05/16/2013 7:51 AM
Matt Fulks and Fred White after a book signing in 2007.
By MATT FULKS
It’s one of the most famous lines in a movie full of memorable lines: “Anything that travels that far ought to have a d--n stewardess on it, don’t you think?”
Since Kevin Costner uttered those words in the movie “Bull Durham,” several people have claimed to have said that. Fred White would tell you, somewhat quietly, that there’s a good chance that one of his calls of a basketball game inspired that line.
See, for several years White was one of the main television voices for ACC basketball. During a particular game that White was calling in the mid-1980s, a kid shot a long jumper that “nearly went to the rafters.”
“I said that ‘anything that goes that high should have a stewardess on-board,’” White told me a couple of times. “At the time, from what I understand, Ron Shelton (writer and director) was living in North Carolina and working on “Bull Durham.” I don’t know if he was watching the game that night. It might’ve just been a coincidence, but I’d like to think the line in the movie might’ve come from that basketball broadcast.”
Then he’d chuckle. Perhaps more than anyone I know, Fred White loved to laugh. And when he did, his entire face would light up and, seemingly, his whole body laughed. What made it even better is that he loved telling stories, especially funny ones.
As a writer, there are certain words you never think you’ll write. More to the point, words that you hope you never have to write. That’s the case with what I’m about to type: long-time Royals broadcaster Fred White passed away Wednesday from complications of melanoma. He was 76.
For the past 40 years, White’s name has been synonymous with Kansas City baseball. His voice, along with Denny Matthews’, was summer for many of us from 1973-98. It was a signal each spring that all was right with the world.
He made the radio call on some of the biggest moments in Kansas City baseball history.
“I loved his voice and the way he put words together,” T-Bones coach Frank White, who came up with the Royals in 1973, said by phone Wednesday night. “Broadcasting a baseball game is not easy but he made it seem easy.”
Fred White and Frank White shared a lot of laughs over the years because of the closeness of their names. Their luggage and phone calls often went to the other F. White. But there was a mutual admiration.
“Frank always reminded me of Bambi around second base because he could jump and bound and run,” Fred would say. “Watching him play second base was like watching a concert or a great orchestra play. He conducted the game like an orchestra conductor at second base, and he could reach notes we didn’t think anybody could reach.”
When the Royals unveiled Frank’s statue in 2004, he made sure that Fred would emcee the ceremony.
“I admired him and loved him a lot,” Frank said. “He was just class.”
Although Fred White did so many things in the media, during many of the past 40 years his voice could be heard year-round, as he went from the Royals to calling football and/or basketball for CBS, NBC, the ACC, K-State and the University of Illinois. He also was one of ESPN’s first (and most-used) play-by-play announcers when the network first went on the air.
In fact, another great Fred anecdote happened because of ESPN. In 1981, the network called Fred and asked him to interview Satchel Paige for their Baseball Hall of Fame show.
“It was one of the greatest privileges of my career,” White told me a few years ago. “We sat on Satchel’s front porch one summer afternoon and talked. And talked. The interview lasted 45 minutes, and ended like this. I said to Satch: ‘Most people claim that you were the greatest that ever lived. Would you agree with that?’
“His answer, and I'll never forget it, came after just a slight pause. He said, ‘Oh, I wouldn't say that, but I'll tell you this. I pitched to more hitters, in more places than any man who ever lived, and nearly every one of them would tell you, yeah, I was.’”
And Fred chuckled.
On a personal note, Fred White went from being one of my childhood heroes to a mentor to a friend.
Although I, like nearly everyone else in Kansas City at the time, felt as if I knew Denny and Fred, the first time I actually met them was in 1991, shortly after my junior year at Lipscomb University. I was just breaking into the broadcasting business, and through one of these “friend of a friend” deals, Fred invited me up to the booth for a game. I was blown away. And realized immediately how lucky we were to have Fred and Denny as our announcers. What you heard on the radio (and still hear from Denny) is what you got: genuinely nice, humble, down home, funny, good people.
About six years later, again to my amazement, Fred and Denny agreed to let me write a book with them. We wrote “Play by Play” during what turned out to be Fred’s final season as the club’s broadcaster. (Long story short, after the Royals realized the mistake they’d made, Fred filled in on a few broadcasts, but it was no longer Denny and Fred.) During the past decade or so, as the team’s Director of Alumni and Broadcast Services, he helped the Royals Radio Network grow, in spite of how the team played on the field.
I came to realize over time that my initial impression of Fred (and Denny, for that matter) was right on. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Professionally, he was quick with a story or an interview if I needed one. All told, I think Fred’s stories appear in four or five books I’ve written, including the latest, “Conversations at Chappell’s.” When I needed a sounding board for a crazy idea that popped into my head, whether related to a book or a radio show or anything else, Fred was willing to offer advice.
That’s just the type of person he was.
“When I was getting into broadcasting,” Frank White said, “Fred was really helpful in helping me develop my skills. He never turned down a chance to help.”
Frequently to Fred I would fuss about how he was a legendary broadcaster, and then ask him to describe himself. He’d grin and say in that wonderful voice that always took me back to the summers of my childhood: “Matt, I’m simply a play-by-play guy from a small town in Illinois who has been pretty lucky and has had a lot of fun. I’m not sure what I would change about my life, why I would want to change it or what I could ask for that’s any better than this.”
Fred, for everyone from listeners to those of us who were blessed enough to consider you a friend, we know the feeling.
Matt Fulks is the T-Bones Director of Media Relations. He’s authored/co-authored 17 books.