In his new autobiography, Uppity (which could just as easily have been called Integrity for his strong moral compass), Bill White talks candidly about his many decades in baseball, including the racial intolerance he suffered early in his career. FishbowlNY spoke recently with White, a man who is liked by so many in the sport.
But this article focuses on Chapter 10, White’s magical 18-year association with the New York Yankees—and the legendary Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto.
“That’s longer than I’ve been with anybody,” White laughed.
As former players, White (refers to himself as “average” on the field) and Rizzuto (Hall of Famer) formed that famous bond. But White says there was something deeper to their chemistry—dating back to Rizzuto’s broadcasting debut with the Yankees in 1957.
“He was not wanted in the booth. The Yankees had two broadcasters who are in the Hall of Fame, [Mel Allen and Red Barber] and they felt that players shouldn’t just leave the field and go up and start broadcasting,” White says. “So they didn’t help him at all. I think going through that experience, he probably helped…all of the guys that preceded me.”
White had 13 distinguished years as a first baseman with the New York/San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals (including 1964 World Series champs), and Philadelphia Phillies.
White, 77, would go on to become National League president in 1989. But he keeps a special place in his heart for the WPIX broadcast booth.
“Those were my favorite years,” White jokes. “I didn’t have to hit curveballs.”
All White had to do was come to the stadium every day and work with Rizzuto. It wouldn’t seem like it, but a dream broadcast partnership was created.
“We had fun,” White recalls. “The good part [is] none of it was planned at all, it just came up.”
But their first on-air appearance didn’t go quite as memorably –at least for White.
It was a spring training game in 1971. With Frank Messer (third member of the broadcast team) headed down to the field, Rizzuto would “introduce” White to Yankee fans. After chatting briefly about his previous sportscasting work (in Philadelphia), Joe DiMaggio arrived in the booth. Here’s how White described what happened next in Uppity.
“Holy cow!” Rizzuto said on the air. “There’s the Yankee Clipper.” Rizzuto leaned over to White whispering off-air, “Hey, White, take the mike, I gotta set up a golf game with DiMaggio.”
As White recalls in Uppity, it was the first time he personally got to hear Rizzuto (middle, with Allen, far right) say “Holy cow.” It was also the first time Scooter would refer to him simply as “White,” which Rizzuto would famously call him throughout their entire run together.
Lastly, from that brief moment 40 years ago, White writes, “it was the first time I had to call a Yankees game alone.”
Therefore, White jokes about what he learned from working with Rizzuto, “How to get out early, or find excuses to leave early.”
Anyone who is familiar with Rizzuto, even peripherally, knows about his panache for leaving games early. Broadcasters, viewers, and even fans in the stands knew it wasn’t just a legend.
Case in point, one of the many “Scooter stories” in the book, is a classic that White shared with FishbowlNY.
In another spring training game in Fort Lauderdale, White needed to leave after the sixth inning to pick up his children in Miami. Messer agreed that it wouldn’t be a problem.
When White got back to the hotel at 1 a.m., he was surprised to hear the Yankees game still on the radio—going into the 16th inning—but he didn’t hear Rizzuto (back then, the Yankee TV announcers also did play-by-play on radio).
The next day, White asked Messer what happened to Rizzuto?
“Phil went to get me a cup of coffee in the sixth or seventh inning,” said Messer.
“By that time, the door opens and Phil comes in, ‘Here’s that cup of coffee you wanted,’” White laughs.
He says that story and countless others were part of the chemistry they shared—but unfortunately Messer couldn’t.
“Frank was the best broadcaster in the booth—flat out broadcaster,” White admits. “We had played [he and Rizzuto] and were probably a little [looser] in the booth.”
Therefore, Messer missed out on some the memorable banter that White and Rizzuto made famous.
“He just wasn’t comfortable being a part of it,” White admits. “He probably would have wished that he could do that.”
A veteran baseball play-by-play announcer, you could say Messer was more of “The Voice,” or at least “The Delivery” within the three-man team.
“We each knew our own niche, we stayed in it, and we got along pretty well,” White says.
And having Messer’s more serious demeanor helped White and Rizzuto.
“Fortunately, we had Frank there to sometimes bring us back from those ‘flights of fancy,’ White laughs.
Those “flights of fancy” started as a necessary distraction while the Yankees were still coming out of their long slumber. By the mid 1970s, though, the Bombers were back as one of baseball’s best.
Of course, the Yankees got resurrected by a new owner, the tough-as-nails George Steinbrenner.
“George wanted me to be a Go Yankees Go guy,” White says.
He remembers Steinbrenner regularly monitoring the broadcasts and calling a producer during the game with “notes” for White. But the Boss (who White referred to as “Skipper”) couldn’t penetrate White’s signature gravitas.
“Finally, I had refused them so often, he finally told the guys, ‘Don’t give them to White,’” (See below as White covers the Yankees’ 1977 World Series win for ABC)
And those years left some memorable Bill White moments ingrained in Yankee lore. Among them the Bucky Dent homer in the 1978 tiebreaker with the Red Sox and the Chris Chambliss walk-off homer in 1976 American League Championship Series.
However, in typical White fashion, his favorite moment doesn’t involve his own voice. It was July 4, 1983 when Dave Righetti was poised to make history with a no-hitter.
“I was on radio and in the ninth inning I went over to ask Frank Messer, ‘Hey, Frank, how would you like to do the possible no-hitter?’” White recalls. “I let him do that because I thought he would do it better than I would do it. And he did.”
Reflecting on his time in the Bronx, not only couldn’t White have seen 18 years in his crystal ball, he couldn’t even imagine joining the Yankees.
“I was a National Leaguer. I’m still a National Leaguer,” White insists. “I happened to get into broadcasting in St. Louis. When I got traded by the Cardinals to the Phillies, I started broadcasting there too.”
Once with the Yankees, was his success behind the mic predicated on being joined at the hip by his pal Scooter?
“I probably would doubt it,” White admits. “Because he and I got along. Broadcasters have to get along… I don’t think I could have gotten along with anybody else. New York is a tough place to broadcast.”
In the end, though, White wrote Uppity to influence young readers.
“A lot of kids can read this book and realize that you can be born of sharecroppers, that you can study hard, and that you can do things that you normally might not think you’d be able to do and be successful,” White says.
Uppity: My Untold Story of the Games People Play is available by Grand Central Publishing.
Photo credit — (Book cover) Courtesy of Thomas Brummett
(White, Rizzuto, and Allen) Courtesy of Bill White