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Mudville: July 23, 2024 12:45 pm PDT

Steve Whitaker

“The general managers back then held grudges. They wanted guys who said, 'Yes sir' and 'No sir.'”

Nobody likes a fraud.

Tony Clark, the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Union, was recently profiled in the New York Times and his words do not necessarily match his actions.

In the article, Clark said, “There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, and there’s nothing more important to me than our fraternity, both active and inactive, and the next generation. So being able to come on board and commit to protecting their interests and opportunities, I’m all in.”

If there is nothing more important than his “fraternity” of active and inactive players and if Clark is “all in” on protecting their interests, how come he and the MLBPA have ignored over 500 former Major Leaguers—a list that was over 1,000 before they began dying—as they seek a proper pension from Major League Baseball?

Former Yankees outfielder Steve Whitaker is one of those players and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

The entire situation has been summed up – at BallNine and in Doug Gladstone’s book A Bitter Cup of Coffee  among other places – but Clark, Steve Rogers and the Major League Baseball Players Association still refuse to help them.

Whitaker, who at times played in the same outfield as Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Willie Mays and also hit the last home run in Seattle Pilots history has been fighting for Union rights his whole life.

In fact, perhaps the most maddening part about Whitaker being on the list of pre-1980 players who didn’t have enough service time to vest their pension, is that he fell short of his time because he was punished multiple times for fighting for the Union when so many others weren’t.

If Whitaker just kept his mouth shut and played ball, he’d be a fully vested Major League alumnus today.

But that’s not who Whitaker is. He’s a fighter who says what is on his mind and backs up his words with his actions. It’s in stark contrast to the empty words we often hear from Clark, the inaction from Rogers and silence from current players.

In addition to his players’ rights battles, Whitaker has a tremendous story himself. A raw power hitter from Tacoma, Washington, he was on the Yankees in the late 1960s as the glory years were coming to an end. Whitaker spent parts of five seasons in the Majors and parts of ten seasons in the minors.

He left baseball on his own volition and has been very successful in the real estate business.

Whitaker doesn’t need his baseball pension, but he fights like he does. He fights for those he played with and against. He fights for those who a pension would make all the difference in the world.

You’d assume Tony Clark would do the same.

Alas, he does not.

Put on the gloves and if you’re easily offended, you’d better get into your safe space as we go Spitballin’ with Steve Whitaker.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Whitaker. I want to get into the pension issue and the things you have done in your career to fight for player rights, but let’s start out with some Yankees stuff. First, how did you end up with the Yankees from Tacoma, Washington?

There wasn’t a draft, so everything was based on free agency. A scout named Eddie Taylor used to drive up in his white Cadillac and hide under the stands so nobody saw him. He signed me, Mel Stottlemyre, Roger Repoz and Steve Kline. There were some good players from our area. I signed in 1962 and if you look at the back of my baseball card, it looks like I played ten years in the minors. But it was because they were sending me all over. I always fought for pay. If they wanted to give me $400 a month, I would ask for $1,800. I led the league in home runs and they wanted to give me the same contract. I signed in 1962 and was in the Big Leagues in 1966. I had a fast rise to the Big Leagues, but there were a lot of stories in between.

We got the whole show started. [They] know it too. There weren’t too many players who stayed home in Spring Training in 1969 to try to strengthen the Union, but some of us did.

What was it like getting that call to the Major Leagues for the first time?

I was playing in Toledo in the International League when I go the call. I went to the stadium and our manager, Loren Babe, said, “Stay dressed, you’re on your way to New York.” I had never been to New York in my life. The first person I saw in the clubhouse was Roger Maris. I had seen him in Spring Training but didn’t know him too well. He said, “Whit, get yourself dressed. I am taking you for a walk.” He took me from the clubhouse to the dugout to the on deck circle to home plate and then all the way around the old Yankee Stadium. I was so impressed. You really feel like you’re hearing stuff from the stands. Old time players saying, “Don’t be fucking this thing up. Be a Yankee.” By the time we got back to the clubhouse, everyone was there. I saw Mickey, Joe Pepitone, Whitey Ford, Tom Tresh, Elston Howard. They all came up to congratulate me. We had such a great crew of people.

When you’re in the Yankees organization, you had to do things the right way. You couldn’t wear sloppy-ass clothes. We didn’t have the money to buy good clothes, but you had to look neat. You had to wear your hair neat. Roger Maris was so professional. He told me that he didn’t think they were gonna have him back the next season, so he was looking to pass the torch.

What was your first game in pinstripes like?

Ralph Houk was the manager. He called me in and said not to read the papers and stay away from Manhattan. He told me Dean Chance, who had a Cy Young Award, was pitching that night. I have a picture of the very first swing that I took hanging in my office. On the Ballantine scoreboard you could see all my minor league stats like a .315 average and 36 home runs. All these crazy ass stats from a real good season. The players gathered at the mound and asked if anyone knew me at all. I’m not sure what they said, but Dean Chance threw me a 45-foot curve ball in the dirt. I swung and wasn’t even close to it. My head was looking out into the stands. I was so amped up. He could have thrown it into the press box and I would have swung at it. But I got a hit later that game and it got me going on a great start. My first 70 at bats in the Big Leagues, I hit six home runs.

I wanted to ask a few questions about your relationships with some great Yankees. Let’s start with Roger Maris.

God Bless Roger Maris. I love him and he was a professional’s professional. He was such a great ballplayer. He just had a way about him that made you feel like he was going to do something special. He could have been the best at anything. He could have been a professional golfer or football player. Whatever he did, it was special. The press didn’t want him breaking Babe Ruth’s record. If he was alive when Aaron Judge broke his record, he would have been right at the front congratulating him.

How about Mickey Mantle?

One time before I made it up to the Majors, we were in Spring Training and I wanted to see Mantle hit. I was out in the outfield talking to some players and all of a sudden I heard this loud crack. Stupid me, I had turned my back in batting practice. I turned around and sure enough, it was Mickey. The first time I would have seen him swing a bat in person, I had my back turned. But I heard the sound. The sound was different. The ball looked like a high, high fly but it carried 500 feet. I played with him for three years and he did it a lot. Most guys weren’t even hitting the warning track and he was putting them way deep in the seats.

After the first couple weeks where I was doing so great, Tommy Tresh came over and said that Mickey wanted me to come out with them. You had to be invited out with those guys. I was like, “Oh my God, I get to go out with the Mick!” I laugh now because it was a great invite. Mickey and I were the only ones living in Manhattan. I lived on 65th and 1st and he lived on Central Park South. Everyone else lived across the bridge in Jersey. Mickey took me under his wing. We had some fun. I get emotional just talking about him. He was so awesome and he treated me really good.

Steve Whitaker and Bill Robinson of the New York Yankees visits children in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY. Image dated July 28, 1967. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Even though he was long retired by the time you got to the Majors, did you have any interactions with Joe DiMaggio?

I was fortunate to get to know him. When I was put on the Big League roster, he took a liking to me. He even gave me some compliments in some articles. Later on in life, he used to come down to Florida and I would run into him in places where a lot of the boys would hang out. You’d go into a place and Joe D would let me know he was in the back somewhere and he’d invite me to sit down. To me, he was a super dude. I didn’t socialize with him a lot, but whenever we were together he always made time to sit down and ask about my family and how things were going.

You were also on the Seattle Pilots their only year in existence. What was that experience like?

I was from Tacoma, so for me it was like going home. Once Kansas City sent me out, I had to have a great Spring and I did. After all the Union stuff, Marvin Milkes made it clear that they wouldn’t keep me unless I had a super Spring. I didn’t even join them until like two weeks into Spring Training, but I hit like eight home runs to make the club.

The general managers back then held grudges. They wanted guys who said, “Yes sir” and “No sir.” People like me needed to do something to force them not to send you out, because that’s what they’re looking to do. With Seattle, I only got up 116 times, but had six home runs. I actually hit the last home run in Seattle Pilots history. I hit one in the bottom of the ninth of the last game they ever played off Jim Roland. The game before I hit one off Rollie Fingers.

You were always someone who fought for what you believed was right. Before we get into the group of pensionless former players, let’s talk about some of the things you did in your career to fight for fair compensation. Do you remember how that all started?

In 1966 I first met Marvin Miller and Dick Moss. We’d meet in the parking lot because they weren’t allowed in the clubhouse. I loved what they were saying. This was the start of it. They were trying to get us all on board. He was very articulate on what he presented. It was like Christmas to me. I thought, “Great! We finally have a voice!” I was fortunate to get called up to the Yankees and had a good year. In 1967, I led the league in outfield double plays and was playing well. I was also in the Army Reserves. The Yankees got me into that so I wasn’t drafted into the military. I had to do my Army commitment every year for six years starting in 1966. Every year that I played in the Big Leagues, I was going to miss 40 or 50 games due to my military responsibilities. It was better than getting my ass shot off in Vietnam, so I had no complaints about that.

Outfielder Steve Whitaker #28 of the New York Yankees swings at a pitch during a game on September 1, 1966 against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. The Angels catcher is Buck Rodgers and the homeplate umpire is Ed Runge. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)

Did you have any confrontations about your contract?

In 1967 I had a good year. I went to Lee MacPhail, our general manager, for a raise. Normally, we never went up into the front office. We were clubhouse guys and they were up there in their fancy suits. One day I went up to talk to MacPhail about my contract. He said to me, “Steve, what does your father do?” I said that he owned a tavern back in Tacoma. He said, “Why don’t you go back home and become a bartender.” It was total disrespect. I closed the door and told him to go fuck himself. I said, “Are you disrespecting me you son of a bitch? You wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for your daddy. Don’t disrespect me! Take that money and shove it up your ass!” This was how they treated you back then. Long story short, I wasn’t gonna be with the Yankees that much longer. He was a big time general manager.

How did the next season go after that incident??

In 1968 I had to go do my Army time in Fort Drum, New York. I got a note telling me they were going to send me down to AAA. Like hell they were! I went AWOL from the Yankees and went down to Atlantic City for a few weeks. CBS had just bought the Yankees and they were cheapos. A guy named Mike Burke called me and said to just go down to AAA for a few weeks and they’d call me back. I knew the writing was on the wall though.

How did your time with the Yankees come to an end?

In 1969 I was picked by the Kansas City Royals in the expansion draft. I was really excited about that because my tenure with the Yankees was so rotten. I got a call from Moe Drabowski, who was a player rep. He said, “Listen, we got a little problem with our Union. We’re gonna strike. I don’t want you to report to Spring Training.” I said, “Moe, I can’t do that! I went AWOL with the Yankees already!” He said that he was just calling and asking for my support to get more benefits and lowering the vesting years from five to four. I finally said, “OK, I won’t report.” I thought to myself, “Man, am I gonna be in trouble.”

What happened when Spring Training rolled around?

Me, Joe Foy, Ed Kirkpatrick and Moe Drabowski were the only four who didn’t report. I turned on the TV the first day of Spring Training and everyone was there except the four of us. When I reported ten days later, Cedric Tallis was so pissed that he traded me to the Seattle Pilots for Lou Piniella. When I went to Tempe, I was picked up by their GM, Marvin Milkes. I didn’t get any kind of greeting like, “Hey, we’re happy to have you!” He just said, “If you ever try to do any of this Union stuff with us, you’ll be gone as fast as I can write up the paperwork.” That was the attitude they had and that’s what we fought against.

Three months later I did my Union stuff, and Seattle wanted to send me down, so I went AWOL from them. My life was spent fighting for the player rights and I stand by that. I created this situation for myself. I could have been Mr. Nice Guy and just said, “Oh thank you for letting me suit up in one of your Big League uniforms!” That’s bullshit. I could play.  But if they were gonna pull all that stuff and treat you the way they did, I had to fight against that.

You’re part of the group of about 500 players who do not have a pension. You did have a lot of service time though. Do you know how close you came to being vested?

I’m not sure how close I came to becoming vested. I think they cheated me on giving me credit for my Army service time and I didn’t get credit for the four times I went AWOL. I probably came about 100 days away from being vested. At the time, you don’t think about those things, but later on in life you do. I am very proud of how I could play, but I wasn’t always proud about making it tough on myself to play. You can’t go AWOL four times and just expect to be on someone’s roster. Back then nobody would think about doing that. I did it four times! If I think I’m getting screwed, I am not gonna sit there and say, “Yes sir, no sir.” Any player that stands up for the Union and tries to do what’s right by the ballplayer, I salute them. A lot of people got the benefits and wealth of being a ballplayer, but they didn’t really fight for it. They reported when other guys didn’t.

Was there any player who stood up for you guys?

Mark Belanger used to stand up for us. He was a player rep for Baltimore and was also on a committee to help with our benefits and pension, but he passed away. We never had much representation and I loved Marvin Miller for what he has done for ballplayers. But they made a mistake by not including the rest of us. What the hell is going on? Just a stroke of the pen and they can make it right but they won’t do it. It doesn’t mean anything to them. There’s only about 500 of us left.

If you had a message for Steve Rogers, Tony Clark and the MLBPA, what would it be?

We got the whole show started. [They] know it too. There weren’t too many players who stayed home in Spring Training in 1969 to try to strengthen the Union, but some of us did. I know that Tony Clark has to the power to change this and he isn’t doing it. If it happens, it happens. I am 79 years old and have had a very lucrative life. My family is very successful and have nothing but laughter in my life. I am not crying sour grapes for myself. It doesn’t make a damn to me financially, but it would be such a huge thing for so many others.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

  • Tony Santospirito

    I knew too many guys that had careers that ended like Steve’s. As a young man he saw what was happening and fought for it. I applaud you, Steve!

    November 22, 2023
  • Sean Cuneen.

    I was in the Cubs baseball camp in Ft. Lauderdale in 79 and Steve was 1 of the coaches there. He was very nice and taught us how to go back on a fly ball and run the bases and slide. He was great. .

    November 25, 2023
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