James “Deacon” White

This article was written by Joseph Overfield

This article was published in 1975 Baseball Research Journal

When James “Deacon” White died on July 7, 1939, the obituary in The Sporting News said that his end had been hastened by disappointment at not being named to the Hall of Fame along with such contemporaries as A. G. Spalding, Cap Anson, Charles Comiskey, Buck Ewing, Hoss Radbourn, and Candy Cummings. He had not even been invited to baseball’s 100th anniversary celebration at Cooperstown, N. Y. on June 12.

Of course, it can be conjectured how the death of the 91-year–old White, baseball’s oldest former player, who had been confined to his daughter’s home in Aurora, Illinois for several years by the debilities of old age, was hastened. Nevertheless, the point is well made about the Deacon’s qualifications for the Hall of Fame. In the more than 35 years since his death, Cooperstown has made room for many more of his contemporaries. In the 1870’s and 1880’s, Jim White’s reputation as a player matched almost all of these, and in addition, his demeanor off the field was such that he brought nothing but credit to the game.

Henry Chadwick, faithful chronicler of baseball’s early years, who often wrote of White’s agility and skill as a catcher, also wrote in 1890: “What we most admired about White was his quiet effective way of doing his work. Kicking is unknown to him. And let us say there is one thing in which White stands pre-eminent, and that is in the integrity of his character. Not even a whisper of suspicion has ever been heard about Jim White. Herein lay as much of his value to his team as his great skill as a catcher.”

It is important to note that aspect of his character, because baseball was a rough and tumble sport in those days and the Deacon was involved in most of the major controversies that came along. He was an anachronism in that hard-bitten era in which he played in that he saved his money, made it a habit to go to church (hence his name Deacon), neither drank nor smoked, and was never known to sit in on a game of stud poker.

On the other hand, he was far from a shrinking violet and was well known for his ability to discourse fluently on baseball, the Bible, or farming. In his later years, he became an articulate spokesman for players’ rights and he fought particularly hard against the reserve clause. He was one of a handful of performers whose active careers extended from the late 1860’s, when professional baseball was just getting started, through the formation of the, National Association in 1871, the birth of the National League in 1876, and the Brotherhood revolt of 1890.

White was one of the most versatile players of his day. After first gaining fame as the game’s premier catcher, he switched to third base and soon became the National League’s top performer at that position. As a catcher he was the bare-handed batterymate of some of the game’s greatest pitchers. At Cleveland he teamed with Al Pratt to form the first famous battery. He then caught Al Spalding at Boston and Chicago. At various other stages of his career, he was behind the bat for such greats as his brother Will, with whom he formed the first brother battery, and Tommy Bond and Jim Galvin. It was the latter who 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.”

James Laurie White was born December 2, 1847, in the small rural community of Caton in south-central New York. He never lost his love for things rural and on several occasions he “retired” from baseball to become a full-time farmer. But he almost always came back.

In 1868 Jim joined the Forest City club of Cleveland, which was supposedly Simon-pure, although some players were getting paid. The following year they became fully professional and played most of the top teams of the land, including the invincible Cincinnati Red Stockings, who drubbed them twice. Joining Cleveland that 1869 season was Al Pratt, one of the fastest pitchers of his day.

In those pre-league days, Jim White took an occasional turn on the mound. Even in that regard he once became involved in a controversy. He developed a windmill-type windup, similar to that used by modern softball pitchers, but still kept his arm stiff as required by the rules. Some umpires refused to allow him, to use the delivery, although Henry Chadwick ruled that the delivery was entirely legal. A year or so later the rules were amended to permit any kind of underhand pitching; a change that soon put an end to the high-scoring games so common in the late l860’s, and paved the way for the development of modern pitching techniques.

The National Association was formed in 1871. Loose in organization though it was, it must be considered the first professional league. When the Forest Cities played the Kekiongas of Fort Wayne, at Fort Wayne, May 4, 1871, White was given the opportunity to lay claim to a number of “firsts.” He became the first man to come to bat in a major league game; he made the first base hit, the first extra-base hit, a double, and also gained the dubious distinction of being the first major leaguer to be extinguished in a double play. White was 3 for 4 that day and handled 9 fielding chances, but his team lost to Fort Wayne, 2-0.

White remained with Forest City through the 1872 season. For some time his hitting and catching had been closely watched by Harry Wright, manager of the champion Boston Red Stockings. Wright invited White and his pitching partner, Pratt, to come to Boston. White signed with him for the 1873 season, but Pratt demurred, saying that such company was too fast for him.

At Boston, in concert with such baseball immortals as Al Spalding, Jim O’Rourke, Ross Barnes, Cal McVey and the Wright brothers, Harry and George, White was to gain national prominence for the first time. His first season he batted a lofty .389, a mark eclipsed only by the .405 of Ross Barnes. Spalding and White became the most feared battery in the league. Between them they worked out the “quick return,” in which Deacon would sneak up close to the batter and return the ball quickly to Spalding, who would fire it back before the batter was set.

These were glorious days for Boston baseball. The pennant won in 1872 (the season before White joined the club) was to be the first of four in succession. But before the last of the four flags was won in 1875, Boston was rocked to its heels by the news that its famed “Big Four” of Spalding, White, McVey and Barnes had signed with Chicago for the 1876 season. The players had not intended this news to be revealed until the end of the season, but a Chicago Tribune sports writer got wind of it and broke the story. The act of the “Big Four” in signing with another team before the season’s end was a violation of National Association rules, although it was common practice. There was no such thing as a reserve rule at that time and contracts were for one year only, with the regulations requiring that new ones be negotiated after the season was over.

As could have been expected, Spalding and the three other defectors became unacceptable in Boston. They were hissed and booed from the stands; children taunted them and pelted them with stones when they walked in the streets. But all of this distraction had no effect on the play of the Boston team, unless it was to make them play harder, for the club went on to compile a 71-8 record, never equaled in league play. 

N. T. Appolonio, president of the Boston club, offered the four more money, but the situation had gone too far for turning back, even in the face of rumors that the seceders would be expelled from baseball. Also in jeopardy were Cap Anson and Ezra Sutton, who violated Philadelphia contracts to sign with Chicago. (Sutton later elected to stay in Philadelphia.) William Hulbert, president of the Chicago club, who, along with Spalding, had master-minded the scheme, began to worry. Finally he hit upon the idea of forming a new league with a new set of rules, all of which would obviate the probability of the players being thrown out. His coup was successful. Thus the National League was born and, incidentally, the careers of five of baseball’s greatest were saved.

The Chicagos of 1876 proved to be almost unbeatable. With Spalding winning 47 games, the team finished first with a 52-14 record, while the denuded Bostons dropped to fourth. Jim White caught every game but two and batted a robust .335. In one stretch he batted in runs in a record 12 consecutive games.

That fall White made a decision to return to the scene of his earlier glories at Boston. He was welcomed back with open arms (most Boston fans blamed Spalding for the 1875 trouble). Although Manager Wright decided not to supplant Lew Brown, his new catcher, the Deacon showed his versatility by performing at first, third, and in the outfield. What is more, he batted a .385 to win the league batting title. The 1877 season saw Boston resume its championship ways and it marked the fifth consecutive season that White was on a pennant-winning team. That same year White brought his younger brother, Will, to Boston for a tryout. Will was not too impressive in his three appearances for Boston, but he was to go on to a great NL pitching career (222-166). He also had the distinction of being the first major leaguer to wear glasses.

The following year, 1878, the brothers White decided to join the Cincinnatis, managed by Cal McVey, one of the “Big Four” of Boston days. The Reds finished second as the Deacon batted an adequate .313 and played well in the field. Brother Will found his bearings as a pitcher and wound up with 29 wins.

The Deacon took over as manager the next season, but after an in-and-out start, he was removed and McVey returned to the helm. White continued as a player, appearing in all but three of the Reds’ games, and batting .330. Will White enjoyed a fabulous year, winning 43 games and setting an all-time record by starting and finishing 74 games.

It was late that season that Jim White shocked the Cincinnati baseball public by announcing he was retiring from the game. He told the Enquirer “he was positively retiring to his farm and that nothing could induce him to play ball again.” The paper editorialized as follows: “Mr. White has few peers as a ballplayer and he has always been a gentleman in his professional and private life. Such men are sorry losses from baseball when they retire.”

This was the first of many retirements for the Deacon, none of which stuck any more than the first one, until finally the very weight of years forced him to give up. White did return to the Reds in 1880 — a disastrous year for the Ohio city in that it finished in the cellar for the third time, and then suffered the ignominy of being thrown out of the league for permitting beer and whiskey to be sold in its park. In spite of everything, the unretired White batted over .300 for the eighth consecutive time.

The ejection of Cincinnati set the stage for a shift in Deacon White’s career from the Queen City of Ohio to the Queen City of New York State — Buffalo. Here he was to find himself as a third baseman and go on to greater glory at an age when most ballplayers seek less strenuous pursuits.

The news that White was to join the Bisons (then about to start their third season in the NL) was not a cause for loud cheering on Lake Erie’s shores. The Express referred to him as “Farmer White, that sad tiller of the soil who everybody knows is too old to play ball.” Actually White was not the Neanderthal man the paper made him out to be. His long, doleful face, receding hair line and drooping walrus mustache made him appear much older than his 33 years. Besides, he had been playing ball as long as most fans could remember.

White’s early efforts for the Bisons did little to dispel the first reactions. In one game he dropped three balls in right field, causing the Express to comment with acerbity on the said performance of one who had once been “the king bee of all the catchers.” On May 20, 1881, the following note appeared in the Courier: “Manager O’Rourke will lay off White today because a lefthander, Richmond, is pitching for Worcester.” Thus Deacon White may have become the first lefty hitter to be platooned because a southpaw was to pitch. Despite the platooning and the snide remarks of the press, Jim batted .310.

White played third almost exclusively in 1882, although he did go behind the bat occasionally to catch Jim Galvin, Buffalo’s great fast ball pitcher. It was this year that fans began to refer to the first four hitters in the Buffalo lineup (Hardy Richardson, Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe and White) as the “Big Four.” In his remaining four years with the Buffalo National League club, White batted .281, .289, .325 and .292 — not quite up to his earlier standards, but more than adequate in a period when pitchers were beginning to dominate the game more and more. The Bisons did not finish higher than third in any of White’s years with the club, but were a first division contender every season except for the last, 1885.

Just as White had been present at the temporary demise of Cincinnati as a major league city, so was he to be a part of Buffalo’s departure. The 1885 season had been a rugged one for the operators of the Buffalo club. While its famed “Big Four” was still intact, the team had lost its spark with the leaving of Jim O’Rourke to join New York. In June, pitcher Jim Galvin, who had won over 200 victories for the Buffalos, was sold to Pittsburgh for just $1500. But that was only a hint of what was to come.

When the baseball writer of the Detroit Free Press soliloquized in late August, “Oh, that Detroit had a Deacon White!” he was indulging in some wishful thinking that was uncannily prophetic. On September 16, President Josiah Jewett of the Bisons rocked the baseball world with the announcement that he had sold the Buffalo franchise to the Detroit club for $7,000. The truth was that the Wolverines really wanted the “Big Four” of White, Brouthers, Richardson and Rowe and that the only way they could accomplish this was to buy the entire Buffalo club. It was the first mass deal in baseball history and certainly the last of its kind.

An odd aspect of the deal, and one that is often overlooked in accounts of it, is that it was made while Buffalo still had two more weeks of its schedule remaining. The Bisons did manage to finish out the year using players Detroit did not want, plus a few amateurs. Buffalo played its last National League game ever on October 3, 1885, losing to Boston, 18-0.

Once the deal was completed, White and company entrained to join the Detroit club. But they never did get into uniform, when President Nick Young of the National League ruled they could not sign Detroit contracts before October 20. The players then returned to Buffalo, proclaiming to all that since they had been released by Buffalo and could not sign with Detroit, they were free agents and could sign with anyone. The press was filled with the acrimonious debate as the battle raged between players and clubowners. In the midst of all the fuss, it was recorded in the Buffalo Express that Deacon White had sought the quiet of his Corning farm and was through with baseball.

What dreams the “Big Four” had of signing with the highest bidder soon were blasted when it was ruled that Detroit could reserve them. In the spring of 1886, the “Big Four,” including the “retired” White, joined the Detroit Wolverines, managed by William Watkins.

The fortunes of the Detroit team, which had been at a low ebb, immediately took a sharp upturn. The Wolverines of 1886 did not win the pennant, but they did finish second with a .707 percentage, only 2-1/2 games behind Cap Anson’s White Stockings. In 1887 Detroit enjoyed its first pennant winner, with a club that must be ranked among the strongest of the pre-1900 era. In addition to Brouthers, White, Richardson and Rowe, its roster included Ned Hanlon, whose defensive play made him the Willie Nays of his day; catcher Charley Bennett, a .363 hitter that year; Charley (Pretzels) Getzein, a 29-game winner; and Sam Thompson, then well on his way to recognition as one of the greatest sluggers of the game’s early years.

The great year was climaxed by a post-season victory over Chris Von Der Abe’s St. Louis Browns, champions of the then major league American Association. This was a unique world series, with 15 games played in ten different cities.

Detroit’s taste of baseball glory was brief. In 1888 the Wolverines dropped from first to fifth, and then at season’s end, dropped right out of the league. President Fred Stearns and his associate, Charles W. Smith, became fed up with the headaches of running a major league club and decided to sell out. They peddled their stars for between $45,000 and $55,000, a nice figure considering their original player investment was in the neighborhood of $15,000. Brouthers, White and Richardson were sold to Boston, while Rowe was dealt to Pittsburgh. Boston then decided it did not want the 40-year-old White and he was sent along to Pittsburgh.

Both White and Rowe were members of the National Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, a group that was becoming more and more outspoken in its espousal of players’ rights. Apart from the perennial complaints about low salaries, the Brotherhood opposed the reserve clause (in effect since 1879) and supported the idea that a player should share in the proceeds when he was sold to another club.

Although they did not realize it at the time, Deacon White and Jack Rowe were instrumental in bringing two of these quarrels into open and bitter contention when, in December 1888, they announced that they had purchased the Buffalo franchise of the International League and further that they would not report to Pittsburgh, since they would be playing for their own Bisons.

Deacon White had been in the center of baseball disputes before, but he was soon to realize that these had been but skirmishes compared to the major battle he was now facing. For the next eight months, the White-Rowe vs. Detroit-Pittsburgh battle was to rage unabated. White told the Buffalo Express: “Rowe and I are not bluffing. Mark my words, neither of us will play in the National League next year. We own the Buffalo club and we intend to play here.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, with rare astuteness, said, “This could mean a baseball war.”

After moving his family from Detroit to Buffalo, White consulted a Buffalo lawyer, with the thought of testing the reserve clause in court. At this time he remarked, “If I cannot get my release, I must protect myself in another way. The laws of this country will stop people from preventing me from making an honest living.” White and Rowe had the solid support of the press, whose stand was pretty well summed up by the Boston Globe when it said, “It is generally accepted that baseball law is not legal law and could never be upheld in court, if that test should come.” At the same time it expressed doubt that the controversy would ever be litigated.

Meanwhile, the club owners were doing plenty of firing in the public prints. President William Nimick of Pittsburgh said, “Rowe and White will play in Pittsburgh or they will play nowhere.” Fred Stearns of the defunct Detroit club, which stood to receive $7,000 for White and Rowe, emphatically agreed.

While the oratory went on apace, so did plans for the 1889 Bisons. The neophyte baseball entrepreneurs, White and Rowe, had plenty of problems facing them, including getting a new park ready. Another jolt was the defection of Frank Grant, their brilliant Negro second baseman, who had been the team’s best hitter the three previous seasons. He was joining the Cuban Giants. A wet spring added to their woes, and great difficulty was encountered in getting the field in shape. On top of this, Will White, the Deacon’s brother, who had been brought in as playing manager, developed a sore arm.

The team got off to a bad start and never righted itself. White and Rowe stuck to their guns until mid-season. Rumors then began to circulate that they were about to make a deal with Pittsburgh. The rumors proved to be based on fact, when it was announced that the recalcitrants would report to the Pittsburgh club. Their capitulation was not a complete victory for the establishment, since each received $1,250 of the sale price, plus handsome $500-per-month salaries. White still was not happy about the deal and told a Buffalo reporter with quaint frankness: “We are satisfied with the money, but we ain’t worth it. Rowe’s arm is gone. I’m over 40 and my fielding ain’t so good, though I can still hit some. But I will say this, no man is going to sell my carcass unless I get half.”

Later it was revealed that the surrender of White and Rowe followed their receipt of a mysterious letter from John Montgomery Ward, the Brotherhood leader. While its contents have never been revealed, it has been suggested that White and Rowe were advised to get what they could for the rest of the season, because the “new league” would be in operation for the 1890 season. There can be little doubt that the mulish stand of the club owners, bringing about a situation where two players could not play for a club they owned, had roused the Brotherhood to action. In later years, Ned Hanlon often said that in his opinion the White-Rowe dispute was the spark that ignited the Brotherhood War.

Immediately after White and Rowe joined Pittsburgh, the club went on a nine-game losing streak. White’s performance was described as `very yellow” and Rowe was criticized for his weak throwing. But within a few weeks they both recovered their diamond legs and by the end of the year were performing close to their old-time ability.

With the stormy 1889 season now history, the stage was set for Deacon White’s last baseball entrance. When stories of a Players’ League came out of New York, little credence was placed in them. But they were true; there was, indeed, to be a Players’ League, and Buffalo was to be represented. Capital of $20,000 was raised, $1,000 each coming from White and Rowe and $500 from a little-known catcher on the Washington club by the name of Connie Mack. The rest of the money was put up by local businessmen. White and Rowe were able to supply a place to play, since they controlled the lease on the new Olympic Park.

The Buffalo Brotherhood Club was neither a financial nor an artistic success. After an unbelievable start which saw it score 75 runs against Cleveland in the first four games, it soon dropped to the second division and finally to the cellar. There it finished the season, 20 games behind the seventh-place Cleveland club it had clobbered in the opening series. The team drew about 60,000 fans, most of these in the first half of the season. As the season dragged to a close, attendance dropped steadily, until, in the last two weeks of the season, there was no money to pay salaries. It was in these sad circumstances that Deacon White closed out his long baseball career. At age 42 he had played in 122 games and batted .264.

His baseball days over, White continued to reside in Buffalo, working for his brother Will at the Buffalo Optical Company, and also operating a livery stable (later turned into an auto garage) on Auburn Avenue. Around 1910 he moved to the Midwest, where he lived until his death in Illinois in 1939.

White saw his last ball game in the early 1930’s when he traveled to Chicago to see the White Sox play the Athletics, managed by his old teammate of Brotherhood days, Connie Mack. When asked for a comment after the game, in which he had seen Lefty Grove pitch for the A’s, he said with characteristic candidness: “Players of my day would have had little success with present-day pitchers. But we were better fielders. Remember, we used no gloves.”

The Deacon was not completely forgotten in his later years. About two months before he died he granted a long interview to a Chicago reporter. He was then, at 91, the oldest major leaguer in the land. But more important than mere longevity was the fact that he had lived through and been a part of more baseball history than almost any other man.