Former Auroran finally hits the Hall of Fame
By Matt Hanley firstname.lastname@example.org December 6, 2012 6:44PM
Photo of James L. "Deacon" White, who was elected to the Hall of Fame Monday. White spent the last years of his life in Aurora. | Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame
Hall of Famers
White’s career totals include 1,140 runs, 2,067 hits, 988 RBIs, a .312 batting average and just 221 strikeouts. His 162 game average would come out to 215 hits, 118 runs and 103 RBIs.
Source: American Baseball Research
White played for Forest City of Cleveland (1868-1872), the Red Stockings of Boston (1873-1875, 1877), Chicago White Stockings (1876), Cincinnati Red Stockings (1878-1880), Buffalo Bisons (1881-1885, 1890), Detroit Wolverines (1886-1888) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1889).
Source: Baseball Hall of Fame
White is Aurora’s second former resident to be named to the Hall of Fame: Former Yankees manager Casey Stengel played one year for the Aurora Blues minor league team before being drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Updated: December 7, 2012 9:40AM
In 1939, Deacon White died a disappointed man at the age of 91. He had been one of baseball’s first great players, winning batting titles and leading the league in RBIs. He was universally considered the premier barehanded catcher of the game’s earliest days.
In his 80s, he moved in with his daughter on Calumet Avenue on Aurora’s West Side. From her house, White loved to tell stories of baseball’s infancy. He had seen the first curve balls and is sometimes credited with getting the first major league hit. By 1939, he was the oldest living major leaguer, one of the few links to game’s origins.
And that year, he had read that many of his former teammates — including A.J. Spalding and Charles Comiskey — had been elected into the recently opened Baseball Hall of Fame. White received one vote from the Veteran’s Committee that year and died a few weeks before the induction ceremony. Some writers attributed his death to the heat; others said he died from heartbreak.
More than seven decades later, the man known as “The Cat” for his quick reflexes will finally be immortalized. On Monday, White received 14 of 16 votes from the Pre-Integration Era Committee for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He needed 12 votes to be elected. He will be enshrined in Cooperstown in July 2013.
Hall of Fame pitcher and noted knuckleballer Phil Niekro was on the selection committee. He told the Associated Press that historians helped illuminate the accomplishments of players like White, who played more than a century ago.
“It’s tough to go back into the 1800s and bring that to life,” Niekro said. “It was so different then — five strikes, eight balls, batters can tell the pitcher where they want it. Can you imagine? I couldn’t have done that if I tried, not with my knuckleball.”
White started his professional baseball career when he was 21-years-old as a catcher for the Cleveland Forest Citys in 1868. White told The Beacon-News in a 1939 interview that he had learned the game from a Union Soldier who had returned to New York after the Civil War and taught children a new game he had learned in the service.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the Cleveland squad played in the inaugural season of the National Association, considered by many as the first professional baseball league. In the first inning of a game against Fort Wayne, White doubled. For many, that marks the first hit in professional baseball.
Two years later, White joined the Boston Red Stockings as the catcher for A.J. Spalding, who would go on to found the famous sporting goods company.
“White was a standout catcher in a catcher-important era,” said Craig Muder, director of communications for the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Catchers did not use any equipment and were positioned much farther back from the pitcher than in modern baseball. Just catching the ball was considered an advantage, but White could catch and throw runners out.”
White perfected a method of sneaking up close to the plate and sending the ball back to the pitcher quickly so they could fire the ball to the plate before the batter was ready. He also helped develop the first catcher’s mask and chest protector. Fifty years later, his fingers would be gnarled and crooked — signs of a career trying to grab hundreds of pitches each game.
White was also one of the era’s offensive stars. He won two batting titles (hitting .387 in 1877) and three times led the league in RBIs. According to the Hall of Fame, in 1875, White earned the very first Most Valuable Player award, leading his team to a 71-8 record.
In total, White played 20 season and retired after catching 122 games in his last season, at the age of 42.
“I played baseball my whole life, until I was too old to run or catch,” he told The Beacon-News weeks before he died.
According to baseball-reference.com, his career totals include a .312 lifetime average, 2,067 hits, 988 RBIs and 1,140 runs scored. If his career averages were projected over a modern 162 game season, he would have averaged 103 RBIs and 118 runs.
White wasn’t famous just for his athletic skills. James L. White got his nickname — Deacon — because he never smoked or drank liquor, and always went to Sunday Mass. (He also apparently spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince his teammates the world was flat.) But for whatever reason, the Hall of Fame never called.
‘I place him first’
By 1939, baseball was ready to open its brand new museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. To incorporate more of the game’s history, the baseball writers had elected six of the game’s earliest stars — but not White.
A campaign started to earn his enshrinement, and in 1939 the Sporting News ran an editorial arguing that White typified “the spirit of the first century of baseball” and called his omission “a mystery.”
In Aurora, White delighted reporters with stories about his career and showed off the bats he still kept polished at home. He speculated that he wouldn’t have stood much chance against modern pitchers who threw too many fastballs, but pointed out he could field barehanded as well as anyone with a glove.
White died unexpectedly at his daughter’s summer cottage north of St. Charles, a few weeks before his former teammates were enshrined. Still, a meager campaign persisted: The Hall of Fame archives include a 1945 letter from legendary manager Connie Mack saying “if any one should be in the Hall of Fame it should be James White.”
In 1993, writer Joe Overfield called White “The Man the Hall of Fame Forgot.” In The Bill James Historical Abstract, James — a noted baseball historian — named White the most-admirable superstar of the 1870s. In 2010, the Society for American Baseball Research picked White as their Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend.
In the last few years, various changes in the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee voting improved White’s chances. The committee put special focus on finding pre-integration players who may have been overlooked. In 2009, he fell just short. But this year, he was one of three men — the only player — elected.
In July, White’s dying wish will finally be granted.
“You can talk all you want about the great catchers,” said teammate and Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, “but the best who ever worked behind the plate was Jim White. I have seen them all, but I place him first.”