By Ed Odeven
Following his distinguished 15 seasons with the New York Yankees (1965-79), Roy White played the final three seasons of his career for Nippon Professional Baseball's Yomiuri Giants, retiring in 1982 at age 38.
In a new hardcover book released in April, Roy White: From Compton to the Bronx (276 pages, Artemesia Publishing; also available as an ebook), the longtime outfielder's career is examined and placed in its proper context.
Former Yankees' second baseman Willie Randolph summed up White's career: "He is universally respected in and out of the game because he is a quality person and was a great teammate and leader."
White teamed up with retired New Jersey elementary school principal and IBWAA member Paul R. Semendinger, to write the book.
White's Move to Japan in 1980
White was limited to 81 games in 1979, his fewest in the majors since 1967. And after that turmoil-filled season (including the death of team captain and starting catcher Thurman Munson in a private plane crash), he found out he wasn't in the Yankees' plans for 1980.
When one door closed, another opportunity presented itself to White: an enticing, two-year deal ($500,000) to join the Yomiuri Giants.
Upon his arrival in Japan in March 1980, White awaited a big introduction, even if sleep might've been at the top of his wish list. And a flight attendant told White he'd be the final passenger to exit the plane.
A big throng of reporters was there to probe his mind about his thoughts on the upcoming season.
"The most popular question I was asked in that press conference was, 'How many home runs will you hit?'" White recalled. "I remember responding that I was a winning ballplayer."
Doing His Best to Fit In
White didn't want to receive special treatment from the Giants. He was 35 years old when he showed up in Japan with nearly 2,000 career games in the majors and impressive credentials, but that didn't mean much to him at that point.
He wanted to be an impact player for his new team and do things the Giants' way.
In 1980, Shigeo Nagashima, the most popular Giants player of all time, was his manager.
In an illuminating passage in the book, White recalled his experience of getting acclimated to being on the Giants.
"The Japanese style of baseball incorporates a lot more training than in the USA," White noted before adding, "The manager deferred to my past history saying that I had been a member of the New York Yankees and a world champion. Those facts earned me a lot of respect. In some of the training drills, they'd say, 'You don't have to do this. You are a veteran and Yankee,' but I did everything they did."
"This was their baseball," White continued. "I was in Japan at their place. I wasn't going to impose my rules."
Helpful Mentors in Japan
White credited Giants teammate John Sipin, a longtime American player in Japan, and Yomiuri hitting coach Wally Yonamine, for helping him get adjusted to Japanese baseball.
Sipin noted that White fit in from the get-go.
"Roy was very observant. He didn't always say a lot," Sipin stated in the new book.
White's ex-teammate then remarked: "He was perfect. A lot of players go to Japan and want to play American baseball there. That doesn't work. You don't mess with Japanese baseball. Roy played Japanese baseball the Japanese way."
Banner Debut for the Giants
In White's first regular-season game, the Giants opened the 1980 season against the Taiyo Whales in Yokohama. Batting cleanup behind Sadaharu Oh, White homered twice and also hit a double in four at-bats.
He was on a hitting tear before NPB pitchers made adjustments.
White hit .284 with 29 homers and 75 RBIs in 1980, followed by .273 and .296 batting averages the next two seasons.
Enjoyment off the Field
Naturally, being a former Yankee and a two-time World Series winner raised White's profile to a higher level than any random former MLB player who plied their craft in Japan.
And with his star celebrity, White enjoyed the perks that go with it.
For instance, Oh invited White and his family to dinner one night in 1980.
White remembers that meal like it was yesterday.
"We met Oh at a Chinese restaurant, but as was custom, it was just him, not his family," he recounted in his autobiography. "Sadaharu had also ordered for us all and it included some interesting food choices — bear claw, shark fin soup, 100-year-old eggs. We politely ate what was put in front of us. It was a great night, but I wished my family would have had the chance to meet his."
Although he started the season in left field, White was moved to center for most of the season. He also hit in the fourth spot, aka the cleanup hitter, for the Giants.
This held special significance for him.
"At the start of my career, I batted behind Mickey Mantle, one of America's greatest home run hitters, and now here I was batting behind Oh, Japan's greatest home run hitter," White admitted. This was a tremendous honor."
Oh retired after the 1980 season and Nagashima stepped down as manager after the Giants (61-60-9) finished third in the CL.
Motoshi Fujita, a former Giants pitching coach during the club's V-9 dynasty years (1965-74), replaced Nagashima as skipper. Oh became the assistant manager.
In 1981, the Giants had a 73-48-9 record and won the CL pennant and then defeated the Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japan Series.
White was impressed by what he saw.
"Back then, and still maybe even today, there was a perception that the American ballplayers were so much better than the Japanese players," White declared. "That just wasn't true. There were a bunch of guys I played with and against in Japan who would have been solid major leaguers. Sadaharu Oh could have played and been a star anywhere."
And he noted there were a number of others.
In Game 2 of the 1981 Japan Series, White belted a two-run homer in the eighth inning, and the Giants won 2-1 to even the series at 1-1. Yomiuri went on to win the series in six games.
"My team was, once again, at the top of the baseball world in its country," he shared. "It felt great, almost the same as with the Yankees."
In addition to richly describing interactions between White and his Yankees teammates and managers, including Ralph Houk, Billy Martin and Bob Lemon, over the years, the book also highlights his intellect, work ethic and likable personality from start to finish.
Ed Odeven is a veteran American sports journalist based in Tokyo. He is sports editor for the website JAPAN Forward and its related site SportsLook. Ed is the author of "Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg." Find him on Twitter: @ed_odeven.