Public relations officials at Major League teams, of which I was one, tend to deal with the biographical material you find on the backs of baseball cards.
Date of birth, place of birth, height, weight, bats, throws, and the traditional baseball card stats we have long been familiar with.
The birth of Baseball-Reference.com has increased our knowledge by adding schooling, draft information and other baseball necessities.
When Roy White joined the Yankees, we took care of business and handled the need-to-know items.
We didn’t look forward – to his becoming the greatest left fielder in the history of the New York Yankees – and we didn’t look backwards. We didn’t ask, “Are you the product of an interracial marriage? Were your parents divorced? Was your family on welfare? Was your mother an alcoholic? Was your father absent for your childhood? Did you grow up in a tough neighborhood? Did you have street fights? Did you ever spend time in jail? Were you ever beaten up? Did you carry a weapon?”
Those weren’t subjects likely to be covered in the Yankees Yearbook.
Even if those questions were appropriate – and they weren’t – you wouldn’t go there while having a conversation with Roy. He was quiet, unassuming, classy, professional, serious, and dignified. I remember that he would lug a record player on road trips (long before MP3), where he would room with Horace Clarke and play jazz in the room. It was hardly an activity that made one wonder where this guy grew up!
When I was writing about him once, long after we had both moved on, I learned that he was a member of street gang. It seemed so out of place.
“What were you, the recording secretary?” I asked. “You kept the minutes?”
I’m sure Roy was not the only Major League player who, when you peeled back the onion, you found there so much more to learn. Even if I had that knowledge, and could have tipped off a writer to ask about those things, it still would have felt like an invasion of his privacy.
And truth be told, many, many players had lives that were less than Little League to the Majors with the Cleaver family waiting at home with dinner.
The fact was, everyone liked Roy White. There wasn’t a more likeable member of the team. He and his beautiful wife Linda were guests at my 1975 wedding. I loved that they made the long trip. When our son was born, we visited their New Jersey home and enjoyed the day with their kids.
As the years moved on and he stayed with the team, appreciation rose. He was on his way to becoming a very senior member of this storied franchise, one who broke in while Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Roger Maris were on the team, and one who stayed to be teammates with Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Willie Randolph. Of all the inspiring stories that arose from those Yankee teams of the late ‘70s, Roy hitting a big home run in the 1978 ALCS warmed the hearts of everyone who had been there through the tough years of 1965-75. He got to see the promised land.
How many others would spend at least 15 seasons in the Major Leagues, all with the Yankees? By the end of Roy’s playing career there were only five others – Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Frank Crosetti, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford. (Later Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams joined this small club.)
The question of naming a team’s “all-time team” gets sidetracked on the Yankees by having Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle as the outfielders, disregarding the left-center-right matter. Of the three, only Ruth played some left field, depending on the sun. Usually he was in right. But if the question is specifically tied to that difficult acreage known as “death valley” – left field of Yankee Stadium – to me, Roy emerges on top. Others who would be in the discussion would be Bob Meusel, Charlie Keller, Dave Winfield and Hideki Matsui, but none had Roy’s longevity, or indeed, consistency playing just that outfield position. He mastered it. He played a full season errorlessly out there. He dealt with the sun field that was left field in Yankee Stadium, and he led all left fielders in assists twice, in fielding percentage five times, and in putouts eight times. As sportswriter Bryan Hoch points out, among Yankee left fielders he is first in plate appearances, at bats, runs, hits and walks, while placing second in doubles, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases.
The home runs always seem to catch us by surprise, because he was not a big muscle-bound slugger but a lithe, fast-footed athlete who often choked up at the plate. (SPORT magazine once ran a story titled “The Yankees have a Clean Up Hitter Who Chokes Up.”) And before the proliferation of switch hitters in the game’s current era, he was among the all-time switch hitting leaders in home runs. And in homering from both sides of the plate in the same game, on the Yankees there was Mantle (10 times), and White (five times). Posada (7), Mark Teixeira (7) Williams (6) and Nick Swisher (5) are a part of the current long ball era.
He even set a single-season American League sacrifice fly record of 17 in 1971, which has lasted more than half a century without being surpassed. We gave him a plaque for that one, thinking there are no such plaques generally presented. That is clutch hitting.
For a PR guy like myself, Roy was a dream. Did we need someone to shake hands and pose for pictures with some sponsors on the field, which required him to get dressed in full uniform long before he needed to? Roy was our go-to guy. Did we need someone to record some promos for our out-of-town radio network? Roy would bring that late-night deep disk jockey voice to the microphone and it was like we were dealing with James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman.
Were there pre-game autographs to sign for kids by the railing? There was a good chance Roy was among those answering the call.
When he went to Japan at the end of his Major League career, he had a chance to be a teammate of the legendary Sadaharu Oh, as he had been to Mickey Mantle. No one else could make that claim, and I could see Roy’s inner Zen guiding him through his time there. I imagine his respect for the game as well as his respect for teammates made him much admired, and he won a Japanese World Series as he had won our World Series, (twice,) also a unique accomplishment.
When people talk about those two Yankee seals of approval, the plaque in Monument Park and the retired number, I nod in agreement. As for retiring his number, the Yankees did retire number six for Joe Torre – even though he usually wore a jacket and few could tell you what his number was! It feels like it could have been retired for both, as “8” is for Berra and Dickey. The plaque? Well, his time may come. We hope it does.
Marty Appel, a Yankee historian and former public relations official with the team, is the author of Pinstripe Empire, Munson, and Casey Stengel.