“You know, I don’t have a lot of tools like other guys,” said Fred “Wingy” Whitfield in 1965. “I can’t throw, I can’t run, and until lately I couldn’t catch too good either. I guess I’m lucky to be here. But I could always hit pretty good and that’s how I stayed around.” i The left-handed slugger from Alabama hit 108 home runs in the majors from 1962 through 1970. He hit 26 for the Cleveland Indians in 1965 – cementing his reputation as a “Yankee-killer” with 10 in just 71 at-bats against New York – and 27 more in 1966.
Whitfield’s arm was the source of his none-too-flattering nickname. Joe Schultz, later one of the first baseman’s managers, hung it on him during minor-league camp in 1958.ii Originally Whitfield was an outfield/pitching prospect – but after an early shoulder injury, he threw with a hitch and couldn’t get much on the ball. “They put me on first base because I can’t cause as much trouble there,” he said in 1965.iii Wingy didn’t let his nickname bother him much, though. He was a humble, friendly, religious man with a quiet Southern drawl who often had a pleasant smile on his face.
“You really had to listen close, if and when he spoke,” said Harry Fanok, a flamethrowing pitcher who befriended Whitfield as they came up in the St. Louis Cardinals chain. “He was one cool dude! He had that sheepish half-smile that Elvis had, along with the politeness – a true Southern gentleman.”iv
Fred Dwight Whitfield was born on January 7, 1938, in Vandiver, Alabama. Whitfield is a very common name in this village, which is about 25 miles east-southeast of Birmingham, the biggest city in the state. Fred’s father was W. Theodore Whitfield, a farmer. His mother was Inez (née Brasher) Whitfield. He had two older sisters, named Joy and Doris (“Dot”). A younger brother named Jerry died when he was just eight days old.
In 1966 Whitfield told Russell Schneider (longtime beat writer covering the Indians), “I used to sneak into the park at Birmingham when I was a kid, but I always liked to play instead of watch.” Fred attended Woodlawn High School in Birmingham.v When he was still a junior, in 1956, he got his first shot at the pros – but it took him three tries to stick in Organized Baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed him first. “They gave me $500 and a Class D contract, but sent me home after two weeks of spring training at Waycross [actually, it was Brunswick], Georgia. They said I didn’t have the tools to become a major league prospect.”vi
Whitfield went back home and played sandlot ball. His team got into the playoffs, and he went in to pitch the last three innings of their final game. “I didn’t realize it then,” he told Schneider, “but I musta hurt my arm because I couldn’t throw at all the next spring. If I’d known, I would have told the Orioles, because they signed me at the end of the 1956 season as a pitcher-outfielder. I never threw any during the winter because it was always too cold, so I had no idea I’d hurt my arm.”vii
On February 9, 1957, the 19-year-old Fred married a girl from Gadsden, Alabama, Helon Florence Leverton.viii (Many accounts show the more conventional spelling of her given name, Helen.) They had a daughter named Tammy, followed by five sons: Fred Jr., Teddy, Jeff, Max, and Derek.
The newlywed went to Baltimore’s minor-league camp – but again he was sent home after about two weeks, this time because of his arm problems. He visited a chiropractor, with uncertain results, “but I learned to kinda flip the ball the way I do now, using mostly my wrist. I was good enough to get by at first base as long as I didn’t have any long throws to make.” He got back into action with his same sandlot team.ix
In 1958 Cardinals scout Mercer Harris gave Whitfield another chance on the strength of his bat.x The first baseman reported to minor-league camp. Joe Schultz, who later became best known for managing the 1969 Seattle Pilots, had just joined the St. Louis organization (in 1958 he managed the Class A farm club at York, Pennsylvania). He saw the way Whitfield threw and gave him the enduring tag Wingy. As Fred described it in 1965, “I still have to throw from down here. If I try to stretch out over the top, I get a bite in my shoulder.”xi Ohio sportswriter Terry Pluto came up with some funny images at Wingy’s expense in later years.xii
The Cards assigned Whitfield first to Keokuk in the Class D Midwest League. Though he committed a league-leading 31 errors in 123 games, he also led the circuit with an impressive 118 RBIs. He hit .309 with 29 doubles (again tops in the Midwest League) and 23 homers. Though this performance at the lowest level of the minors got no ink in The Sporting News, it impressed the organization. Whitfield jumped all the way to Double-A Tulsa to begin the 1959 season. He did not hit badly (.255-3-15 in 31 games), but was optioned to Winston-Salem (Class B) in May to continue his development. There Wingy resumed punishing the ball (.293-25-103 in 107 games).
Meanwhile, in March 1959, St. Louis had obtained Bill White from the San Francisco Giants. White promptly emerged as one of the best first basemen in the National League – he won multiple All-Star and Gold Glove honors during the ’60s. Also in 1959, the Cards’ Triple-A club, Rochester, acquired forty-something folk hero Luke Easter, so the prospects were at Double-A and below.
The Cardinals invited Whitfield to the Instructional League that fall along with an array of other prospects. Though an eye injury delayed his start, he made the league’s all-star team.xiii Harry Fanok had an anecdote from those days. “We were facing some hard thrower and Wingy lofted one of his shots over the right-field fence at Al Lang Field. If I’m not mistaken, the ball hit the hotel on the other side of the street. One hell of a blast from that lightning short quick stroke he had. Anyway, the next time Wingy comes up to bat, the guy drills him! We all expected him to go down, but, he just walked to first base. When he did finally come to the dugout, we asked him if he was okay. Wingy replied, “Don’t throw hard enough to hurt me!”xiv
Whitfield returned to Tulsa in 1960 and got off to a hot start, going 18-for-49 with five homers as he posted an 11-game hitting streak to start the year.xv His batting didn’t let up much the rest of the way (.310-22-89 in 138 games) and he also cut his errors to 16. At the end of the season the Oilers beat the Mexico City Tigers, champions of the Mexican League, in the second Pan-American Series.
In 1961 Whitfield started the season in Triple-A for the first time. The top St. Louis affiliate was then located in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but the team was uprooted to Charleston, West Virginia, in May. With Joe Schultz as his manager, Whitfield again had a good year. The International League’s managers voted him to the midseason all-star team, though by season’s end, his output was down from prior levels (.301-18-73 in 134 games).
The job competition remained thick, though. As Cardinals beat writer Neal Russo put it that October, “[St. Louis general manager] Bing Devine, who has often taken a ribbing for his tendency to collect first basemen, is set for some cracks about his latest monopoly of first sackers. ‘I’ve had to replenish our stock,’ the G.M. kidded.” Devine had just obtained former Yankees bonus boy Frank Leja to go with White, Joe Cunningham, Whitfield, and Jeoff Long (a power-hitting bonus boy from Kentucky). Stan Musial and Gene Oliver could also play the position.xvi Further down, the Cardinals had signed yet another future big-league first baseman, George Kernek.
Whitfield got a long look from the big club during spring training in 1962, but to begin the year, he was sent to the Cardinals’ new Triple-A farm team, the Atlanta Crackers. Harry Fanok was also with the Crackers in 1962. He remembered when Whitfield and his family arrived (they already had four kids).
“I roomed with Dick Hughes, another pitcher,” said Fanok in 2007. “We both played guitar, so we got along fine. We rented this large house with many rooms. Sometime later, Wingy got sent down to Atlanta and had no place to stay. His wife was with him also. So Dick and I offered to house them up. Freddy had this old beat-up car. I don’t even remember what kind it was, but, it was filled with their life support stuff. They were happy to hole up with us. The very next day, Wingy’s wife was in there on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors and whatever else needed attention, as Hughes and I were not into cleaning all that much. Now, we had three guitar players. One from Arkansas, one from Alabama, and me, from New Jersey. We had a good time.”xvii
Whitfield’s love of music, hunting, and fishing was lifelong. As his obituary noted, “He was an avid outdoorsman and enjoyed playing bluegrass and gospel music on his guitar.”xviii Fred originally took the instrument up in his late teens because a lot of his friends did it; he had a notion that it helped his hitting too because it made his wrists stronger and more flexible.xix “Hell, it’s been 50 years since he taught Dick Hughes one of his guitar licks,” said Harry Fanok in 2013. “They used to go fishing after spring training days were done. They’d fish the canals down there in Homestead many times.”xx
Again playing for Joe Schultz in 1962, Whitfield hit strongly in Atlanta (.323-8-28 in 33 games). During one burst from May 17-21, he was 11-for-25 with four homers and nine RBIs.xxi Thus, in late May, the Cardinals called him to the majors for the first time at age 24. They actually wanted another righty bat on their bench but lacked a ready option in the farm system, so they went with Wingy instead.xxii When Whitfield got the news, he and his family drove from the ballpark after a night game in Atlanta – two hours and change to their home in Vandiver. They arrived at 3 A.M. and Fred simply stayed up ahead of his 6:50 A.M. flight to St. Louis.xxiii
Manager Johnny Keane did not use Whitfield the first night he was available, but the new rookie made his debut the following afternoon, May 27. Pinch-hitting for Bob Gibson, he drew a walk off Bob Shaw of the Milwaukee Braves, but was promptly erased in a double play. Two days later he made his first start, going 1-for-4 at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.
When St. Louis called Whitfield up, one of their coaches, Vern Benson, remarked, “He has a quicker bat than anyone on the Cardinals. And he can reach the roof at Busch Stadium.” Benson knew firsthand what Whitfield could do because he had managed Fred at Tulsa. Neal Russo wrote, “Whitfield quickly made a prophet of Benson.” That comment came after Fred’s first big-league homer, on June 10, a three-run blast off San Francisco’s Billy Pierce that cleared the roof. Whitfield had stood his ground after the southpaw decked him twice.xxiv
During his time with St. Louis, Whitfield appeared in 73 games, 38 of them in the field (he often served as a pinch-hitter). He got 30 starts while spelling Bill White and hit .266-8-34 in 167 plate appearances. He became the first baseman on the Topps 1963 rookie all-star team.
In December 1962 St. Louis traded Whitfield to the Cleveland Indians for shortstop Jack Kubiszyn (who never played again in the majors) and Ron Taylor (who was an important member of the bullpen for the World Series champions of 1964). Neal Russo wrote, “Because of the new bonus rule, which will reduce the Redbirds to essentially a 23-man roster most of next season, a premium is placed on two-way reserve strength.” Whitfield could play only one position, White was a strong incumbent, and there were other lefty bats on the roster.xxv
Whitfield saw it differently, though. “At the end of that season they [the Cardinals] wanted me to play winter ball,” he told Russell Schneider, “but I wanted to go back home to my farm. That’s when they got rid of me.”xxvi One way or the other, “he was one guy you had to be happy for,” said Harry Fanok. “He really deserved it.”xxvii The Indians – specifically, manager Birdie Tebbetts and Midwestern scouting supervisor Walter Shannon – had lobbied Cleveland GM Gabe Paul hard to land Whitfield. From his time as Cardinals farm director, Shannon knew Fred’s abilities well.xxviii
Whitfield, whom Gabe Paul had compared to Gordy Coleman, was envisaged as a backup to veteran Joe Adcock in Cleveland. It developed into a platoon, however, and Whitfield played more than Adcock in 1963. Whitfield got nearly 90 percent of his at-bats against righty pitchers; as he said in 1965, “Where the story that I couldn’t hit [lefties] started, I really don’t know.”xxix Overall, he hit.251-21-54 in 346 at-bats. The Cardinals rose to second place in the NL in ’63, while Cleveland finished fifth in the AL at 79-83. Still, Fred wasn’t sorry about the trade, saying, “I’m playing here. With them, I’d just be pinch-hitting.”xxx
The Indians wound up trading Adcock to the Los Angeles Angels in December 1963. The door was open for Whitfield to become a full-time player – the first-base job was “his to have and to hold.”xxxi Ultimately, though, Cleveland used rookie Bob Chance a good deal at first base in 1964. Again they restricted Whitfield largely to facing righties. He hit .270-10-29 in 293 at-bats.
In December 1964 the Indians traded Chance to the Washington Senators – but in return, they received Chuck Hinton, who was the regular at first base for Cleveland early in the 1965 season. In early May, however, Birdie Tebbetts wanted to get more power into the lineup; he moved Hinton to second base and later the outfield. Whitfield got hot, including 7-for-9 in a doubleheader at Boston’s Fenway Park, and finally laid outright claim to his position. Oddly enough, he said that a stiff back helped him. “My problem, or my biggest one, anyway, is that my bat is too quick. I get around too fast and I’m way ahead of the pitch. But now my back is still a little stiff and it makes me wait longer.”xxxii
Whitfield finished the season hitting .293-26-90 in 492 plate appearances. The Sporting News named him the first baseman on its AL All-Star team. With regard to his performance against the Yankees, he had another motive. “I always wanted to show Johnny Keane [who went from the Cardinals to New York after 1964] that he made a mistake about me.”xxxiii Over his career, he reached Yankee pitchers for 23 homers and a .627 slugging percentage. His next most frequent victim was Boston – “If I knew why I can hit so good against the Red Sox and the Yankees, I’d do the same against all the teams.”xxxiv
Whitfield’s most frequent home-run victim was Jim Bouton (five in 34 at-bats). Yet he had even more remarkable success against the great Whitey Ford, whom he reached for three homers in just 10 at-bats. He also got three off Dick “The Monster” Radatz of Boston in 18 at-bats – and it’s interesting to note that Fred held both pitchers in high regard. Of Ford, he said in 1966, “He’s smart and knows just where to put the ball. And man, he’s sure got a tough screwball. You don’t know what it’s going to do.”xxxv A year before, he’d said that even though he liked the fastball and so was fed a lot of breaking stuff, “Radatz is probably the toughest I’ve faced. He throws that blazer, hard and straight. You know it’s coming, but he’s still tough.”xxxvi
Whitfield’s approach to hitting wasn’t complicated. “I just go up there and swing at anything that’s moving,” he said.xxxvii Indeed, the most walks he ever drew in a season was 27 in 1966, and his lifetime on-base percentage was .298.
Off the field in Cleveland, the guitar-picking Whitfield enjoyed his musical pursuits with a different batch of teammates. He, second baseman Larry Brown, and Chuck Hinton formed a clubhouse band, playing mostly country music.xxxviii
Heading into the 1966 season, Whitfield felt comfortable because Birdie Tebbetts had told him the first-base job was his. He also was just about at his playing weight of 190, because hunting had kept him in shape. He noted that he’d reported 15 pounds heavier in 1965, which contributed to his slow start. His most interesting observation, however, regarded Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who’d just had his first good year. “McLain has a good curve, sneaky fastball and easy motion. That ball will just sneak right past you. In my book he has the fastest ball of anyone up there. You’ll hear a lot about him later,” Fred correctly predicted.xxxix
In ’66, however, Whitfield injured an elbow during the last week of spring training as he dived for a grounder.xl It hampered his swing all year. That was a big reason why his average dropped off to .241, although he still connected for 27 homers (a personal high in the majors) and drove in 78. The Indians gave him a “pretty nice” salary increase – for the times – to more than $30,000 for 1967.xli
Whitfield had also set career highs in games played and at-bats during 1966, but that changed in 1967. He didn’t have any competition to begin with because his latest challenger, Bill Davis, had hurt his Achilles tendon while playing basketball. But Fred’s power output went way down – only four homers in April and May – and his average fell off too. Early that June, Cleveland obtained a talented 22-year-old first baseman, Tony Horton, from the Red Sox. Horton’s career foundered in 1970 because of an emotional disorder, but in 1967 his best days were still ahead of him. Whitfield started just 11 games from July on, and he finished the year at .218-9-31 in just 257 at-bats.
Whitfield was sure to be traded, and that November 1967 the Indians dealt him, George Culver, and Bob Raudman to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Harper. Whitfield was a reserve in Cincinnati over the next two seasons, backing up Lee May at first base and pinch-hitting frequently. He started 33 games in 1968 and produced reasonably well: .257-6-32 in 171 at-bats. However, he got a mere six starts in 1969. Pinch-hitting accounted for the bulk of his duties – but he was just 8-for-51 in this role in ’69, albeit with a surprisingly high 12 walks. Overall, he hit just .149-1-8.
In November 1969 the Reds sent Whitfield (as well as two other veterans, Dennis Ribant and Jim Beauchamp) to Triple-A Indianapolis to “make room for farmhands on the parent roster.”xlii At some point thereafter, he was released, because he signed as a free agent with Buffalo – the top farm club of the Montreal Expos – in April 1970.
The ailing Bisons franchise moved to Manitoba in June, becoming the Winnipeg Whips. The Whips played a patchwork touring schedule that included some “home” games in Montreal’s Jarry Park. Nonetheless, Whitfield put up fairly good numbers – .265-15-48 in 102 games – and got his last action in the majors that August. Montreal called him up to face righty pitchers after regular first baseman Ron Fairly suffered a broken bone in his right foot when hit by a pitch. Whitfield got four starts at first base, going 1-for-15. He was then returned to Winnipeg, where he finished out his pro career.
“When Montreal let me go, I was ready to go,” Whitfield told Russell Schneider. “I was tired of baseball, and my wife was tired of me traveling and being away from home so much, though we both liked it when I played in Cleveland.” Whitfield then went back to Alabama and joined Anderson Electric Corp., working there as a shipping clerk for 23 years. He remained active in the gospel group that he formed with Helon, Fred Jr., his sister-in-law Susie, and Susie’s boyfriend. They sang in places like nursing homes and churches several times a week.xliii
Jimmy Smothers of the Gadsden Times was another columnist who covered Whitfield in his playing days. In 2008, by then sports editor emeritus, Smothers checked in with Helon Whitfield, who talked about life in the public eye and how the family just tried to stay down to earth.xliv A little over a year later, Fred – who signed autographs by the hundreds in Cleveland – emphasized his ongoing commitment to fan-friendliness. In a typically modest jest about all the mail he received, he said, “I ought to be paying some of the people to take my autograph.” He would even pay for handling and shipping if people didn’t include money or stamped self-addressed envelopes. He summed it up by saying, “Whatever they want, I try to accommodate them.”xlv
In mid-December 2012 Whitfield was rushed to Gadsden Regional Hospital. It emerged that a large tumor in his bronchial tube had cut off 90 percent of his breathing – the odds were long that he would even make it through the biopsy, but he overcame that obstacle. The diagnosis was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the outlook for remission after treatment was good, so Fred chose to fight it. The tumor shrank in response to chemotherapy, but other complications set in, mainly pneumonia and renal failure. Nonetheless, Whitfield stayed mentally strong, sustained by his deep religious faith.
Fred Whitfield died on January 31, 2013, a few weeks past his 75th birthday. He was survived by Helon and their six children, “as well as a host of loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”xlvi
Upon learning of his old friend’s death, Harry Fanok said, “This has brought tears to my eyes. I know we all have to pass, but this one is hard to take. Wingy was the best of the best, as far as I and many of us players that had contact with him are concerned. He was and always will be one beautiful human being – we will all miss him!”xlvii
Continued thanks to Harry Fanok.
Schneider, Russell, Whatever Happened to “Super Joe”? (Cleveland: Gray & Company, 2006).
Brashear, Charles, and Shirley Brasher McCoy, A Brazier/Brasher Saga (Self-published, 1998).
Fred Whitfield page on Facebook, established by his family while he was fighting his final illness.
i “Whitfield Credits Stiff Back for Hitting Streak,” Associated Press, May 20, 1965.
ii “Whitfield Credits Stiff Back for Hitting Streak.”
iii Russell Schneider, “Indians Soar for Birdie with Wingy at Gateway,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1965, 6.
iv E-mail from Harry Fanok to Rory Costello, February 8, 2013.
v Jimmy Smothers, “Whitfield Eyes Regular Duties With Cleveland,” Gadsden (Alabama) Times, February 21, 1965, 23.
vi Russell Schneider, “Wingy New Wing-Dinger of Wigwam,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1966, 3, 7.
vii Schneider, “Wingy New Wing-Dinger of Wigwam.” Whitfield told Schneider the story differently for Schneider’s 2006 book, but the 1966 account seems more plausible because of the detail and because less time had passed. Even a decade later, though, Whitfield’s memory was a little fuzzy.
viii The Sporting News Official Baseball Register, 1965 edition.
ix Schneider, “Wingy New Wing-Dinger of Wigwam.”
x Neal Russo, “Storm Warnings Threaten to Ground Fluttering Cards,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1962, 14.
xi Russell Schneider, “Hats Off! Fred Whitfield,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1965, 23.
xii In his 2007 book The Curse of Rocky Colavito, Pluto wrote, “He needed to send the ball by cab to get it from his first-base position to third base.” Writing for the Akron Beacon Journal in January 2004, he said, “Every throw to second base needed a good wind behind it to arrive on the fly.”
xiii “Six Young Cardinals Picked on Florida All-Star Squad,” The Sporting News, December 16, 1959, 22.
xiv E-mail from Harry Fanok to Rory Costello, February 8, 2013.
xv The Sporting News, May 4, 1960, 35.
xvi Neal Russo, “Cards Bat Marks Muffle Critics of Platoon Plan,” The Sporting News, October 25, 1961, 15.
xviii “Fred Dwight Whitfield Sr.,” Gadsden (Alabama) Times, February 2, 2013.
xix Schneider, “Wingy New Wing-Dinger of Wigwam”; Herman Weiskopf, “Player of the Week,” Sports Illustrated, May 2, 1966.
xx E-mail from Harry Fanok to Rory Costello, February 8, 2013.
xxi “Whitfield Wallops Way to Top,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1962, 38.
xxii Russo, “Storm Warnings Threaten to Ground Fluttering Cards.”
xxiii Neal Russo, “Sleepy Frosh Fred Whitfield Reports after All-Night Trip,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1962, 14.
xxiv Neal Russo, “Hats Off! Fred Whitfield,” The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 21.
xxv Neal Russo, “Cards Racing Their Motors over Control Artist Taylor,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1962, 8.
xxvi Schneider, Whatever Happened to “Super Joe”? (Cleveland: Gray & Company, 2006), 96.
xxvii Fanok and Costello, “Harry Fanok.”
xxviii Hal Lebovitz, “Tribe Whooping over Big Wham in Whitfield Bat,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1962, 31.
xxix “Whitfield Credits Stiff Back for Hitting Streak.”
xxx Hal Lebovitz, “ ‘Patience’ – Wigwam Watchword While Mound Phenoms Mature,” The Sporting News, September 28, 1963.
xxxi Hal Lebovitz, “Adcock’s Exit Shoves Whitfield to Front as Tribe First Sacker,” The Sporting News, January 11, 1964, 7.
xxxii Schneider, “Indians Soar for Birdie with Wingy at Gateway.”
xxxiii Schneider, Whatever Happened to “Super Joe”?, 96.
xxxiv Schneider, “Wingy New Wing-Dinger of Wigwam.”
xxxv Jimmy Smothers, “Whitfield Leaves For Spring Camp And First ‘Real Job’ With Indians,” Gadsden Times, February 2, 1966, 12.
xxxvi Smothers, “Whitfield Eyes Regular Duties With Cleveland.”
xxxvii Schneider, “Wingy New Wing-Dinger of Wigwam.”
xxxviii Schneider, “Wingy New Wing-Dinger of Wigwam.”
xxxix Smothers, “Whitfield Leaves For Spring Camp And First ‘Real Job’ With Indians.”
xl Russell Schneider, “Job Worries Gone; Wingy Wears Smile,” The Sporting News, April 1, 1967, 21.
xli Jimmy Smothers, “A Bit of Info Picked Up Here and There,” Gadsden Times, December 21, 1966, 18.
xlii Earl Lawson, “Red Hots,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1969. 46.
xliii Schneider, Whatever Happened to “Super Joe”?, 97, 95; “Fred Dwight Whitfield, Sr.”
xliv Jimmy Smothers, “Whitfield recalls price of stardom,” Gadsden Times, October 12, 2008.
xlv Jimmy Smothers, “Whitfield sees popularity rise 40 years later,” Gadsden Times, January 11, 2010.
xlvi “Fred Dwight Whitfield, Sr.”
xlvii E-mail from Harry Fanok to Rory Costello, February 2, 2013.