Residents believe that Kansas City has all the qualities of a small town, and on its better days -- it does. Even though White wasn't born in Kansas City, he considered himself of the city. Kansas City natives have made a strong connection to the broadcasters that come into our lives over the airwaves, comfortable and familiar voices we welcome year after year. Friends we may not have met, but friends nonetheless. Such was the case with Fred White.
Many things will be written about White in the days after his passing at the age of 76. There are so many stories to tell -- from his beginnings calling high school sports through his long association with Kansas State and later the Big 8/Big 12 Conference. However, it is his quarter-century calling Royals games where he made his most lasting professional connection. His love for the Royals was infectious from the very start when he joined the broadcast team in 1973.
The chance to call Major League games was a dream he thought might never become a reality. When he got the job he was so anxious to get started he told me that coming to Royals Stadium for the first game he did something he had never done before.
"The first time I saw Kauffman Stadium was the first year I did Royals games in 1973," White said. "The Royals opened in Anaheim, and it had snowed the night before and they had to clean the snow out. I hadn't seen the stadium, and I don't want to say I got real excited, but it was the only time in my life I locked my keys in the car.
I drove up and my mouth's open. I get out of the car looking at it, then I hear click and my car door was shut with the keys in it."
The magic of the ballpark never left for him.
"When I go to work every day, when I drive over that hill and see that stadium, and I know it sounds hokey, but I say, 'That's where I get to go to work every day.' I get the same thrill seeing it today that I did then."
Baseball broadcasters have the unique opportunity to really build a relationship with fans and that is especially true for the radio broadcaster. The radio broadcast is much more portable. Talk to fans from the era White was on the air with the Royals and they'll tell of listening at the ballpark, on the deck at home, in the car, at the lake, mowing the yard or even listening to late games in bed hiding the radio from their parents. With White, that bond endured.
Winning the World Series in 1985 was without question the greatest baseball experience in club history, yet because the Royals won Game 7 in such lopsided fashion the last-out call came with great emotion but without much suspense. Denny Matthew's 'No outs to go!' call is and always will be etched in my memory.
But for so many reasons, not least of which was finally having the real sense the Royals were going to knock off the Yankees, my absolute favorite call in Royals history is George Brett's 1980 ALCS Game 3 home run against Goose Gossage with White at the mic. For years afterward to my last conversation with him this week, I repeated that call to White in my feeble impression of him because it contained all the emotion that moment held for Royals fans including myself. To me, it was and is perfect. Here is what he said:
"Now Brett steps in ... Gossage ready, the pitch. Swing AND A HIGH FLYBALL, DEEP RIGHT FIELD, THERE SHE GOES ... HOME RUN! HOME RUN BY BRETT AND THE ROYALS LEAD, 4-2. George Brett hit it into the upper deck off Gossage, and the Royals lead!"
The quintessential radio play-by-play call containing all the information you needed as a listener, said with all the emotion both you and he were feeling. I will never need the video to see that home run in my mind -- I only need to hear White's call.
As a huge Royals fan since the moment I was old enough to know what baseball was, both White and Denny Matthews have been part of my life (and those of millions of baseball fans in the Midwest) long before I had the privilege to get to know them. The comforting thing is both of them are almost exactly as you imagined them to be, they are both from Illinois, but have certainly become of Kansas City.
It is always hard to say so long to a good friend. But we are all grateful for having the chance to know White, and for having his work be a part of the soundtrack of our lives. He was grateful for the opportunities he was given as well.
"I grew up in a town of 1,000 people and thought I'd never meet a Major League baseball player and to work for THAT team, for this organization," he summed it up to me once. "In that ballpark then and now and the years in between, what a lucky guy. What a thrill. I realize every day what a lucky human being I am."
Thanks, Fred. I was lucky to have known you, my friend.