Bill White, a three-team National League player, and the first Black baseball broadcaster ever

The Yankees Airwaves Voices – Starting in 1970

Bob Gamere did play-by-play for Holy Cross football and basketball before hired by the Yankees in 1970. One lone season, he was partnered with Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer. Doing both TV and Radio 1970, Bob emerged from obscurity but lacked maturity. Mike Burke, who hired and fired Gamere in a matter of one season commented, Bob “was inexperienced and lacked judgment in dealing with players.” Burke wanted his announcers “to aim to transport television and radio fans into the ballpark.”

Gamere’s one season in the Bronx was graded dismal. So he moved up to work in the Boston area and did television sports for Harvard football. The club dumped him. Furthermore, Gamere found himself fighting the the law, concerning sexual activities with children under age. 

1971 – Bill White, Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer

As such, the Yankees received more than 200 tapes from applicants interested in replacing Gamere. At the urging of Howard Cosell, the Bronx based club hired Bill White, who became the first black broadcaster in major-league history. “I had lunch with Mike Burke and told him he should not overlook Bill White,” Cosell said at the time.

The ex-first baseman had played 14 years (Giants, Cardinals, Phillies) and had one year of non-play-by-play broadcasting experience in Philadelphia. He was born in 1934 and
grew up near Cleveland. Bill White celebrated his 90th birthday on January 28th. He replaced Gamere. At the time of his dismissal in the Bronx, he was 32.

The irascible Cosell and the soft toned White were disagreeing inexplicably. White told Art Adler, the Yankees’ executive producer, “Cosell has been cold-shouldering me for a year”

The Hall of Fame Case for Bill White - Cooperstown CredWhite confronted Cosell. “He claims somebody that someone told him he heard Rizzuto relate a silly story about Howard on the air and that this person heard me giggle in the background. Would you believe it? Cold-shouldering me for a year over some thirdhand information.” Adler said that the two never regained their original friendship. (Bill White – left))

White was entertaining and soft spoken. At the time of White’s hiring in 1971 it was said that the Yankees were hoping to expunge their stodgy image and appeal to minorities. White remembered, “I said I didn’t really want to be hired because of that (being black). The [Yankees] executive explained that baseball had an obligation to the country, that the Yankees were one of the best-known teams, and in the Bronx, he felt it would be great for young black kids to turn on the TV and see one of their own as the best spokesman.”

White combined technique, warmth, knowledge, and enthusiasm. He came off with a warm capacity, from his fellows booth mates, Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer.

Remember that in the early 1970s, amassing his 16 seasons on the Big Field, and going Stadium-to-Stadium, the former first baseman lit up brilliantly. The baseball airwaves, those with yarns, description, humor and candor were bound by professionalism. As the team headed into the 1971 season, it also had a new radio station, WMCA, and a new broadcaster, Bill White.

Messer won’t forget White’s first broadcast. The Yankees were playing the Orioles in an exhibition game in Miami. “Bill had a previous commitment in Philadelphia (where he lived) and arrived during the second inning. Rizzuto was on the air alone and I was watching the game from the other end of the press box,” White said then.

He walked into the booth had never done play-by-play. Rizzuto introduced him to the audience and welcomed him to the Yankees family. From the corner of his eye, Phil sees DiMaggio. He jumps out of the booth, leaving White there all alone.

The poor fellow had just arrived and felt as nervous as they come. There he was trying to do something he’s never have done play-by-play without any support in the baseball broadcast booth. Nonetheless, White meshed well with the straight-shooting Messer and in-time, he made for good banter with the Scooter. With White: “Hey White!” he would often bark!

Almost immediately, White added insight in what the New York Times described as
an “easy colloquial style studded with nuggets of pithy description.” When Bill Rigney managed the Twins, he was out talking with the umpire. “Rigney used to have lots of trouble with umpires. So now the first thing he does when he gets out is put his hands in his pockets.”

After a fine stop by the shortstop, “He sure can pick it.” And when Brooks Robinson handled a difficult ground ball, “Brooksie has soft hands.” Reaching for a foul ball heading toward the booth at the old-old Yankee Stadium, he broke his wrist watch.

At spring training, White checked out Rizzuto with Elston Howard (the Yankees’ first black player). “Everything he said was positive.” White leaned on Scooter that first year. “Phil would help me with some of the basic techniques, differences and timing in the American league.” White played for three team National League clubs, Giants, Cards and Phillies. 

Bill attested to the solid relationship between the cohabitants in the Yankees’ booth. “A lot of the broadcasters are jealous of one other and wouldn’t even speak to each other except when they’re in the booth. That never happened in the Yankees booth. There were no egos in the Yankees booth while we were there.”

One reason could have been diverse interests. Rizzuto liked golf and White fishing.

Rizzuto and White had a lot of fun together including the time that Rizzuto went on the air and introduced himself as Phil White. And when one day Rizzuto recited one happy birthday after another, Bill said, “Hey, Phil, don’t you have a birthday name out there that doesn’t end in a vowel?” White was clever. He knew how to play foil with Rizzuto, a darling of Yankees’ fans.

Stan Isaacs – Newsday

Stan Isaacs of Newsday once wrote, “Rizzuto’s ebullience and White’s sly needling
combined for a good team.” White was highly regarded as a broadcaster. He was rarely criticized. He did World Series too for CBS Radio.

The writer, Isaacs, might have occasionally taken issue with him for only wanting him to talk about what’s happening between the lines. The Yankees fad been fraught with controversy outside the lines. White, though, distanced himself from it, as did his club-paid colleagues, Rizzuto, Messer, and company.

Bill White celebrated his 90th birthday on January 28, 2024. Many more years of enriching, consistency!

David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Michael Green
25 days ago

I first encountered “WHITE!” in 1977. Some may recall that when ABC got half of the MLB deal, it included not having to use team announcers. NBC cut Phil Rizzuto and Marty Brennaman to three innings a game in 1976. In 1977, with Keith Jackson doing play-by-play and Howard Cosell on color, ABC offered Vin two innings a game plus the pre-game, and his agent told them to take a hike before Vin could. So Ross Porter and Bill White did the pre-game, and play-by-play on CBS Radio with Win Elliot. I got to hear more of White on CBS… Read more »