going into the final game. Had a home run in Game 3, turning things around after we were down 0-2 coming back from LA. So it turned out well to finally have that dream come true, getting to the World Series and hitting a home run.’’

White was close to Munson.

“Thurman was a great guy, he was my locker mate, we sat next to each other his whole tenure with the Yankees,’’ White said. “We sat together on a lot of plane flights and had a lot of dinners together on the road. I watched him train to be a pilot, he had the pilot’s manual next to me. He said, ‘Hey Roy, after a Sunday doubleheader I’m going to be able to fly home, have dinner with my family, and have all day Monday with them.’ That was his plan and the purpose of getting the jet. He was really a soft-hearted guy.’’

Munson died in a plane crash on August 2, 1979, one of the darkest days in Yankees history.

That 1979 season was White’s last with the Yankees. Here is how Roy White sees himself in Yankee history.

“I think of myself as a guy that was a team player that contributed to the team throughout his career and was an everyday guy who just went out and played hard and hustled every day,’’ White said.

There were adjustments to make.

“When I came up to the Yankees in 1968, Ralph Houk put me at the cleanup spot a month and a half into the season so I became more of a pull hitter from the left-hand side. For those down years, I had to look for pitches I could pull with the porch out in right field, especially if you needed the long-ball late in the game,’’ White said. “I was kind of miscast for six or seven years, batting No. 4. I think it was from ’68 through ’73. Back then there were no opposite home runs for a left-handed hitter like there is now at the current Yankee Stadium.’’

White became one of the most respected and beloved Yankees during his long career. The Roy White Foundation has been doing good deeds for a long time, providing financial assistance to young adults and children whose desire to further their education is inhibited by financial complications. In every way, Roy White has done it right.

Yes, we all know Monument Park has gotten a little more crowded through the years with many players getting plaques.

“I never really thought that I would belong out there in Monument Park because I played in the original Yankee Stadium and the guys that you saw out there were in the Hall of Fame,’’ White said of those original monuments. “I never considered myself on that level… Monument Park has expanded.’’

Yes, it has. There should be room for Roy White. No matter what happens, White is comfortable with his place in Yankee history.

“I know what I did,’’ he said. “I don’t know if I really belong there, but at one time in games played I was No. 5 in Yankees history behind Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey and Yogi (Berra) and then it was me. So that’s good company. And of course, Bernie Williams passed me and Derek Jeter passed and now I’m No. 7.’’

That still remains legendary company.

“True Yankees fans give me a lot of praise,’’ White said. “They always say, ‘We could always count on you, you got the big hit when we needed it and made so many great catches in left field.’ That’s always appreciated. It’s really great to hear that from the fans in New York.’’

Roy White, a true Yankee great, deserves the praise.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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