Book Review: Uppity
Former big leaguer, NL president pulls no punches
Uppity: My Untold Story about the Games People Play
By Bill White with Gordon Dillow
Grand Central Publishing, 2011
List Price: $26.99
If people who know the man had any doubt where they stood with Bill White, they won't after reading his new memoir, "Uppity: My Untold Story about the Games People Play." White, whose long and varied career afforded him a view of the game from just about every angle, doesn't hold back, sharing his candid thoughts about a number of people with whom he crossed paths over the years.
Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent absorbs the most body blows, though he is joined in the crosshairs by the likes of former Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam, umpire Joe West and broadcaster Howard Cosell. Given all of the obstacles White had faced as a black player coming up in the 1950s, it's interesting that he's actually more sympathetic toward longtime Dodgers GM Al Campanis and former Reds owner Marge Schott, who both ran into trouble for expressing racist views.
Race is a major theme in the book, which gets its title from the old, derogatory term used by whites to describe the insolence of African-Americans who "forgot their place" in society as it once existed. White's grandmother, who lived in the Florida Panhandle back in the early 1900s, never shied from looking people straight in the eye, regardless of race. White was proud to inherit this "uppity" streak.
White needed that inner toughness as a pioneering player, broadcaster, and executive. Though he reached the major leagues in 1956, nearly a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he was confronted with racism all the way up through the minors, especially as the only black player in the Carolina League in 1953.
After being elected senior class president in his mixed-race high school and attending college in Ohio, White wasn't accustomed to abuse the way some black players who had grown up in the South were. He didn't always handle it as well as he or the team's management might have liked, like the time he flipped off a heckling crowd in Graham, N.C., nearly inciting a riot. Lucky to escape the field without incident, he realized the value in channeling his rage and frustration.
It was a lot to put up with for a kid whose dreams didn't involve baseball. He had planned to go to medical school and become a doctor, and baseball became a means to help pay his college tuition. Giants manager Leo Durocher, enamored with White's powerful swing, gave in to his demand for a $2,500 bonus—enough to cover four years of schooling. But White made it just halfway through college before allowing baseball to take over as his full-time vocation.
White justified the Giants' faith in his power, homering in his first big league at-bat and slamming a total of 202 home runs in his 13-year career. He made five all-star teams and captured seven straight Gold Gloves, from 1960-66. Long before his playing career wrapped up, he had a head start on his next job, having dallied in broadcasting in both St. Louis and Philadelphia.
In 1971, he became the first full-time African-American radio announcer in baseball when he joined the Yankees broadcast team. White worked for 18 years with Phil Rizzuto, playing the straight man to the Scooter's often way out and undeniably "homer" antics. When he finally had enough of working the mike, White was approached about taking over as National League president in 1989. Leery of being nothing more than a token hire, he originally declined an invitation to be interviewed for the position. But the search committee's persistence eventually won him over, and he reciprocated with a solid performance when they finally met.
Though he spent just five years at the helm of the NL, White devotes a third of the book to his time in the job. These chapters are filled with anecdotes about his headaches dealing with various managers, club executives and umpires, but the juiciest details come when he discusses the politics at baseball's highest levels.
White describes Vincent, who served as deputy commissioner before ascending to the top job when Bart Giamatti died in September 1989, as "manipulative" and someone with "an uncanny ability to do exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time." He later writes "From his very first day . . . Fay Vincent had shown weakness, indecisiveness, and an inability to lead."
White cites in particular the commissioner's handling of a threatened umpires' strike in spring training 1990, fee sharing when expansion clubs in Florida and Colorado joined the NL, and his strong-armed attempt to realign the Chicago Cubs into the NL's Western Division. White will certainly not need to leave a spot on his mantel for a card from Vincent this Christmas.
It's interesting to read White's take on stories that we all remember from his time in the NL office. Schott's propensity to speak before thinking got her in a lot of hot water and made her a pariah among owners. White surprisingly shows sympathy for her, though he rightfully scorns the hateful words that landed her in trouble. He gives us an insider's view of the Pete Rose investigation and provides specifics on flare-ups with certain umpires, such as West, whose on-field antics stirred up controversy on multiple occasions.
While the stories are engaging, none of this is exactly breaking news. There have been a number of books in recent years discussing the adversity black players faced and overcame in integrating the game. White's experiences as an educated northerner round that picture out a bit, and make "Uppity," which White co-wrote with Gordon Dillow, a worthy addition to that canon. Though it's not all page-turning stuff, give White credit for his candor. If he doesn't like someone, he says so and explains why. That, in itself, makes this memoir stand out.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.