Fred White, R.I.P.

Fred White, long-time Kansas City Royals broadcaster, has passed away.

My youngest son is named Brett and if that doesn’t give you a clue as to why I would write a tribute to a guy who used to do play-by-play of Royals games on the radio, then don’t bother reading on. This isn’t for you.

When I was much younger, I spent countless—and I mean countless—nights listening to Fred White and his partner, Denny Matthews, do about three hours of what was, in those days, great Royals baseball. The team’s best years were 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, and, of course, 1985, when they were World Series champions. It’s been pretty much down hill since then, but then the Chicago Cubs, who have been around since Moses was a baby, haven’t won a World Series since, well, Moses was a baby. So, a 27-year championship drought isn’t all that bad.

In my head, to this day, are the voices of Fred White and Denny Matthews. Radio has a way of doing that to you, especially radio mixed with the greatest game in the world. Fred was always my favorite of the two, but together they made a great team, and when the baseball team was great, there was nothing like following the games, night by night, inning by inning, pitch by pitch, as they called them.

I made it a point to wait around and greet Fred White after seeing a Royals game at Royals Stadium several years ago (yeah, I know they call it Kauffman Stadium today, but it will always be Royals Stadium to me).  I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his work, how his voice lived in my head, and to have my picture taken with him. He was out-of-the-way friendly and posed with me, something I will never forget.

To most folks, I know that sounds strange. Most people hang out at the stadium after games to get players’ autographs, and I have done plenty of that in my time, but when Fred came out, it was like, for me at least, meeting a superstar player. He started broadcasting Royals games in 1973  and was essentially fired in 1998, so he could be replaced with a “young, fresh new voice.”  The organization will never receive my forgiveness for that.

Starting in 1979, I worked nights and the radio was my connection to a better world. One of my co-workers, Jimmy McKinnis, saw to it that every night, promptly at 7:10, the workroom floor radio was tuned to the Royals pre-game show. Sure, having to listen to three hours of baseball didn’t please a lot of our co-workers, but Jimmy didn’t care. It was his connection to a better world, too.

The broadcasts throughout the Royals’ 1980 season were remarkable. Fred and Denny calling win after win (the team won 97 games that year), chronicling Willie Wilson’s great year (.326 hitter in 705 at bats, a major league record at the time), and George Brett’s famous flirtation with .400 (he ended up hitting .390), as well as the Royals defeat, finally, of the dreaded Yankees in the playoffs, and then their eventual loss to the Phillies in the World Series.

But the best Fred and Denny broadcasts were yet to come.

The 1985 championship season was, to a Royals fan, one of the most remarkable seasons of all time, considering how the team performed in the post season, first defeating the best team in the American League, the Toronto Blue Jays, after being down three games to one, and then defeating the best team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, after losing the first two games at home and also after being down three games to one.

My biggest regret of that 1985 season, of the greatest year in Royals history, was that I didn’t share the impossible-to-believe Game Six with Fred and Denny. I left work early that night in order to watch the game on TV. For years after, I tried to get a copy of their call of the ninth inning of that game, an inning that will have no match for me in professional sports, in terms of the sheer joy it brought. (The bottom of the ninth radio broadcast is available on YouTube, by the way. It never gets old.)

Baseball, like life itself, is chock-full of little things that make a difference in the end. In the case of Game Six of the 1985 World Series between the Royals and Cardinals—played in Kansas City—it was several little things in the ninth inning that would lead the Royals to their one and only championship.

Things like umpire Don Denkinger’s bad call on a Royals hitter named Jorge Orta and Jack Clark’s failure to catch a popup, a passed ball by catcher Darrell Porter and, most decisively, a Royals utility player named Dane Iorg—whom the Cardinals had sold to the Royals the previous year—getting only his second at-bat of the series and then getting the biggest hit in Royals history. That inning, that most unpredictable inning, is what makes baseball the game it is, the greatest game.

And there I was, at home, watching it on TV and not listening to it on the radio, like so many games I had heard that year. Thus, I missed what Fred White had to say, as he and his broadcasting buddy looked out over a stunned but overwhelmingly satisfied crowd:

Denny, you know you go through a lifetime of being around sports. And if you ever question whether or not its worth it, all you need to do is sit and look down at this scene in Royals stadium now and see the joy that this game has brought to the fans here in Royals stadium.

And, yes, there are more important things on this earth than sports I guess, but I dare say tonight, nothing can bring more joy to Kansas City than a little single into right field that gets this thing to Game Seven. This improbable little team, doing improbable little things, now has pushed this thing to the brink.

I missed that moment when it happened and, as I said, I regret it to this day. I shared so many great moments with Fred and Denny, but I missed that one, the team’s greatest one. I wished I would have heard in real time Fred’s neat little summation, his attempt to make sense of what had happened, his attempt to put in perspective what that incredible World Series game meant to so many of us.

Of course, Fred was right. There are more important things on this earth than sports. But there are not many things more important than joy. Every time, every single time, that I go back and listen to that 9th inning, I tear up. I know it sounds crazy. I know it sounds absolutely nuts. But I do. I can’t help it. Joy does that to you, even joy over a baseball game played more than 27 years ago.

And despite my not sharing in real time that moment of joy with a guy on the radio named Fred White, there were others, many other moments of joy, that I shared with him.

And his voice will live on in my head.

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