One of Buffalo’s all-time great baseball players today will receive the game’s highest honor – almost 123 years after his last game.
James “Deacon” White, a standout for Buffalo’s teams in the National League in the 1880s, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. White will enter the Hall with former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and longtime umpire Hank O’Day. They were elected by the Pre-Integration Era Committee in December. White received 14 of 16 votes from the committee; 12 were needed to be selected.
No players were elected this year in voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
By almost any standard, White was one of the top players in baseball in the 19th century. The catcher/third baseman played for 20 years, including six in Buffalo for two different teams.
White was born in 1847 in the town of Caton, which is about seven miles south of Corning. He reportedly said he learned the game from a soldier who had returned from the Civil War. White started his baseball career in Cleveland in 1868, and that team moved up to the National Association in 1871. In fact, White had the first hit in the history of the first pro league in baseball history.
He quickly became the best player on the team, catching without a glove, shin guards or mask. White moved to Boston in 1873 and helped the Red Stockings win three straight titles. He won batting championships in 1875 and 1877 for Boston, which had moved to the National League by the latter season.
White then moved to Cincinnati, where he played with his brother, Will – the first professional baseball player to wear glasses. James White is considered by historians to have been baseball’s best catcher in the 1870s.
White arrived in Buffalo for the 1881 season, and the Buffalo Express wrote about the then-33-year-old, “Farmer White, that sad tiller of the soil who everybody knows is too old to play ball.”
He spent five seasons here and at times played with three other future Hall of Famers. Pud Galvin was the first 300-game winner, Dan Brouthers is considered to be the first great slugger in baseball history and player/manager Jim O’Rourke had 2,639 hits in a 23-year career.
White played mostly third base for the Bisons, hitting .301. He played home games at Riverside Park (at Fargo and Rhode Island) and Olympic Park (at Richmond and Summer) on the city’s West Side.
White must have been an interesting teammate. Famous baseball historian Lee Allen once wrote that White believed that the earth was flat. In fact, he tried to convince his fellow players that they were not on a sphere. White would throw a ball straight up in the air and argue that the ball shouldn’t have landed at his feet if the earth were moving. The argument fell flat with most of the teammates. White did not smoke, drink or gamble – rare for ballplayers of the era – and frequently attended church.
By 1885, the Bisons were in severe financial difficulty. When Detroit asked if it could purchase Buffalo’s stars late in the season, Bison management demanded that the Wolverines instead purchase the entire roster. Detroit agreed, and Buffalo filled out its team with available local amateur players. The Bisons lost all but one of their remaining games, going 0-16-1. They dropped out of the National League after the 1885 season.
In 1889, White was sold by Detroit to Pittsburgh against his wishes. His response became the most famous quote in the history of 19th century labor relations in baseball: “No man is going to sell my carcass unless I get half.”
White returned to Buffalo in 1890 to join the city’s entry in the short-lived Players League. White hit .260 at the age of 42 and then retired.
In 1,560 career games as a professional, White had 2,067 hits, 988 RBIs, a .312 batting average and only 221 strikeouts. Because he averaged 215 hits per 162 games, he certainly could have reached 3,000 hits had he played in an era with longer schedules. White’s teams won six championships. Galvin once said, “You can talk all you want about your great catchers, but the best man who ever worked behind the plate was Jim White. I have seen all the good ones, but I place him first.”
After retiring, White and brother Will worked at the Buffalo Optical Company and also operated a livery stable on Auburn Avenue. White moved to the Midwest around 1910. He died in 1939 at the age of 91; he had been baseball’s oldest living player.
White’s Hall of Fame credentials have been a subject for discussion for years. The late Joe Overfield, Western New York’s premier baseball historian, argued in a 1957 article in Baseball Digest that White was one of the six best players from the 19th century to be left out of Cooperstown. The others were Galvin, Billy Hamilton, Sam Thompson, Roger Connor and Tim Keefe, all of whom eventually reached the Baseball Hall.
White was one of the finalists in voting by the Veterans Committee in 2009, falling short of induction although he received more votes than any other 19th-century player in the balloting. In 2010, White was named by the Society for American Baseball Research as the most overlooked 19th-century baseball legend.
White was named to the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986. Today he joins his peers in finally receiving the game’s greatest honor and becomes the 20th former Bison to be enshrined.