Fred White

Some people, well, you think they will live forever. That’s how I always felt about Fred White. He was just always there to bridge the years, to stand for the small towns, to tell a story, to talk about the weather. He was always there to point out something joyful. There’s a story I think of now … it was during a basketball tournament, the Big 12 Tournament it must have been, and Fred was calling some of the games and he sought me out.

“When you get a minute I really want to show you something,” he said, and he was so excited. I got caught up doing something else, but a little while later, he grabbed me again and said, “you really have to see this.”

Then, he took me back to press row where he was announcing the game. “This,” he said gleefully, “is what we use to pass notes.” And there was one of those old fashioned toy magic drawing boards, you know, the kind with the plastic pencil and the waxy paper that you would pull up to make the words disappear. It is a toy right out of childhood. And it is impossible for me to communicate just how much of a kick Fred got out of that. But, you know, Fred got a kick out of a lot of things.

He never expected to live this life — a life where he broadcast the Kansas City Royals during their glory years, called Michael Jordan games in college, announced all sorts of sports in all sorts of places all over America. He had grown up in a little town in Illinois — Homer, Illinois, if I remember correctly, a name which always struck me — and he was just one of those kids who loved sports and dreamed of broadcasting them on the radio. I don’t know think he ever changed, even after he lived out those dreams.

He worked at WIBW in Topeka — one of the biggest signals in the Heartland — and then in 1973 the Royals called to ask if he would be the third man in the booth. In time, three men became two. Fred White and Denny Matthews. Fred and Denny, Denny and Fred, they called Kansas City Royals games for 25 years — along with legendary producer/engineer Don Free — and those were wonderful years, most of them. The Royals were good almost every year, the town was alive in blue, people from all over the Heartland would come to Royals Stadium to watch the team play on that hard green artificial turf, but even more, they would listen on the radio. Fred told me he thought often about the people on the farms, in the small town diners, driving along the two-land roads listening to him and Denny talk about Frank White’s diving play or George Brett’s double off the wall. He knew what those sound waves rippling through Iowa and Nebraska and Oklahoma and Arkansas and Illinois meant to people. He had been one of those people.

He was STILL one of those people.

“Where is your wife from?” he asked me once. I told him she was from a tiny Kansas town he’d never heard of, a town called Cuba, Kansas. Fred’s smile was huge. He had not only heard of Cuba, he knew exactly where it was and, in fact, had been there on several occasions. Well, he made it his business to go to as many small towns as he could find to talk Royals baseball. He loved to connect with people from those small towns.

When autumn came, he went where the opportunities presented themselves. He called Kansas State sports for a while. He worked for various networks. Mostly it was basketball. For a couple of years there he was the play-by-play man for ACC basketball along with another great person, Jeff Mullins. Those were glorious years. There were a few pretty good players in the ACC then — Jordan and Len Bias and Mark Price and all those N.C. State players who won the national championship. The coaches were amazing — Jim Valvano and Dean Smith and Lefty Driesell and a young Mike Krzyzewski, long before he became a legend. It was heaven, and Fred White found himself in the middle of it. But it was just like that for Fred.

“When you stick around long enough,” he used to say, “sometimes you’ll get lucky.”

Another Fred White story: He said that he was probably one of the first announcers to work with Dick Vitale on a college basketball game. “How was that?” I asked Fred. “Good,” Fred said. “I just let him talk.”

Well, he always let people talk. Every analyst he ever worked with said that. But it wasn’t just analysts. I would see Fred in public, meeting strangers, and inevitably it would mean them telling him a story. And he would be listen happily. Fred just never made it about himself. He never intruded on the game. He felt lucky to be there.

In 1998, the Royals fired Fred White … said they were looking for a new sound. It was a terrible move by a desperate organization struggling to find something, anything, that worked … and Fred was heartbroken. But, the story did not end. When the Royals hired Ryan Lefebvre to replace him, Fred did everything in his power to make Ryan feel at home and to express his support. Fred went to work for the Royals radio network, and he went to the small towns again to sell Royals baseball. He worked for the Royals alumni group to bring some of the great old players back into the fold, to connect the team to the past. He created a Royals fantasy camp. He was seemingly at every charity event. He was present. And he always made the day better.

On Tuesday, a statement was released that said Fred White was retiring. His health, the statement said, was failing him. One day later, on Wednesday, Fred White died of complications of melanoma. He was 76. But, you know, he wasn’t really 76 at all. He got to be 12 years old all his life. That’s the beautiful thing I think about my old friend. Fred White never had to grow up.

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18 Responses to Fred White

  1. derek says:

    Some of my favorite memories are fishing with my dad listening to Fred & Denny. RIP…

  2. David says:

    RIP, Fred.

    I actually saw the very first game Dick Vitale ever broadcast, in 1978 for the Detroit CBS affiliate, WJBK Channel 2. Vitale had just stepped down as coach at the University of Detroit and agreed to do a few of their TV games. He might have been paired with Ray Lane, who did sports on Channel 2 for decades.

    Folks, you have only seen the *restrained* Dick Vitale. That night he was literally unable to speak during the last 10 minutes, croaking and gasping as the Titans pulled out a win. Later he would learn to pace himself a bit, but he already had an instinct for the catchphrase. Every time U-D sharpshooter Terry Duerod made a jumper, Vitale would shout, “They’re slappin’ skin in Highland Park!”

  3. Unknown says:

    I remember listening to Fred White and Denny Matthews telling stories during a rain delay and I remember hoping the rain delay would go on forever.

  4. Unknown says:

    Fred and Denny were my best friends for so many lonely nights. They were always there for me. Sincere condolences to the immediate family and extended. I will never forget Fred and Denny.

  5. Denny says:

    I was fortunate to know Fred and Denny and one special moment I will never forget. We were in New York playing the Yankees that evening. The morning was free and we had a golf date. I remember us in Grand Central Station, golf clubs in hand at 8 in the morning catching a train going north as all the commuters were heading into the city to their jobs. Jealousy was rampart but we made our train and the day was special. Thanks Fred and Denny.

  6. Bobby Beachy says:

    The two greatest storytellers I have ever had the privilege to meet are Buck O’Neil and Fred White. The only reason I was able to meet Buck O’Neil was through the generosity of Fred White. The term classy is overused to describe people, but Mr. White was class from start to finish. I only wish I had the opportunity to tell him what he meant to me, but for all of the selfless things he did to acknowledge others, he never sought validation for himself. The outpouring today is well deserved and long overdue.

  7. Unknown says:

    A voice of my childhood that will be with me forever. I wish we could have heard him call games the last 15 years too. Especially last year.

  8. KHAZAD says:

    The first year I moved to KC was Fred’s first year as a broadcaster. I listened to Fred and Denny together (originally with producerengineerEdShepherd and it was always said just like that as if it were one word) for 25 years, beginning as a child with a small radio hidden near my pillow so my Mom wouldn’t know I was still awake and listening. I had the privilege of meeting Fred a few times when I was older, and his friendliness and enthusiasm were wonderful.

    The classy way he handled his abrupt firing was inspirational and indicative of his nature. The Royals have tried other combos since then, but there will never be another team like Fred and Denny.

  9. Cristina says:

    Thanks Joe. I knew I could come here today for a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man whose voice (along with Denny) kept me up at night listening as Brett, White, McRae, Otis, Quiz, Splitt and many others filled my childhood with joy.


  10. Dan Loving says:

    I grew up in Kansas City during the Royals glory days of the 70s and 80s. Later, when I was a student at Southwest Missouri State I got a chance to meet Fred. I was working in the sports information department. He was broadcasting the game for ESPN (I think). At one point, I got the nerve to walk up to him and say hello. I explained who I was and how I grew up loving the Royals. He asked me if I wanted to see his World Series ring. I can only imagine how many times that same scenario played out with him over the years.

  11. P.A. says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. P.A. says:

    I hope that one day, when my friends begin passing on, I can write something half as eloquent and moving as what you have written in this space about Buck O’Neill, Fred White and others. Amazing.

  13. Sorry I never heard him. Reading this had to be the next best thing.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Michael says:

    Joe, that is a lovely tribute. I didn’t get to hear Fred White much out here in Las Vegas, but what I heard sounded pretty much like what you described. I have to say for Royals fans, if the teams were as good as the broadcasters, there would have been a lot more victories.

  16. Joe, I loved your tribute to Fred White. We can always count on you for an eloquent eulogy.

    I grew up in the Kansas City area in the 1970s and 1980s. We didn’t realize how lucky we were. From 1976 to 1985 our team either won the division or was in contention nearly every year. So many memories and emotions….the pain of the bitter playoff loss to the Yankees in 1977 (arguably the best Royals team), the relief of finally beating the Yankees in 1980, and the euphoria of overcoming the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series. And the clear, distinct, and unmistakable voices of Fred White and Denny Matthews providing us with the play-by-play soundtrack. Thanks, Fred, for the memories.

  17. Kansas City says:

    Fred was a very good announcer. Better than Denny. When I listened to his radio call of the Brett pine tar home run, I was amazed at how good it was. He made an excited call and then on the fly accurately described what was going on with the Martin argument and ultimately the call. He even called Gaylord Perry trying to steal the bat.

  18. Humaun Kabir says:

    Thank you for this valuable information, I hope it is okay that I bookmarked your website for further references.
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