On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.
These days, probably the most famous thing about Roy White is a single sentence Bill James wrote in 2001: "I may be the only person who rates Roy White ahead of Jim Rice, George Foster, Joe Carter, and several Hall of Famers."
For the younger readers among us, White was a two-time All-Star who played 15 years for the Yankees and hit 160 homers with 758 RBIs. James wrote that in his New Historical Abstract, eight years before Rice's election to the Hall of Fame (and one year before James was hired by Rice's former employers, the Boston Red Sox), and it brought White the most publicity he'd had in years — perhaps ever.
Roy White grew up in Compton, California, an understated man who won championships with the two biggest baseball teams in the world, in the World Series with the New York Yankees and in the Japan Series with the Yomiuri Giants. So why is he not remembered that well? It's because the things he was good at were things that you wouldn't necessarily notice. He walked a lot. He played good defense in left field in Yankee Stadium, which was so deep that it was known at the time as "Death Valley" — and, as a switch-hitter, White himself saw a lot of potential home runs turn into noisy outs in Death Valley. James highlighted White as an example of the extreme influence that home field can have in baseball: Jim Rice's inflated offense was partly due to Fenway Park, a bandbox which turned every hitter into a star, while White's relatively unimpressive offense was partly due to Yankee Stadium, which was death on right-handed sluggers.
Even at the time, White's talents and unflashy demeanor seemed to leave him in the background. On his blog The Flagrant Fan, William Tasker writes: "Roy White wasn't fuzzy. His typical countenance was impassive. He never pumped his fist." In his 1974 Topps baseball card blog, wobs notes, "In over ten years of late '60s and early '70s cards and Yankee yearbooks, I don't think I ever saw a Roy White smile." Bruce Markusen puts it simply: "Few Yankee fans seemed to have much of an appreciation for Roy White."
But his teammates did. As noted by SABR writer James Lincoln Ray, Mickey Mantle wrote an article in 1970 for Sport magazine that left no doubt as to what he thought of him. "People ask me: What happened to all the Yankee stars? I tell them that Roy White is as good a player as any of the old players we used to have."
Best Year: 1970: .296/.387/.473, 22 HRs, 94 RBIs, 24 SBs, 10 CS, 95 BB/66 K, 7.5 WAR
White picked a bad time to be on the Yankees. For most of his career, the biggest starts were Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer; Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry and Catfish Hunter arrived later and helped lead the Yankees to two world championships in 1978 and 1979, at the end of White's career. White began his career like Don Mattingly, during a playoff desert for the Yankees: from 1965 to 1975, the Yankees never made the playoffs, and unfortunately, those were the years when he was at his best.
He was never better than in 1970, when his 26-year-old self played left field, batted third and cleanup, and set personal bests with 22 homers, 94 RBI, and a .296 batting average — it was the only time he ever hit more than 19 or drove in more than 84. As personal bests go, those look pretty anemic now, but remember, the late '60s were a pitching-dominant era, and the 1970s were nowhere near the offensive peak of the 1930s, 1950s, 1990s, or 2000s. For his efforts, White was named to his second straight All-Star team. But he didn't get into the game. He had that kind of career.
Worst Year: 1973: .246/.329/.374, 18 HRs, 60 RBIs, 16 SBs, 9 CS, 78 BB/81 K, 2.3 WAR
It's hard to pick a "worst year" for White. Statistically, his worst seasons were the ones in which he played the least, at the very beginning and very end of his career, and that hardly seems fair. His career tailed off quickly, as he was basically done as a productive everyday player by age 34, but in every year in which he played at least 120 games, he was an above-average player, thanks in large part to his fine defense.
His production in 1973 was certainly off his personal averages, but it was still basically league-average production, as the average hitter in the American League hit .259/.328/.381. The following year, his walks and batting average rebounded, but his home run total plummeted to just seven, and he hit 12 the following year. His low home run totals and inability to hit .300 marked him as an unsexy player, but he certainly wasn't a bad one. He was probably better than several Hall of Famers.
Including, possibly, Jim Rice.
Claim to Fame: As Tasker notes later in his blog post on Roy White:
He is known for two big things: First, he was on base when Bucky Dent hit the most famous home run of his career. Second, he hit an insane number of sacrifice flies. In 1971, White led the league with 17 of them. They made up 20 percent of White's 84 RBIs that year.
White is actually known for a third thing, too: he hit with a unique "pigeon-toed" batting stance. Writes Markusen:
From the Yankees' perspective, no one had a more distinctive stance than Roy White. Hitting out of a pronounced crouch, White tucked the knob of his bat toward his back hip, all while pointing each of his feet inward—toward the other.
White's name was often bandied about during the discussions of Jim Rice for the Hall of Fame. White himself didn't receive a single Hall of Fame vote. Now that Rice is in, not many people write about the old Yankee left fielder that the Red Sox analyst thought was better. But it's his birthday. He deserves it.
Off the Field: White played in Japan for three years, including the Giants' title season in 1981. He was a Yankee coach for a number of years after that, serving as the team's hitting coach from 1983 to 1986, and most recently as first base coach in 2004 and 2005. He was the highest-profile American player ever to sign a multiyear deal in Japan. He now works with his Roy White Foundation, an organization which seeks to provide financial assistance for students to attend college.