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On This Date in Sports February 3, 1989: Bill White Breaking Barriers

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Bill White is the unanimous choice to become the new President of the National League. It is a big move for baseball, as White is the first African American to hold a significant executive position in any of the four major sports. The Presidency of the National League had become vacant when Bart Giamatti, who served since 1986, was named Major League Commissioner replacing Peter Ueberroth. 


The path to Bill White becoming the President of the National League began two years earlier, when Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis made stunningly racist comments on ABC’s Nightline. As the 1987 season began, baseball was celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Jackie Robison’s debut. However, some felt the celebration was hollow as there were no black General Manager or managers serving at the time. Al Campanis, the GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was invited by Ted Koppel to discuss Jackie Robison’s legacy on Nightline. When asked about the lack of African Americans in management positions, Campanis stated that black people did not “necessities” to work as a manager. Al Campanis would get fired, but baseball was forced to examine itself in the mirror. One year after Campanis' infamous interview, Frank Robinson, was hired to manage the Baltimore Orioles. It was Robinson’s third managerial job; he had been the first black manager in 1975 in the Cleveland Indians and the most recent with the San Francisco Giants in 1984. 


Following the 1988 season, Major League Baseball was in need of a new commissioner as the owners let it be known that Peter Ueberroth was unlikely to gain support for a second term. This led to the election of Bart Giamatti, who had been serving President of the of the National League since 1989. With Giamatti moving to the commissioner’s office, his position as NL President became open. Looking to make a statement, the owners of the National League made the historical selection of Bill White as the new league President. 


Bill White was born on January 28, 1934, in Lakewood, Florida. White made his major league debut with the New York Giants. However, it was not until he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959 that he made it to the major league to stay. A terrific defensive first baseman, White won seven straight gold gloves from 1960-1966. Late in his career, he spent two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies as he began working in the off-season as an announcer. In 1968, he became the first African American to announce an NHL game when he called games of the Philadelphia Flyers for WFIL, Channel 6. In 1971, Bill White began calling games for the New York Yankees, where he became the first African American to do play-by-play, working both television and radio with Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer. White became highly respected in his position with the Yankees, a job he held for 18 seasons, until his election as President of the National League.


At the time Bill White became President of the National League, the office was starting to lose power to the commissioner. At the time, the league presidents oversaw the umpires in each league, scheduling, and discipline. White sought to foster better relations with the umpires and teams and helped guide the National League through expansion in 1993. Bill White stepped down in 1994 as the league presidency was losing its importance with more power shifting toward the commissioner’s office. Leonard Coleman, another African American, would replace Bill White and would be the final National League President as the office was discontinued in 2000.