“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1951-1959
#5   SAMMY WHITE

Sammy White was born in Wenatchee, Washington on July 7, 1928. He grew up in the Green Lake neighborhood in north central Seattle and excelled in sports at Lincoln High School. A three-sport star in football (as a fullback and end), basketball, and baseball at Lincoln, he was best known for his exploits on the basketball court.  He led Seattle’s Lincoln High School to a state championship, and the University of Washington Huskies to the NCAA tournament.

After a nine-month tour with the Naval Reserve, in 1946, Sammy turned down a few baseball offers to enter the University of Washington, where he starred in baseball and basketball. But in 1949, he decided that baseball was his best path to a future in professional sports and he left college to sign with the Seattle Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League.

During the 1949 season, the Boston Red Sox purchased his contract. Despite his impressive hitting in Seattle (.301 average), it was soon clear that he needed to spend some time lower in the minor leagues to learn to catch. After a brief stop in Louisville, the Red Sox sent him to Oneonta, New York, in the Class C Canadian American League. He hit .356 in 30 games for Oneonta, then advanced the next two seasons to Class B Roanoke (Piedmont League) and Class A Scranton (Eastern League) while honing his skills as a catcher.

After his 1950 season at Roanoke, Sammy tried out with the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA. The Red Sox warned him that he could not be late for spring training, while the Lakers insisted that he be prepared to spend the entire season with the team. In any event, he lost the final spot on the Lakers roster to future Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant, who was already a celebrity in the Minneapolis area.

After his season at Scranton, which included rave reviews for his catching ability, Sammy made his major league debut with the Red Sox in September 1951, against the Senators in Washington. In 1951 the team had used seven different players at catcher, but manager Lou Boudreau selected Sammy to provide stability behind the plate in 1952.

He first became a Boston fan favorite during an 11-9 victory over the St. Louis Browns when he hit a game-winning grand slam.  As the season progressed and Sammy’s strong play continued, he was touted as a candidate to be named the American League’s Rookie of the Year.

Sammy placed third with seven votes for Rookie of the Year, but The Boston Baseball Writers Association voted him as their co-Rookie of the Year, along with Eddie Mathews of the Boston Braves.

In 1953 Sammy picked up right where he had left off. He demonstrated that he had improved at the plate, in handling the pitching staff.  That season he started almost every Red Sox game, appearing in 136 games over the 154-game season. In June he earned a permanent place in the baseball record books during a 23-3 Red Sox shellacking of the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox scored 17 runs against the Tigers in the seventh inning, and Sammy became the first 20th-century player to score three runs in one inning.  His outstanding first-half play earned him an invitation to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

Over the course of the 1954 season, Sammy caught in 137 games, and increased his production in several important offensive categories. He batted a very respectable .282, and his 14 home runs and 75 RBIs both represented career highs. After three full seasons as the regular Red Sox catcher, he was acknowledged as one of the premier catchers in major-league baseball.

After the 1954 season Sammy got in more hot water when he tried to form a basketball team of major leaguers who would barnstorm around New England. The Red Sox put a stop to the basketball team, but Sammy would not sign his 1955 contract for a while as a protest. The previous winter he had coached the basketball team at Beverly High School, and believed that his workouts with his boys were more strenuous than a series of exhibitions would have been.

In 1955, under new Red Sox manager Mike Higgins, Sammy was behind the plate for nearly every game. Recognizing his value to the pitching staff, Higgins started him in 143 of the team’s 154 games. His 544 at-bats that season ranked tenth in the American League, and first among the league’s catchers. But catching nearly every day took its toll on his offensive production. His batting average fell to .261 from .282 the previous season, and his RBI total dropped from 75 to 64. More importantly, he clearly helped the pitching staff to a high level of achievement.

Sammy had averaged almost 140 appearances behind the plate from 1953 to 1955, and manager Higgins rode him hard in 1956. In fact, Higgins penciled him in behind the plate in each of the first 26 games the team played. As the season wore on, Sammy’s back began to bother him and his hitting continued to suffer. His batting average fell to .245 and he split playing time with Pete Daley during the second half of the season.

In 1957 Sammys batting average dropped to .215 in just 340 at-bats. He managed only three home runs that season, down from a high of 14 in 1954.

Little changed for the Red Sox in 1958, but Sammy did show signs of regaining his batting stroke. In 1957, he had started only 105 games behind the plate while Pete Daley started the other 49 games. Manager Higgins continued this pattern in 1958, starting Sammy in only 91 games, and the extra rest paid off in improved offensive production from the veteran backstop. He doubled his home run output to six and he improved his batting average to .259. And no one ever questioned his value to the Red Sox pitching staff.

Sammy’s offense continued to improve in 1959. Mike Higgins was fired as the manager in July and Sammy’s batting average increased significantly immediately after Higgins’ dismissal. In what would turn out to be their last year as teammates, Sammy outhit Ted Williams by 30 points, finishing with a batting average of .284 in 119 games, while Ted’s average fell to a career low of .254.

Sammy was the last Red Sox player to sign his 1960 contract. His business venture, "Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl" saw him very involved in the bowling alley all the way through. He was active in the construction and the operation.

In March the Boston Red Sox announced that White had been traded to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Russ Nixon. Sammy promptly announced his retirement from baseball, sitting out the 1960 season to focus on his bowling enterprise. In June 1961, the Milwaukee Braves coaxed him out of retirement and purchased his contract from the Red Sox.

In Milwaukee, he backed up the regular catcher, a young rookie by the name of  Joe Torre. After appearing in 21 games for Milwaukee, he was released by the Braves at the end of the season. In spring training 1962, Sammy signed on as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies, and started only 31 games for the Phillies, and his baseball career came to an end when he was released in October 1962.

Sammy rejoined his friend and former batterymate Frank Sullivan on Kauai in Hawaii. The pair originally worked in construction, but became certified as golf professionals by the PGA in 1978 and Sammy became the director of golf for the Princeville Resort on Kauai 

In 1980, Sammy was inducted into the State of Washington Hall of Fame in recognition of his baseball career and was voted into the Husky Hall of Fame of the University of Washington for baseball and basketball in 1984. 

Sammy White passed away, when he accidentally choked to death, on August 5, 1991, at age 64, in Princeville, Hawaii.