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.