“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1951-1959
#5   SAMMY WHITE

Boston fans who liked the way Jason Varitek handles the Red Sox pitching staff would have loved Sammy White. Sammy, who was selected as an American League All-Star catcher in 1953, was the team’s number one catcher from 1952 to 1959. White was a credible hitter, averaging .264 during his eight full seasons with the Red Sox, but it was his skill behind the plate that earned him a reputation as one of the better major league catchers of the 1950s.

Casey Stengel, who managed the New York Yankees to six American League pennants and four world championships during White’s tenure as the regular Red Sox catcher, was one of Sammy’s biggest fans. Stengel got to see White in action up to 22 times each year under the old 154-game schedule, and he used to shake his head at Sammy’s ability to “frame” a pitch.

Samuel Charles White was born in Wenatchee, Washington, about 150 miles east of Seattle, on July 7, 1928. He grew up in the Green Lake neighborhood in north central Seattle and he 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.  In his home, a blanket separated sleeping from eating. But from some such desperate beginnings came an athlete ahead of his time, a rangy kid who could dunk a basketball when it wasn’t yet allowed, who 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 White turned down a few baseball offers, including an $18,000 offer from the Pirates, to enter the University of Washington, where he starred in baseball and basketball. But in 1949, White 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 White’s contract from the Rainiers. As part of the deal, White received a portion of the sale price. Despite his impressive hitting in Seattle (.301 average), it was soon clear that White 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. White flew to New York City, and then took a train to (incorrectly) Oneida, where he was told there was no ballpark or team. White hit .356 in 30 games for Oneonta. White advanced the next two seasons to Class B Roanoke (Piedmont League) and Class A Scranton (Eastern League), hitting .258 and .267 while honing his skills as a catcher. After his 1950 season at Roanoke, White tried out with the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association.

Former Boston Celtics player Jack Nichols, who was a teammate of White’s at the University of Washington, told the Seattle Times in 1991, “At 6’3” [White] probably could have played small forward in the NBA at that time. He was one of the first guys who could float, like so many of the players do today.” The Red Sox warned White that he could not be late for spring training, while the Lakers insisted that he be prepared to spend the entire season (through April) with the team. In any event, White 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 White made his major league debut with Boston on September 26, 1951, against the Senators in Washington. The 1951 Boston Red Sox were only 2˝ games out of first place in the American League on September 18, but slumped badly to finish in third place. After the season second baseman Bobby Doerr, who had been plagued by a bad back, retired, and Ted Williams was recalled to active duty by the United States Marines. The Red Sox hired 35-year-old manager Lou Boudreau to begin a “youth movement” to reshape the team. In 1951 the team had used seven different players at catcher, but Boudreau selected Sammy White to provide stability behind the plate in 1952.

He first became a Boston fan favorite during a rather bizarre 11-9 victory over the St. Louis Browns on June 18, 1952. The legendary Satchel Paige had come on in relief for the Browns in the bottom of the ninth with St. Louis holding a 9-5 lead. Rookie center fielder Jimmy Piersall, who was in the midst of a bizarre series of behavioral issues that led to a nervous breakdown in July, led off the inning by signaling Paige that he was going to bunt. Piersall bunted successfully and proceeded first to imitate Satchel’s unique delivery, and then to yell and gesture like a monkey as he led off first base. An unnerved Paige gave up two singles and walked two Red Sox players, and when White stepped to the plate the bases were loaded and the Browns’ lead had been cut to 9-7. Sammy hit a game-winning grand slam.  On June 23, White showed his power with a home run and four RBIs as the Red Sox defeated the Tigers, 12-6. As the season progressed and White’s strong play continued, he was touted as a candidate to be named the American League’s Rookie of the Year. A mixture of veterans led by Dom DiMaggio, Mel Parnell, and Kell, together with youngsters like White and power-hitting first baseman Dick Gernert, kept the 1952 Red Sox in contention. On August 27, they were in third place, only 3˝ games off the pace.

The 1952 Sox slumped during the balance of the season and finished sixth. White placed third with seven votes for Rookie of the Year, trailing Athletics pitcher Harry Byrd, who got nine votes, and Browns catcher Clint Courtney, with eight votes. The Boston Baseball Writers Association voted White as their co-Rookie of the Year, along with Eddie Mathews of the Boston Braves.

In 1953 Sammy White picked up right where he had left off. He demonstrated that he had improved at the plate, in handling the pitching staff.  That season White started almost every Red Sox game, appearing in 136 games over the 154-game season. On June 18, White 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 White an invitation to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati, where the National League defeated the American League, 5-1. White didn’t play, as American League manager Casey Stengel elected to keep Yogi Berra behind the plate for the entire game. Despite strong seasons from pitchers Mel Parnell (21 wins), and Mickey McDermott (18 wins), and good offensive production from White, the 1953 Red Sox were never in contention for the American League pennant. The team finished fourth, 16 games behind the Yankees.

Things got off to a very bad start for the Red Sox on the opening of spring training in 1954, and went downhill from there. Ted Williams had returned from combat in Korea in late 1953, and Red Sox fans were looking forward to his first full season since 1951. But after a few minutes of shagging fly balls on March 1, Williams fell awkwardly on his left shoulder, breaking his collarbone. He was out of the lineup until mid-May.  White was one of the few bright spots for the Red Sox in a dismal 1954 season. He homered on Opening Day in Philadelphia and added a home run two days later as the Red Sox defeated the Washington Senators in the Fenway opener. On May 25, after he had grounded into double plays in his first three at-bats, White’s ninth-inning home run was the margin of victory in the 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Athletics. Over the course of the 1954 season, White 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, White was acknowledged as one of the premier catchers in major-league baseball.

After the 1954 season White got in more hot water when he tried to form a basketball team of major leaguers who would barnstorm around New England. (The Whites had settled in Newton, a suburb just west of Boston.) The Red Sox put a stop to the basketball team, but White 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 “Pinky” Higgins, Sammy White was behind the plate for nearly every game. Recognizing White’s 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 White’s offensive production. His batting average fell to .261 from .282 the previous season, and his RBI total dropped from 75 to 64, but he did set a career high with 65 runs scored and his 30 doubles ranked fourth in the American League. More importantly, he clearly helped the pitching staff – which featured 10 different starters in the 154 games – to a high level of achievement.

White 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, White’s back began to bother him and his hitting continued to suffer. The highlight of the 1956 Red Sox season occurred on July 14 when Mel Parnell threw a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox in a 4-0 victory. The Red Sox finished 1956 a disappointing 13 games behind the New York Yankees. Sammy White’s batting average fell to .245 and he split playing time with Pete Daley during the second half of the season.

In 1957 the Red Sox continued their pattern of winning more than they lost, staying in the middle of the American League pack, and never really contending. The big excitement was Ted Williams’ flirtation with a .400 batting average. On August 25, the 38-year-old Williams had a batting average of .393, and he finished the season at .388. Symptomatic of their subpar season, 11 Red Sox players, including White and Frank Sullivan, were stricken with food poisoning just before a Labor Day doubleheader with the Washington Senators. For the season, White’s 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, and his slugging average was a dismal .276.

Little changed for the Red Sox in 1958, but White 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, he improved his batting average to .259, and he raised his slugging percentage by over 100 points to finish at .378. And no one ever questioned his value to the Red Sox pitching staff.

Sammy White’s offense continued to improve in 1959. In The Sporting News, Hy Hurwitz noted, “Sammy White continues to hit well and seems headed for that big season that Mike Higgins has been expecting for the past three seasons.” The Red Sox as a team had trouble finding their groove in 1959, and Mike Higgins was fired as the manager on July 3, with the Red Sox in eighth place, 10˝ games out of first place.  White’s batting average increased significantly immediately after Higgins’ dismissal. In what Hurwitz described as “strictly a coincidence,” White went 44-for-135 (.326 batting average) during the five weeks following Higgins' departure. Hurwitz went on to say, “For three years, Mike Higgins, deposed Red Sox manager, kept saying that he saw no reason why catcher Sammy White doesn’t hit .300. With Higgins departed, White seems headed to the exalted group of American League .300 hitters.”  The Red Sox played 44-36 baseball for Billy Jurgess, Higgins’ replacement, but finished in fifth place, 19 games behind the White Sox. 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.

The March 16, 1960, edition of The Sporting News announced that Sammy White was the last Red Sox player to sign his 1960 contract. The article also gave considerable space to White’s business venture, Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl. Frank Sullivan remembered that White didn’t just lend his name to the enterprise. “Sam was very involved in the bowling alley all the way through. He was backed by George Page [of the Colonial Country Club in Lynnfield] and Sam was active in the construction and the operation.” Interestingly, it was when Jackie Jensen returned to help White open the bowling alley that Jensen decided to come back out of retirement and play once more for the Red Sox in 1961.

On the same March 16 the Boston Red Sox announced that White had been traded to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Russ Nixon. White promptly announced his retirement from baseball, sitting out the 1960 season to focus on his bowling enterprise. On June 15, 1961, the Milwaukee Braves coaxed White out of retirement and purchased his contract from the Red Sox.

In 1980, Sammy White was inducted into the State of Washington Hall of Fame in recognition of his baseball career. He was voted into the Husky Hall of Fame of the University of Washington for baseball and basketball in 1984.  Sammy White’s lifetime batting average with the Boston Red Sox was .264. And if you speak with the Red Sox pitchers who threw to him, they will tell you that he was as good behind the plate as anyone they ever saw.