Thursday, February 11, 2010
By the time the Yankees ended an eleven season pennant drought in 1976 the only connections they had to their most recent successes were coaches Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, and digging back even further in their history, manager Billy Martin. But there was one player on the club who had just missed out on the success of the teams of the early sixties.
Roy White was signed as an amateur free agent in the summer of 1961. He made his professional debut the next year, and worked his way through the minor league system over the next three years as the Yankees won their third, fourth, and fifth consecutive pennants. After a breakout season at AA in 1965, the switch hitting second baseman was called up in September as the Yankees wound out their first losing season in forty years.
The rookie made his debut on September 7th, singling as a pinch hitter in the front end of a double header and picking up two more hits as the second baseman in the second game. It would be White's only appearance at second base in '65, and one of only three in his Major League career. The day after White made his debut, another highly touted Yankee rookie made his debut at shortstop. Like White, Bobby Murcer soon would be moved from the middle infield to the outfield. After Murcer's return from military service in 1969, the pair would be two bright spots in a rather dismal period in Yankee history.
White took over as the regular left fielder in '66, patrolling the Yankee outfield with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Despite the lofty company he kept, the 22 year old White proved not quite ready for prime time. He began the '67 season loaned out to the Dodgers' AAA affiliate in Spokane, returned to the Bronx in July, and despite some lackluster numbers he earned himself a job for good.
White broke out in '68, batting .267/.350/.414, good for a 136 OPS+ in the year of the pitcher. He finished third in the American League in runs, fourth in times on base, seventh in triples, and tenth in stolen bases. It was the start of a five year stretch for White in which he posted an overall OPS+ of 138, never posting a season lower than 130.
Even as offense improved following the lowering of pitcher's mounds in 1969, power remained suppressed. While White had enough pop to rack up a decent amount of extra base hits, his keen batting eye was his greatest asset. It allowed him to far outpace the league in OBP. Seven times in his career he finished in the top ten in walks, including four of the five years during his peak and league leading 99 free passes in 1972.
After a down year in '73, White rebounded to post three more seasons with an OPS+ over 120. In the Yankees' pennant winning season of '76 White led the AL with 1o4 runs scored. He slipped a bit in the Yankees World Series winning seasons of '77 and '78, but remained a regular in the line up and a contributor offensively. Following a poor 1979, White departed for Japan and spent the final three seasons of his career playing for the Tokyo Giants - the Yankees of Japan.
White returned to the Yankees as a coach in 1983, '84, '86, '04, and '05. He ranks seventh on the team's all-time games played and plate appearance lists, sixth on the walks list, fifth on the stolen base list, and eighth in times on base.
Roy White doesn't rank with the Hall of Famers in Yankee history, but he was a very good player for a long time. His body of work has been underestimated due to his best years coming in an offensively suppressed era and during one of the worst stretches in Yankee history. Yet he was a very good Yankee for fifteen seasons, a quiet and dignified player who was a calming presence on what were often chaotic teams. In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked White as the 25th best left fielder of all time, ahead of more celebrated contemporaries Don Baylor, Greg Luzinski, George Foster, and even Hall of Famer Jim Rice.