The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 31-40
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 31: 1B BILL WHITE
Bill White had a good rookie season in 1956, slamming 22 home runs in 138 games, but lost his footing in the New York Giants’ lineup when he sacrificed his second season to military service.
Things were much different by the time he rejoined the team in 1958. For one, it had packed up and made the transcontinental move to San Francisco. It also had suddenly become top heavy at his position, having added future Hall of Fame first basemen Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey to the roster.
Limited to just 26 games and 29 at bats, White was traded at his request. On March 25 of ‘59, the Giants shipped him and third baseman Ray Jablonski to the Cardinals for pitchers Don Choate and Sam Jones.
Apart from third on Giants’ depth chart, however, St. Louis was the last place White wanted to be.
Signed as a rookie free agent out of Hiram College in desegregated Ohio, White spent four minor league seasons traveling Carolina and Texas League towns, where Jim Crow laws and racist attitudes prevailed. Besides the barrage of racial epithets he and other black players endured and the nights spent sleeping on the team bus because hotels would not admit them, White also recalled more than one instance when he felt compelled to keep a bat in hand for self-defense.
Until the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957, St. Louis had been the southern- and western-most team in Major League Baseball. The Cardinals also were one of the last big-league teams to integrate their roster when new owner Gussie Busch signed Tom Alston in 1954 —seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Dodgers.
Fueled in part by his minor league experiences, White couldn’t help but wonder if those factors might still be reflected in the way he’d be received in his new city and new team.
What he he found with the Cardinals allayed his concerns.
In his autobiography, “Stranger to the Game,” Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, described an advanced team culture that was intellectual and inclusive as well as it was fun. It became ever more so midway through 1961 when Johnny Keane replaced Solly Hemus as manager.
White, always outspoken and direct, quickly became the voice of the Cardinals’ social conscience. During spring training of 1962, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, as was its tradition, hosted players from the Cardinals and New York Yankees for an invitation-only breakfast. Only the white players were on the list.
White took the slight to the press and lobbied Cardinals management to stand up on its players’ behalf. Moved either by outrage or the beer boycott threatened back in St. Louis, Busch rallied other business investors to purchase two hotels where his players would stay together. Cardinals stars Stan Musial and Ken Boyer, who typically stayed with their families in private beach-side cottages, sacrificed those comforts in a show of team solidarity.
“There’s no way to quantify the spirit that group of men shared, but in baseball, as in the military, that spirit can sometimes make the difference between victory and defeat,” White would say.
Personally, White thrived.
His first two seasons in St. Louis were solid, but he broke out in 1962, batting .324/.386/.482 with 20 home runs and 102 RBIs. White hit at least .300 with 20 home runs and 100 RBIs each of the following two seasons, including that amazing championship season of 1964.
The Cardinals were in fourth place on Aug. 23, 11 games behind the National League-leading Philadelphia Phillies. But the cohesive Cardinals won six games in a row and 21 of 29 in September to claim the pennant on the last day of the regular season. They went on to shock Mickey Mantle and the 99-win Yankees in a seven-game World Series, St. Louis’ first championship in 18 years.
White was spectacular again, batting .303/.355/.474 with 21 home runs, 102 runs batted in and 93 more scored to finish third in the MVP balloting.
Shocked by the defection of Keane to the Yankees and stricken with injuries, the Cardinals slumped to 80 wins and a seventh-place finish in 1965. The team decided to trade off its older players, including White, who was 32. White, shortstop Dick Groat and clubhouse comedian Bob Uecker were sent to the Phillies for pitcher Pat Corrales, Art Mahaffey and rookie outfielder Alex Johnson.
In eight seasons for the Cardinals, White was a five-time All-Star and won six straight Gold Gloves at first base. He’d win another with the Phillies.
White, a multi-sport athlete in high school, has often said he never loved baseball because he didn’t believe the game would ever love him back. But following his retirement as a player in 1969 (after 49 games with the Cardinals), he experienced continued success in the game. Partnering with former big-league shortstop Phil Ruzzuto on Yankees television and radio broadcasts, White became the first African-American to do play-by-play for an MLB team. Then, in 1989, he was the unanimous pick of team owners to serve as president of the National League, baseball’s first high-ranking black executive.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1959-65, 69
.298/.357/.472 with Cardinals | 5x All-Star | 7x Gold Glove | WS rings | 28.1 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.81