Bill White

How Cardinals great Bill White became NL president

On February 3, 1989, former Cardinals first baseman Bill White was named National League president, becoming the first black man to lead a major professional sports league in America and the first player to become NL president in more than 70 years.

White’s hire came two years after Dodgers general manager Al Campanis was fired for saying during a Nightline interview that black people did not have the “necessities” to serve as a manager or general manager. Campanis was fired two days later, but baseball continued to face questions about the lack of black executives in the game. At the time White was hired, no Major League Baseball team had a black president or general manager and the Orioles’ Frank Robinson was the only black manager.

Though White helped to break down barriers in MLB executive offices, he preferred that he be recognized for his knowledge of the game.

When the news media started talking about “firsts,” I wish they had paid as much attention to another “first” that I represented: I was the first National League president in more than 70 years who had ever played baseball in the major leagues,” White said.[1]




In his 2011 autobiography, White wrote that he was first contacted about the job by Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who was on the search committee alongside Mets president Fred Wilpon, former NL president Chub Feeney, Braves chairman William Bartholomay, and outgoing NL president A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was slated to become the new baseball commissioner on April 1. O’Malley told White that the committee was interested in interviewing him for the job. After asking if O’Malley was serious, White politely declined the opportunity. O’Malley thanked him for his time, and White assumed the matter was over.[2]

Approximately a week later, O’Malley called again to say that while he understood that White was not interested, the committee still wanted to interview him. This time, White decided it was worth at least a discussion. When he arrived at the Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York, just a few miles away from MLB headquarters, he realized he wasn’t the only former player-turned-announcer in the running, as he saw former Reds second baseman Joe Morgan in the lobby.[3]

In his 90-minute interview, White spoke about his conflict management and leadership style and discussed how he would handle a variety of issues. He also made clear to the committee members that if he was to be offered the job, it had to be on his merits.

“I wasn’t naïve,” he wrote. “I knew that baseball was under a lot of pressure about minority hiring. But I insisted that if I were to take the job, I would want to be the president of the National League, not the black president of the National League. The committee members assured me that they would hire the best person, regardless of race.”[4]




The committee unanimously voted to name White the 13th president of the National League. White was selected over another black candidate, Simon Gourdine, the former NBA deputy commissioner who was serving as the director of labor relations for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York. Gourdine took his runner-up finish in stride.

“The appointment of Bill White is historic and very meaningful,” he said. “The symbolism is terribly important to all Americans and to all people interested in baseball and in sports. It’s a start. … The reason that the process was so exhaustive was because they wanted to ensure that they chose the very best person to represent the National League.”[5]

The Sporting News reported that White’s extensive baseball background gave him the edge over other candidates. An eight-time all-star and seven-time Gold Glove Award winner, White played 13 major league seasons, including eight with the Cardinals. St. Louis acquired him in a trade with the Giants in March 1959.

While White was initially concerned about coming to St. Louis, he quickly became a star. In eight seasons with the Cardinals, he hit .298 with 140 homers and 631 RBIs, and finished third in the NL MVP voting in 1964, when he helped lead the Cardinals to the World Series championship. Between 1962 and 1966, he hit at least 20 homers and drove in at least 102 runs in four of the five seasons.




In addition to his impact on the field, White was one of the Cardinals who played a key role in integrating the team’s living arrangements during spring training.

After his playing days were over, White transitioned to broadcasting. In 1971, he became part of the WPIX-TV broadcast team, where he partnered with former Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto. By accepting the NL president position, White was giving up a comfortable seat in the booth.

“There were a lot of good reasons not to take it,” White wrote. “I was well paid in my broadcasting work, and had plenty of free time for fishing, tennis, just enjoying life. I would be giving all that up for an executive job that promised long hours, extensive business travel, and constant headaches. But in the end there was one overriding reason why I decided to accept the position as president of the National League. It was a challenge. And throughout my life, a challenge has been something that is hard for me to resist.”[6]

In speaking with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, White explained it a different way.




“I got to thinking that after 18 years, there’s only so many ways you can say, ‘There’s a ground ball to short, and the throw to first,’” he said. “Maybe I am ready for something different.”[7]

Though it was reported at the time that White was being paid $200,000 per year, a six-figure pay cut from the $300,000 he earned as a Yankees broadcaster,[8] White wrote that his new job actually provided a 30% pay increase with better benefits.[9]

At the press conference announcing his hire, the assembled media wanted to focus on the history of the moment and White’s role as the highest-ranking black executive in baseball. In Newsday, Steve Marcus wrote that, “Minorities clearly will see this appointment as a sign of hope that baseball is ending what has been an unofficial but undeniable existence of sparse opportunities in minority hiring.”[10]

White, however, preferred not to focus on his race in discussing his hire with reporters.




“From the moment my selection as … president of the National League was announced in February 1989, the “firsts” began,” White wrote in 2011. “In every newspaper and magazine and television report, it went something like this: “Bill White will be the first black president of baseball’s National League …” Again, I wasn’t naïve. I knew that after the spotlight the Campanis incident cast on baseball, the team owners wanted a black man for the job. I also knew that being the first African American to hold the position would be news in and of itself. That’s the way the news business works; there’s no escaping it. But I felt the same way I had when I was the “first full-time black broadcaster” in Major League Baseball. I didn’t intend to fail, but if somehow I did, I wanted it to be Bill White who had failed, not a black man who had failed.”[11]

Clifford Alexander, former Secretary of the Army who consulted on the search, cautioned reporters about proclaiming the issue solved by the hire of one black executive.

“I don’t try to set history the day it happened,” Alexander said. “Breaking barriers are useful only if other things happen.”[12]

Despite White’s protestations, several of his friends said that breaking that barrier was more important than he let on.




“Bill is not a crusader, but he understands social responsibility,” said William Eastburn III, White’s attorney and a friend for 25 years.[13]

“He felt this was important for baseball, for himself, and for blacks in general,” Rizzuto added.[14]

Henry Aaron, who had moved into an executive role himself as vice president for player personnel for the Braves, “You can say that Jackie Robinson is resting a little more comfortably in his grave now, because he went through hell. If it weren’t for him, there would not have been a Hank Aaron or a Larry Doby or a Bill White.”[15] In a separate interview, he said, “I don’t think they could have found anyone more qualified than Bill White. He is a baseball man. He knows baseball. There will be nothing that will surprise him.”[16]

That knowledge came in handy as National League president, a role that included overseeing the umpires, mediating conflicts, and handing out discipline. Early in his tenure, White was with Giamatti when Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda called to accuse Astros pitchers of doctoring baseballs during a recent series. Lasorda told White that he was sending pitcher Orel Hershiser over to his office with the doctored baseballs.




Lasorda was shocked when White laughed and told him that not only would the balls need to come from the umpires to be considered evidence, but that he knew for a fact that Dodgers pitchers doctored balls because he had been forced to hit against them while they did it. When Lasorda hung up, Giamatti looked at White with amazement.

“That’s the advantage you have from being in the game so long,” he said. “I never would have been able to talk to Lasorda like that.”[17]

During White’s tenure as NL president, the league expanded to include the Rockies and Marlins. White also overcame conflicts with the umpires union and Reds owner Marge Schott, whose own racist comments had embarrassed the sport. He retired from the post in 1994, and in 2020 he was elected to the Cardinals Hall of Fame.





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[1] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 191.

[2] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 186.

[3] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 187.

[4] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 187.

[5] “Runner-Up Calls Election ‘A Start,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 4, 1989.

[6] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 189.

[7] Dan Caesar, “White Picked For NL’s Top Job,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 1989.

[8] “N.L. President White Fills the Bill,” The Sporting News, February 13, 1989.

[9] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 193.

[10] Steve Marcus, “A Giant Step Forward – White, officials downplay racial aspect of hiring,” Newsday, February 4, 1989.

[11] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 190.

[12] Steve Marcus, “A Giant Step Forward – White, officials downplay racial aspect of hiring,” Newsday, February 4, 1989.

[13] Steve Marcus, “A Giant Step Forward – White, officials downplay racial aspect of hiring,” Newsday, February 4, 1989.

[14] “N.L. President White Fills the Bill,” The Sporting News, February 13, 1989.

[15] “Runner-Up Calls Election ‘A Start,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 4, 1989.

[16] “N.L. President White Fills the Bill,” The Sporting News, February 13, 1989.

[17] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, Grand Central Publishing, Page 192.

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