Every Friday, we will be taking a look back at the career of a critical player in New York Yankees history that doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve. When looking at the storied history of the Yankees names like BabeRuth, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter quickly come to mind. Today, we will be looking at those players who played a critical role. Simply put, without these individuals, the Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees.
Today we will be looking at left field. The position has been home to many great Yankees including Hideki Matsui, Charlie Keller, Lou Piniella and even Babe Ruth (depending on the direction of the sun). But today we will be looking at one of the quiet leaders who helped bridge the gap from the 1960s into the 1970s: Roy White.
White was born in Compton, Calif. on Dec. 27, 1943. After his parents separated, he was raised by his mother and along with his little brother played baseball in one of the nearby vacant lots. In his neighborhood, instead of a baseball, they would fill a sock with rags and use tape to help form a ball, which made it difficult for pitchers to throw fast. Instead, they learned that it was very easy to throw breaking balls. As a result, White developed his batting eye and his unique batting stance.
As a child, White was a standout athlete and had offers to join UCLA for baseball and Long Beach State for football. However, the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal in 1961 for just $6,000. Initially, White struggled in the minors, but in 1965 he established himself as a top prospect. With Triple A Columbus, White, a promising second baseman, hit .300, with 19 home runs and earned the league’s MVP award and a September call-up to the Bronx.
White played the 1966 season with the Yankees, but he and the team struggled. After his career, White stated that the allure of the short porch caused him to change his swing, and in 1966 and 1967 he struck out more than he walked.
Everyday Player and a Position Change
The 1968 season saw White as a backup infielder and late game pinch hitter. However, White started the season off hot and forced Yankees manager Ralph Houk to find him a position. With the infield full, Houk challenged White to learn to play left field. White took over the cleanup spot in the lineup from Mickey Mantle and finished 12th in the American League MVP voting. However, the Yankees dynasty of the early 60s was becoming a distant memory as the team struggled to win games.
Despite the lack of team success, White established himself as a premier player in baseball. 1969 saw his first All-Star game appearance and 1970 would see his second. Meanwhile, in 1970 he hit .298 with 22 home runs while stealing 24 bases. After the season, now former teammate Mickey Mantle would state that White was every bit of a Yankees star and one of the best players in baseball.
While White continued to elevate his play (he led all of MLB with 99 walks in 1972) the Yankees continued struggling. By the end of his career, White had walked over 200 more times than he struck out as an MLB player. Out of his 15 seasons in baseball, White struck out more than he walked just four times.
New Owner and New Expectations
In 1973, CBS sold the Yankees to George Steinbrenner. With the new owner, the Yankees looked to recapture their glory days, and new talent and a new stadium was brought into the Bronx. White especially enjoyed playing for Billy Martin, starting in 1975. Both men were focused on walks, stolen bases and good defense and Martin moved White to the number two position in the order. Batting between Mickey Rivers and Thurman Munson, White led MLB in runs scored in 1976 and the Yankees found themselves battling Kansas City with a chance to go to the World Series.
In Game One, White clinched the game with a big two run double in the ninth. In the final game, White had a hit, two walks and scored twice as the Yankees beat the Royals on a Chris Chambliss walk-off home run. Unfortunately, White and the Yankees would struggle against the Reds in the World Series.
The following season, White was given a three-year contract but would start to decline with age. Despite being an everyday player during the season, he only had seven at-bats in the 1977 postseason. Meanwhile, the Yankees won their first World Series in over a decade. 1978 saw the emergence of Lou Piniella, and the two would split left field. However, White caught fire late in the season, hitting .337 in September as the Yankees tried to run down the Red Sox. In the famous one game playoff at Fenway Park, the Yankees were down 2-0 in the seventh. White, with one runner on, ripped a double to center setting the stage for Bucky Dent’s heroic homer.
Later Career and Going Abroad
White struggled in 1979, and Piniella played more and more in left. After a disappointing season for both White and the Yankees, the two parted ways after the expiration of his contract. Despite multiple offers to stay in the big leagues, White shocked many by signing with the Yomiuri Giants. He soon found himself batting cleanup in Japan providing protection for Japan’s home run king, Sadaharu Oh, just like he did for Mantle many years earlier.
In his first year in Japan, White hit over .300 with 29 home runs. He followed that up with 23 home runs and a Japan Series win. He stayed in Japan for one final season and finished his three-years with a .296 average with over 60 home runs.
Post Playing Days
White would return to the Yankees as the hitting coach from 1983 through 1986. Under his guidance, Don Mattingly won an MVP award and become one of the best hitters in baseball. White stayed close to the Yankees and became a trusted advisor to George Steinbrenner. Notably, he served part-time as a scout and was part of the team that first travelled to Japan to scout Hideki Matsui.
Outside of baseball, Roy White created a foundation with the goal of helping to provide financial resources to young adults in New York City who cannot afford college on their own.
While White was not as flashy as some other Yankees greats, he was one of the most impactful players to wear pinstripes. Perhaps Reggie Jackson said it best when he said the following about White:
“Sometimes management can’t accept his kind of player because they’re looking for loud players, guys who do things in a big way. If you really don’t watch him, and you really don’t figure out what he does, he can easily be overlooked. But his biggest asset to the club, is that here’s a guy who’s going to do his job and not make mental mistakes, a guy who will bunt, hit a grounder to the other side to advance a runner, hit a sacrifice fly, get you a quiet single and get on base.”