Roy White – Biography
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Steady and dependable, Roy White patrolled left field for the New York Yankees for more than a decade, first joining the team in 1965, at the beginning of the most unsuccessful period in franchise history. A solid switch-hitter who possessed good speed and outstanding ball-hawking skills, White served as New York’s starting leftfielder from 1968 to 1978, warding off challenges his last few seasons from a seemingly endless array of outfielders the team acquired to eventually replace him. Often overlooked and underappreciated, White was New York’s most consistent everyday player during the dark days of the late-1960s, before making key contributions to three pennant-winning teams and two world championship clubs his final few years.
Born in Los Angeles, California on December 27, 1943, Roy Hilton White spent much of his youth rooting for Lary Doby and the Cleveland Indians. After graduating from Compton’s Centennial High School, White signed with the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1961. He began his minor league career the following year as an 18-year-old switch-hitting second baseman with the Greensboro Yankees in the Class B Carolina League. White showed great promise in his second full season in the minors, batting .309 as Greensboro’s leadoff hitter and topping the circuit with 117 runs scored, en route to earning a spot on the league’s All-Star team. After spending the entire 1964 season and most of the following year in the minors, White finally joined the Yankees towards the tail end of the 1965 campaign. Upon his arrival, White was quickly converted into an outfielder by the major league club.
White later recalled, “Bobby Richardson’s presence on the team was the primary reason, but there were other reasons as well. When I came up, Johnny Keane was the manager. When I was first called up in September of 1965, Bobby Murcer was also a call-up and Keane said he didn’t want to play us both in the infield because there are some teams that are hesitant to have two rookies out there at second and at short. So, he said that he might use me in the outfield. I ended up playing virtually all the games that I played at the end of the season in the outfield. Then, when I came back in 1966, he had a vision of me being like a Curt Flood, who he had in centerfield in St. Louis. He thought that, with my speed, I could convert to the outfield.”
After batting .333 over the final three weeks of the 1965 season, White got off to a fast start the following year. However, he eventually slumped badly, ending the campaign on the bench with a batting average of just .225. He then batted just .224 in 214 official plate appearances in 1967, while splitting his time between the outfield and third base.
White discussed the struggles he experienced during the early stages of his career, saying, “I think it was switching positions…from being an infielder, to an outfielder, to an infielder, back to an outfielder. I think that affected my hitting. Actually, in 1966, I was leading the Yankees in hitting and in home runs about six weeks into the season. Then I got home run happy. I started thinking that it was easy. Then I got myself into a terrible slump and ended up being on the bench by June. I had seven home runs in May and, at the end of the season, I still had seven. I ended up hitting around .220 in a couple of hundred at-bats. All of the position switching started around then, and I just had trouble finding a spot where I finally got comfortable.”
White’s fortunes finally began to change in 1968, after manager Ralph Houk informed him he intended to use him strictly as an outfielder. White revealed, “In spring training of 1968, Ralph Houk said, ‘You’re just going to be an outfielder now. Let’s not worry about going back into the infield. Just stay out there and learn how to play it to the best of your ability.’ That was kind of a load off of my mind, knowing that I was going to be in the outfield and that I had nothing else to concentrate on.”
After seeing some action in both right field and center field early in the year, White was shifted to left field permanently by Houk. “I think we were on a road trip,” White recalled. “Then, when we came back from the road, Ralph called me into his office and said, ‘I’m gonna’ play you in left. It’s a big left field in Yankee Stadium and you’d be the ideal guy, with your speed, to cover the ground out there.’ From that point on, I was in left field.”
White’s insertion into the everyday lineup enabled him to develop into New York’s best all-around player. In addition to playing a stellar left field, he led the team in virtually every offensive category, topping his mates with 62 runs batted in, 89 runs scored, 20 stolen bases, seven triples, and a .267 batting average. He also finished a close second to Mickey Mantle with 17 home runs. After batting in a number of different spots in the Yankee lineup during the early stages of the season, White eventually assumed the cleanup spot in the batting order. Reflecting back on how he felt hitting immediately behind Mantle in the lineup, White revealed, “That was really amazing…pretty shocking actually. That was after another meeting with Ralph. He called me in and said, ‘Roy, I’m gonna’ hit you number four. I just don’t have anybody else. They’re pitching around Mickey. He’s not getting very many good pitches to hit, and you’re the most reliable guy on the club, so I’m gonna’ hit him three and hit you four.'”
White continued to bat fourth in the Yankee order for the next half-dozen seasons, having his two best years while hitting cleanup. After leading the team in batting for the second consecutive time with a .290 batting average in 1969, he had his finest all-around season in 1970, establishing career highs in home runs (22), runs batted in (94), runs scored (109), base hits (180), and batting average (.296), while earning his second straight selection to the American League All-Star Team. White followed that up by hitting 19 home runs, driving in 84 runs, scoring 86 others, and batting .292 in 1971.
Even though White manned the cleanup spot in the Yankee batting order for a number of years, at only 5’10” and 170 pounds, he was far from a prototypical fourth-place hitter. White was much better suited to hit either first or second in the lineup since doing so would have enabled him to better use his abilities to get on base, score runs, work the count, hit-and-run, steal bases, and do the little things to help his team win. He was an extremely patient hitter, finishing among the top ten players in the league in bases on balls seven times during his career, and even leading the league with 99 walks in 1972. He also topped the circuit in runs scored once, placing among the league leaders in that particular category five other times as well, and crossing the plate more than 100 times in two different seasons.
However, the Yankees simply didn’t have anyone else more capable than White of batting fourth throughout much of his career. White himself admitted, “I was pretty well miscast in the number four slot. I had to change my mentality, especially batting left-handed in Yankee Stadium, with the shorter porch in right. If it was a tie ballgame, or, if we were down by a run in the latter innings, I had to look for a pitch that maybe I could try to pull and that I had a chance to hit out. That wasn’t really the type of player that I was.”
New York finally provided White with a better supporting cast his final few years with the team, enabling him to move to his more natural number two spot in the lineup. Hitting second for the pennant-winning Yankees in 1976, he batted .286, stole a career-high 31 bases, and led the American League with 104 runs scored.
White greatly improved himself as a righthanded hitter by the time the Yankees developed into a contender. During the early stages of his career, he experienced significantly less success as a righthanded batter (his natural side) than he did from the left side of the plate. While White typically batted well over .300 lefthanded, he struggled to keep his average over the .230-mark from the right side.
Discussing the difficulties he experienced batting righthanded his first few seasons, White explained, “That was something I really had to work on. It was kind of a neglected factor. I just wasn’t taking enough batting practice righthanded. I kind of figured it out myself because I’d look at the averages and see .230 righthanded and .330 or .340 left-handed. It occurred to me that, sooner or later, I might not be playing against lefties if I didn’t get better. So, whereas, I tried to pull the ball early as a righthanded hitter, I started going the other way, choking up on the bat, and trying to get on base from the righthand side. That was my natural side, so I felt like I was stronger…but I really wasn’t. So, when I started doing that, I slowly started getting better from the righthand side. Eventually, I think I hit .300 one year righthanded.”
Although White never developed quite as much power as a righthanded hitter, he managed to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game five times during his career, placing him second only to Mickey Mantle on New York’s all-time list at the time.
In spite of his several good years with the Yankees, White had to prove himself all over again in 1974 for new manager Bill Virdon. In a scenario that became all too familiar later in his career, White’s abilities and overall contributions to the team were underestimated by Virdon, who seemed intent on limiting the veteran outfielder’s playing time early in the season. Even though White did an outstanding defensive job for the Yankees the previous six seasons, leading all league leftfielders in fielding percentage four straight times at one point and annually finishing among the leaders in range factor, he rarely played the outfield the first two months of the 1974 campaign, more often than not being used instead as either a designated hitter or a pinch-hitter. Instead of playing White in his familiar spot in left field, manager Virdon preferred to use Elliott Maddox in center, Bobby Murcer in right, and Lou Piniella in left. Even on those rare occasions when White started in left, he frequently found himself being replaced in the late innings for defensive reasons. It took Virdon half a year to realize that he had made an error in judgment.
White later revealed, “In spring training of 1974, Virdon came in, and he had never seen me play before. I think I’m one of those guys you gotta’ see me play everyday or you probably couldn’t appreciate some of the little things that I tried to do as a player. So, I think he formed an opinion of me right away, and he later called me into his office one day – and he even said it to the press – that he underestimated me as a ballplayer when he first got there and didn’t realize that I was a good player until after he had seen me play every day.”
Still, even those more familiar with White as a player seemed to have a difficult time fully appreciating all the little things he did to help the team win. After leading the league in runs scored in 1976, he received slightly less playing time in 1977, and he saw his role diminish even further in 1978. Surrounded by more colorful and attention-grabbing players such as Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Mickey Rivers, and Lou Piniella, White often found his skills being taken for granted by the Yankee brass, which seemed intent on replacing him with someone else his last few years with the team. White himself later admitted, “It seemed like, for a while, they were always trying to find somebody to replace me. I never was a big power guy and they may have just been looking for someone who had more power.” As a result, players such as Gary Thomasson and Jay Johnstone, who had been platoon players throughout most of their careers, saw more action in left field for much of the 1978 season than did White.
However, when Bob Lemon replaced Billy Martin as manager in August, he immediately inserted White into the starting lineup. After seeing extremely limited playing time under Martin and struggling in his part-time role, White became one of New York’s hottest hitters over the season’s final two months. Raising his batting average almost 70 points, to .269 by season’s end, White helped the Yankees overcome a 14 ½ game deficit to the Boston Red Sox and eventually capture the A.L. East title. He continued to excel during the postseason, batting .313 in the ALCS and hitting a game-winning sixth-inning homer against Dennis Leonard in the Series clincher. He then batted .333 in the World Series against the Dodgers, hitting a home run, driving in four runs, and scoring the winning run in Game Four on a single by Lou Piniella.
The 1978 World Series had special meaning for White since it enabled him to play in front of his family and friends. Reflecting back on the significance that particular Fall Classic held for him, White revealed, “In 1977, I was disappointed because I didn’t really get to play in the World Series. I didn’t start one game in the Series. I ended up pinch-hitting in a couple of games, but I didn’t start any games. I was a little upset because Billy (Martin) had told me that he was going to use me against righthanded pitchers and that Cliff Johnson was going to DH against lefthanders. Anyway, the situation came up where I was supposed to be in there and I wasn’t, so, even though we won the World Series, in a way, it was kind of a disappointment because I really didn’t get to play in any of those games. And, you know, we were playing the Dodgers, from Los Angeles, and I had grown up in the Los Angeles area. So, my parents didn’t see me play in the Series. So it was kind of a bitter-sweet World Series for me. But 1978 was kind of a redemption for me, getting to play in all the games in the Series.”
In spite of the success White had down the stretch in 1978, he saw his playing time reduced again the following year. Appearing in just 81 games in 1979, White accumulated only 205 at-bats and batted just .215. After becoming a free agent at the end of the year, he briefly toyed with the idea of signing with the California Angels. However, White eventually chose to go to Japan, where he spent the next three years playing with the legendary Sadaharu Oh as a member of the Tokyo Giants. Discussing his time in Japan, White said, “It was a really good experience. I had an opportunity to play on a championship team in Japan in the second year I was there. So, I’m one of the few guys to have played for a World Series winner and a Japan Series winner. In fact, after playing there, I ended up going back almost every year for about 10 years, doing baseball clinics. I even learned some Japanese. I had a pretty good vocabulary.”
After retiring as an active player at the conclusion of the 1982 campaign, White returned to the States, where he eventually rejoined the Yankees as a coach during the mid-1980s. White spent three years on New York’s coaching staff, before serving for a time as hitting instructor for the Oakland A’s Triple-A affiliate. He returned to the Yankees as first base coach at the start of the 2004 season, spending two more years in pinstripes before being relieved of his duties at the conclusion of the 2005 campaign. He has since established The Roy White Foundation, a charity aimed to help children and young adults in the New York area who wish to attend college, but who do not have the financial resources to do so.
Roy White was a steady and consistent performer over the course of his Yankee career. During parts of 15 seasons in pinstripes, he hit 160 home runs, drove in 758 runs, scored 964 others, accumulated 1,803 hits, stole 233 bases, batted .271, and compiled a lifetime on-base percentage of .360. He ranks in the top ten in franchise history in games played, at-bats, base hits, runs scored, and stolen bases. Equally significant are the contributions he made to three consecutive pennant-winning teams and two world championship clubs during the latter stages of his career, when his quiet class and dignity made him one of the most respected men on the turbulent Yankee teams of the late-1970s.
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