Baseball exec Bill White

Pioneering baseball exec Bill White contrasts cockiness with confidence and explains why he titled his new memoir Uppity.

A pioneering athlete, sportscaster and executive, Bill White is one of major league baseball's most respected figures. He began his career as the only Black player in a Southern minor league and went on to become an All-Star first baseman in the majors. After his playing days, he was the first Black person to regularly do play-by-play for a major league team (Yankees) and served five years as National League president—the highest-ranking Black exec in all of pro sports at the time. He candidly shares his story of life in baseball in his memoir, Uppity.


Tavis: Bill White was a five-time baseball all-star before his long-time career as a broadcaster and eventually president of the national league. He’s out now with a powerful new memoir about his time on and off the field. It’s called “Uppity: My Untold Stories About the Games People Play.” He joins us tonight from Philadelphia. Bill White, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Bill White: I’m honored to be on your program. I’ve heard you quite a bit and I really appreciate you having me on.

Tavis: Delighted to have you on. Let me start by asking, for those who haven’t read the book – I’m sure they’ll want to once they see this conversation, at least that’s my hope – this word “uppity” is a pejorative, it’s often punitive. Pardon my English, it ain’t no compliment. Yet you’ve taken it and turned it into the title of your text. Why “Uppity?”

White: Because years ago, when I was just a youngster, when I signed with the Giants and then I went to the Army and I came back from the Army and when I got back I was with the Giants in New York. They moved to San Francisco, and when I got back we had Orlando Cepeda at first base and we had Willie McCovey behind him, and my family, we’d had a baby, a little girl while I was in the Army, and I wanted to play.

Obviously, I couldn’t play behind Cepeda and McCovey, so I asked to be traded. Back then, you had the reserve clause, where ask Flood used to say, you’re a well-paid slave, and I didn’t have those options. So I decided to demand to be traded and my general manager didn’t like that and he called me uppity, and I remembered that word.

So I decided a couple of years ago I’m going to write a book, and I’m going to call it “Uppity.”

Tavis: In this book you tell so many stories I don’t have the time to do justice to any of them, really. But you tell so many stories in the book about the role that race played in your career, in your life, in your being president of the National League, and I’m being charitable and generous when I say the role that race played, because it was oftentimes a negative role. Surmise for me, if you will, or just capsulize for me, if you will, how you view the issue of race and the role it’s played in your life and career.

White: Well, first of all I had a really, really proud grandmother, and she gave me that sense of being someone. She gave me a history of coming from Africa, how we had societies there. We were brought over here, and how we had to do what we had to do in the South.

She made me proud, the way she talked to me. Then my mother, of course, gave me the attitude that if you’re going to do anything, you’ve got to be twice as good as the person with whom you’re competing, and I took that to heart. So I got a lot of pride from my grandmother and a lot of push from my mother, and I carried that all the way through from Warren, Ohio, where I was raised and went to school, Hiram College, where I went for two years, then of course playing baseball for 18 years in the big leagues, and then broadcasting – actually, 14 years in the big leagues, and then broadcasting 18 years for the Yankees and then five years as an administrator with the National League.

But always had a lot of pride and I always had a lot of confidence, which my grandmother and my mother gave me.

Tavis: What do you do when people confuse your confidence for cockiness?

White: (Laughs) I think that’s where the word came in with the general manager of the Giants when he traded me, and that’s all right. As long as you can do it, what difference does it make? Everything that I have done, quite honestly, I have been fairly successful at, so they can call it cockiness or whatever they want to call it. I call it confidence and I call it an ability to do whatever you set out to do.

Tavis: Yeah, but you well know that a Black man in many respects and in many places, a Black man even today, much less back in the day when you were doing it, wasn’t supposed to have an opinion, wasn’t supposed to be vocal about it, wasn’t supposed to be so forthright about it.

How did you manage that kind of terrain, and how have you arrived at this place, with all that you endured, without being bitter?

White: Sometimes I think about that, that no, I’m not bitter. I think that I sort of – I really don’t know. I couldn’t answer that, Tavis, except to say that the confidence that my mother and grandmother gave me, that you can do anything you want to do as long as you give it 100 percent, they just – I always smile when I think about them, because they were two tough ladies.

Obviously, my grandmother had seen some of the vestiges of slavery and she really didn’t like people who were not of color. She hated them. I don’t think she ever spoke to them unless she had to. Of course, my mother went through – she was from – we were from a little place called Paxton, Florida, and she couldn’t go to school. She could walk to school, but she couldn’t go to that school. She had to be bused – actually trucked, you might say, 17 miles to a little place called DeFuniak Springs.

She was the valedictorian of her class. She couldn’t go to Florida A&M because they didn’t have the money, so my grandmother was smart enough to get us out of there and move us to Warren, Ohio, where the steel mills were just starting. She brought her three daughters, including my mother, her six sons to Warren, and in the end, because of her persistence and her toughness, my grandmother, all of the sons married and ended up with their own homes. That’s something to be proud of back then. I’m talking about way back in the ’30s.

Tavis: Again, this book is chock full of so many great stories that I can’t do justice to all of them. What I want to do to make the most of my time left is to throw some names, some places, some people, some things at you and just have you give me a sentence or two about them, whatever you want to say, relative to the text. In no particular order, Willie Mays.

White: (Laughs) Great man. I call him my second father. Willie, he taught me how to play baseball. Best baseball, greatest baseball player I’ve ever seen. Just a super-human, in my opinion. Just a super-human being. I love him, I love him.

Tavis: Jackie Roosevelt Robinson.

White: Jackie made way for all of us, all of us, and to be quite honest, I don’t think I could have taken what Jackie had to take the first few years. Not only that, Jackie, I think, was as important to Black people and to baseball, but he was just as important to us as I think Martin Luther King.

Tavis: Was Jackie Robinson a better man or a better baseball player?

White: I think he was a better both, because he had – you remember Jackie was an officer, and he had problems in the Army. He was an all-American football player and he had to take a lot of guff in order to play. Nobody wanted him in baseball. The owners didn’t want him. His own teammates on the Dodgers didn’t want him, and obviously, the guys playing against him didn’t want him, the Cardinals, the Phillies, most of these clubs.

So he had to put up with that on the field for quite a while, until he had proven himself to be not only a great player but a great person. But I couldn’t have gone through what he went through, honestly.

Tavis: You had your share, as the book well details. Again, I’m pulling out names and places that are connected to stories in the book. Marge Schott, who had that infamous moment of alleged racism when you were at the helm and she owned the Cincinnati Reds. Your thoughts about Marge Schott.

White: That was a tough decision to make – just an older lady who obviously had some problems and who the other owners really I don’t think want her around, so they were probably happy that something like this happened so they could push her aside.

But when you head an organization like that you’ve got to deal with everything, and we dealt with Marge Schott and finally we got somebody to replace her.

Tavis: St. Petersburg, Florida.

White: (Laughs) Well, St. Petersburg, they had, as you know, segregated housing, eating facilities and everything else when we went down there, and the Cardinals trained there. We couldn’t stay with the team. So the Cardinals finally were forced to get a hotel and they put all of us in that hotel, and what happened there was that we all finally got to know each other.

This was about in 1962, and we ate together, the kids played together, the wives knew each other and it made us a better team. 1963, we came close; in 1964, we won, I think because we became close. The (unintelligible) Warriors, Whites, Gibsons, the Floods all were together during that period.

Tavis: Question – why did Bill White leave the broadcast booth?

White: Well, I wanted to go about 20 years and I had 18, and Peter O’Malley of the Dodgers called me once. He was the head of the search group for president of the National League, and he offered me the job or offered me to come up and interview.

I said, “I’ve got a pretty good job. I work 60 days a year, I fish in the morning, go do the game, come back at night and then get up and fish again. I said, “I don’t think I want to do that. I don’t want to work 24/seven.” So he said, “Fine.” Then a week later he called me and said, “Well, come up an interview,” which I did. I went up and interviewed with him and we had a decent interview, and I thought about a change.

I’d done everything – I’d played it, I’d broadcasted, and I said, “Why can’t I manage it?” So I decided to take that change and I stayed there five years.

Tavis: Barry Bonds.

White: Barry Bonds was – obviously he’s a Hall of Famer. He has not been found guilty of taking steroids, and when I played, obviously steroids were not illegal, and they weren’t illegal when Bonds played.

I think Barry’s problem is that he may have had an attitude problem, but he was just found, I guess, on one count guilty of whatever – I don’t – but he belongs in the Hall of Fame if the writers want to put him in it. If he’s not on the disabled list – if he’s not put on the list of disqualified, I’m sorry, by the commissioner, then he’ll be eligible and it’ll be up to the writers as with McGuire and the rest of them as to whether or not they get in the Hall of Fame.

Tavis: Mobile homes.

White: Mobile who?

Tavis: (Laughs) Mobile homes.

White: A mobile home? That’s what I have. (Laughter) Yeah, that’s – we just brought it back from Ocala, Florida. We love it. We bought it to fish and we ended up way out in Colorado, fishing in the San Juan River, and we just had a great time. We started in Colorado and I guess the San Juan’s in New Mexico. We just fished all over. I love the motor home, but I’m getting too old to drive it.

Tavis: Who has the nicer motor home, you or Bob Gibson?

White: Gibson, no doubt. (Laughter) Gibson’s got more money. (Laughter) But actually, Bob got me started driving a motor home since 1996, and Bob, of course, has had one longer. But I think we’re both getting to the point where we’re going to start flying places and renting homes rather than driving those things around. (Laughter)

Tavis: I told you a few minutes ago I couldn’t do justice to this book. It is a life and a legacy that’s rich and full and well-lived. Again, I can’t do justice to this book but I highly recommend you get it, especially if you’re a baseball fan or just a fan of humanity.

The new book from Bill White is called “Uppity: My Life in Baseball. My Untold Story About the Games People Play.” It is a poignant and provocative text. Bill White, an honor to have you on this program, sir. Thank you for your time.

White: Tavis, thank you very much, I appreciate it. Thank you.

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Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm