When Bill White started playing professional baseball in the 1950s, he was the only black ballplayer in a Southern minor league. He dealt with segregation where he lived and where he ate, and on the ball field he faced the verbal abuse of fans shouting racial epithets from the stands.
White eventually made it to the major leagues, playing first base for the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies from 1956 to 1969. He went on to become a broadcaster, and then president of the National League.
But he says he didn't have the kind of love for baseball that, as the saying goes, he'd play it free if they didn't pay him.
"I looked at it as a business," White tells Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "It allowed me to at least feel that I could finish college, and of course then broadcasting and administering."
While you might love the game when you're a great player, he says, "when you strike out 100 times I'm not sure you love it."
Even in high school or college, White says he wasn't an elite sort of athlete. "I was about the third-string halfback in football," he says, "And in basketball I was the 10th man on a 10-man team."
Looking Back On A Career On The Field
Once he started playing for the major leagues, White says, he was given amphetamines and other drugs.
At one point, he says, "the ushers would take me upstairs at the old Cardinals stadium, and they would give me a shot of Novocain and I played six or seven innings. The pain would come back, they'd take me upstairs again and give me another shot."
And during his time on the field, White had some controversial opinions, which he doesn't shy away from in his book, Uppity. He felt at odds with Bob Howsam, the St. Louis Cardinals general manager who would get upset if players strayed outside the on-deck circle. Guys liked to inch outside it to steal signs from the catcher and communicate those to their teammate, but White was frustrated that Howsam didn't seem to understand.
"I don't think he ever realized that, because he was more worried about keeping the field manicured than winning ballgames."
On The Mic With Phil Rizzuto
White went far after his major league career ended. He did play-by-play for Yankees games alongside Frank Messer and Phil Rizzuto, the onetime great Yankee shortstop who became one of the great institutions of New York City as an announcer.
Rizzuto had notorious quirks — like being afraid of lightning. White says he'd have to make sure he was at the mic at all times, "because Phil would get up and take off" whenever he spotted lightning, or just if he simply felt like taking a walk.
"He had a lot of phobias, but [he was a] great, great, great person," White says.
White says the two developed a close relationship from broadcasting together for 18 years. When Rizzuto died in 2007, White unexpectedly declined to speak at his memorial service. "I wouldn't be able to get through it," he writes In Uppity. "I would break down. To be honest, I was afraid because to me, breaking down in public was what lightning was to Phil."
White says in all his years as a broadcaster, he tried to control his emotions; and the same goes for Rizzuto's memorial service, or even his book.
"That book is about one-third of what I could have written ... but I don't want to write a 600-page book."