Seven Memories Of Grandpa: Tales Of A 19th Century Baseball Pioneer

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In 2013, over 120 years after he retired from baseball, Deacon White was inducted into the Hall of Fame. (Mike Groll/AP)
In 2013, over 120 years after he retired from baseball, Deacon White was inducted into the Hall of Fame. (Mike Groll/AP)

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"Well, I've got — what I've got here to read is all the things I remember of Grandpa — and there's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven ... " Betty Jackson begins.

Betty's memory isn’t so good these days. She’s 96 — she’ll turn 97 in December. But she still has seven memories of her grandfather, James "Deacon" White. White was a catcher and a baseball pioneer. Back in 1871 — five decades before Betty was born — White got the first hit in professional baseball.

"He was a great grandfather. I loved him very much," Betty says. "And as far as I know, I'm the only one alive who remembers him."

'I Took Care Of Him'

Betty was five years old when White came to live with her family in Mendota, Illinois. Her most vivid memory is sneaking down the hallway to his bedroom on the second floor.

"And I would peek through the keyhole in his door and sometimes he was fixing one of my broken toys," she says. "I don't remember him fixing anybody else's toy, but he fixed all of mine."

Betty Jackson, with her list of seven things she remembers about her grandpa. (Janet Jackson)
Betty Jackson, with her list of seven things she remembers about her grandpa. (Janet Jackson)

Betty says she doesn’t remember ever seeing her grandfather smile, though a smile would have been difficult to see under his long, walrus mustache. But she does remember his fingers, so swollen and bent that he couldn’t even hold her hand.

"He caught the ball with bare hands," she says. "And all of his fingers had been broken. And they were all — the shape of his hand was like the shape of a baseball."

Betty says it was her job to take care of grandpa.

"Whenever he wanted something he'd knock his cane on the floor, and I'd go tearing up," she recalls. "I took care of him for a long time, and we were very close. I loved him very much. And I think he loved me, though I'm sure he never told me that."

"Did he ever get angry or speak harshly to you?" I ask.

"Only when somebody didn't know how to play baseball," Betty says, laughing. "There was a bunch of girls that used to play baseball in our yard. And he would sit up on our second floor porch, right next to his room. And he would watch us play baseball. One day, he pointed to one girl, and he said, 'You would be an All-Star.' And then he pointed to me and said, 'You figure out something else to do.'"

"And you're laughing now, were you laughing then?"

"I laughed then. It didn't bother me at all."

The Catcher As Folk Hero

Deacon White learned to play baseball as a teenager in upstate New York.

"Baseball started to develop during the Civil War and was played by Civil War soldiers," White's great-grandson — and Betty's nephew — Mark Trumbo says. "So as the Civil War veterans started coming back they brought a love of baseball with them. He was just a teenager at that time. So baseball, I think, was an attractive way to get out and have some fun with the guys."

When he was 23, White found himself with the Cleveland Forest Citys, one of the first baseball teams to be considered "professional." Betty doesn’t remember anything about White’s playing days. Her son, Caddy Jackson, says he learned a lot from a book about 19th century catchers by baseball historian Peter Morris.

"According to Morris' book, during the '70s, the catcher was not only the most important position, but was also a folk hero," Caddy explains. "The country was looking for heroes following the Civil War, someone like Daniel Boone who could conquer the wilderness. And then the catcher was able to stand behind the plate and take the physical abuse without a mitt and a mask."

"It was a time when catchers were so valuable defensively that if you were good enough as a catcher, you could literally not hit and still be a valuable player," Peter Morris says. "Well, Deacon White combined being the best defensive catcher in the game with being one of the best hitters in the game."

"One day he pointed to one girl and he said, 'You would be an all-star.' And then he pointed to me and said, 'You figure out something else to do.'"

Betty Jackson

Bare-handed catchers were prone to injury. Their careers generally didn’t last very long. But White played the position until he was 31 and then switched to third base and played another 12 years.

He did get the first hit in the first professional baseball game, but that was more of a fluke than anything else. Most historians recognize the National Association as the first professional baseball league. And White had the first at bat in the league’s only opening day game that wasn’t rained out. He hit for a double.

But there was something else that made Deacon White stand out.

"By the time he started playing baseball, he was very convinced that these were special times," Mark says.

Waiting For The Second Coming

White was a member of the Advent Christian Church, which followed the teachings of William Miller, a former Baptist preacher who believed the second coming of Christ was imminent.

"And so Deacon did all he could to become the best Christian he could," Mark continues. "And it influenced all aspects of his life, including how he played the game of baseball."

"He would not play on Sunday," Caddy says. "He would not chew, he would not smoke, he would not drink, he would not cuss, certainly would not take any performance-enhancing drugs."

"So he was serious," I say.

"He really was. He would be, I suppose, some people would call him somewhat fanatical now."

James "Deacon" White played for the Detroit Wolverines from 1878-1880. (Public Domain)
James "Deacon" White played for the Detroit Wolverines from 1878-1880. (Public Domain)

But back in the 1870s, White’s teammates used another word to describe him.

"Many of these men had just come back from the war and so they were a rough-and-tumble group," Mark explains, "so James White acquired the name 'Deacon' simply because he took his religion so seriously."

White retired in 1891, after 20 years in the league. Late in his career, the Detroit Free Press put it like this:

"No one ever yet heard Deacon White say dammit. No one ever saw him spike or trample upon an opponent; no one ever saw him hurl his bat towards the bench when he struck out; no one ever heard him wish the umpire were where the wicked never cease from troubling and the weary never give us a rest. And think of it! Nineteen years of provocation! Will anybody deny that Deacon White is a great and good man, as well as a first-class ball player."

Betty Jackson also believed her grandfather to be a great and good man. And once his playing days were behind him, he focused 100 percent of his energy on his religion.

"He knew that Christ was coming back and he knew that he was coming while he was alive," Betty says. "And he sat on the back porch, rocking in his rocking chair, waiting for Jesus. He spent most of his time doing that."

One night, White looked out in the distance and was sure the time had come. He ran back into the house and screamed …

"'Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!'" Betty remembers. "We ran upstairs and some very smart person says, 'Oh, that's aurora borealis.'"

"Were you terribly disappointed?" I ask.

"Well, I wasn't," Betty says, laughing. "I'm sure he was."

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1936. White was sure he’d be invited. He was wrong.

"You know, they were starting from scratch. So the first five were the Babe Ruths and the Ty Cobbs, and Christy Matthewson and Honus Wagner," Morris says. "They had just such a backlog of great players. I mean, it took Cy Young a couple times to get in, and he won 511 games."

White had the credentials for a Hall of Fame bid. His importance in developing the role of a catcher was unmatched. Teams played as few as 40 games in those early seasons, but White’s 2,000 hits in just 1,500 games would equal about 4,000 hits today.

But the voters in the 1930s didn’t know any of that. Decent statistics for White’s best years hadn’t even been compiled yet. And White’s last game had been in 1890. Anyone who’d seen him play was likely now in their 70s.

"So he didn't get any real consideration at that time and just fell off the ballot at that point," Morris says. "And he was very disappointed."

White spent his last few years waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame ... and for Jesus. And then, on July 7, 1939, it was too late.

"Oh, he died ... let me stop and think just a half a second here. It was in the morning," Betty says. "And we were at a summer home that we had on the river about 20 miles from where we lived, and we spent all the summers up there. He had his room there right next to the kitchen. And mother came out and just said, 'Well, Grandpa is dead. Grandpa died last night. He was fine when he went to bed, but he just died in his sleep.'

"I loved him very, very much. And to be perfectly honest with you, I'm not sure anybody else loved him as much as I did."

Finally Enshrined

Over the next seven decades, White’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren tried to get him into the Hall of Fame, but their pleas never got very far. Until 2012 ...

"So in 2012, there was a committee of 16 people: four Hall of Famers, four major league executives, six sports writers and two historians," Morris explains.

(Public Domain)
(Public Domain)

This pre-integration veteran’s committee would consider 10 candidates for the class of 2013, including Deacon White. And Peter Morris was one of those two historians.

So, he made sure the members of the committee understood the math — that Deacon’s 2,000 hits alone should qualify him for induction.

And Morris says the committee also discussed White’s character. This was the first year of eligibility for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, who both had been accused of performance-enhancing drug use. The baseball writers would fail to elect a single living player. So character was definitely on the table.

But the veteran’s committee was considering at least one candidate whose character was above reproach.

"We spent a whole day just kind of making sure that we all had a really good understanding of the credentials of the 10 people. And then we had a secret vote," Morris says.

"And, I assume, and maybe because it's secret you can't tell me this, but I assume that you were one of the people that was planning to vote for White?" I ask.

"Well, yeah, that's something I'm really not supposed to tell you," he says. "You can certainly make an assumption like that, but I made a promise not to confirm that, so..."

Twelve votes were needed. Deacon White received 13. He was in. His family was shocked. They’d all given up.

Betty was asked to speak at the induction ceremony, but she says she didn’t feel like she could do it. So, in July of 2013, Deacon White’s great-grandson, Jerry Watkins, gave the acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame.

Betty was there, too, along with almost 50 members of Deacon White’s family.

"I’m honored to be able to speak here on behalf of my family," Jerry Watkins says in the speech. "And this is a day we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives."

When I was saying goodbye to Betty, she thanked me for helping her remember things she thought she had forgotten about her grandfather. And it's true — she managed to remember a lot more than seven things. But this moment — in Cooperstown with almost fifty members of her family watching as Deacon White was finally welcomed into the Hall of Fame — Betty Jackson remembered this moment all on her own.

This segment aired on September 16, 2017.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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