Royals Hall of Famer Frank White hits the campaign trail

08/05/2014 10:55 PM

08/05/2014 11:51 PM

Frank White still was waking up a smidge as he sipped coffee at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday in the kitchen of his Lee’s Summit home. After all, the Royals Hall of Famer had returned home around midnight after coaching the T-Bones independent league baseball team.

That was in part to honor his ongoing commitment … and in part to distract himself from the day ahead and his bid to win the Democratic primary for a vacant at-large seat in the Jackson Country legislature.

“It’s like every game I ever started, in the first inning,” White said. “I always had anxiety, because I always think the tone of any game is set in the first two innings. So I always wanted to get that first ground ball and go to bat for the first time.”

So butterflies were fluttering inside as he began his last day of campaigning, a whirlwind of some 15 stops at voting locations from a Moose Lodge in Sugar Creek to the Kansas City Public Library’s Lucile H. Bluford Branch blocks from where he grew up.

As it happened, he needn’t have been so fretful.

White won in a landslide over his opponent, distinguished firefighter Sherwood Smith, a man with whom White had few apparent differences. White received 77 percent of the vote.

Perhaps indicative of how fresh he is to politics, at a victory party at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum White praised Smith for running a gentlemanly campaign. He also considers Smith “a likable guy.”

White had that factor going for him, amplified by the magic of celebrity and image that was enhanced by a simple campaign sign bearing his name etched within a baseball.

One such sign was plucked from White’s front yard, an act he likes to think was pursuit of a souvenir instead of vandalism.

Through the day engineered by campaign manager Pat O’Neill, White often was fussed over upon arrival. Inside the Bluford library, a woman spotted him in the parking lot and declared to her friend, “That’s him!”

Elsewhere, he might hear that someone had played softball with him 40 years ago or once worked with his sister. He’d be given that ever-annoying, “Don’t you remember me?” … and handle it as graciously as possible.

At some sites, even those distributing literature about other issues or candidates posed for pictures with him or sought his autograph.

Once, he took to twirling one of his campaign signs, joking that he felt like one of the Liberty Tax mascots and maybe he was going batty.

In fact, working a crowd isn’t natural for White, who is much more used to people approaching him than vice versa.

But by day’s end, he had gone from a somewhat reluctant interloper to cheerfully angling toward a person or two who seemed intent on bypassing him.

That was just before the polls closed at 7 p.m., and maybe it was connected to why White had worried earlier:

Because he learned long ago never to assume any result.

After winning eight Gold Gloves at second base and never before daring to believe any was destined for him, in 1988 he anticipated he’d win another when he committed just four errors.

Instead, Seattle’s Harold Reynolds won it … with 18 errors.

“I killed myself for letting myself go there, (thinking), ‘This is a lock,’ ” he said in the morning. “So in this race … I don’t know.”

At 63, White hardly needed this race for fulfillment in his life.

A father of eight, White enjoys his gig with the T-Bones, relishes coaching a youth baseball team and is deeply invested in being a spokesman and marketer for a roofing company.

And, of course, he has a unique legacy with the Royals that includes helping them to their World Series victory in 1985, a statue in his honor and being one of only three men whose jerseys the franchise has retired.

It also extends to being part of the Kauffman Stadium construction crew when he was a minor-leaguer in the early 1970s. He remembers pushing wheelbarrows, sealing floors in bathrooms and smoothing out mortar and cement.

Sometimes, he looked down from the upper level and wondered if he’d ever play down there.

So all that remains indelible even as White has been estranged from the team since he was fired from his broadcasting job in 2011.

“I think you do all you can do, and then move on to something else: Don’t look back and wonder ‘if’ ” he said, between greeting voters outside Raytown City Hall. “When I look at (Kauffman) Stadium, what’s been done inside by the guys that I played with, that’s always going to be there.

“As long as they fly those flags, that history is going to be there.”

He paused to greet a passing voter and added, “I just like to move to the next thing and go on from there.”

The notion of running for office began to occur to White amid his work in 2011 on behalf of the Kansas City Zoo, one of a number of worthy causes to which White has been devoted.

White and his wife, Teresa, were co-chairs of an initiative to pass a one-eighth-cent sales tax in Jackson and Clay counties for zoo upgrades.

Despite a boa constrictor getting a little too cozy with Teresa at a news conference, the experience was inspiring for the couple.

“It was scary at first, because nobody likes taxes,” White said. “But some taxes are good taxes. I thought a world-class zoo was important.”

His political points of emphasis are somewhat more generic.

He literally has no agenda, only what would be better described as areas of interest: creating safe housing and neighborhoods; building and maintaining better schools; reducing violent crime; improving parks, lakes, trails and athletic facilities.

But White isn’t hiding from the fact he’s a political novice. He’s embracing it. He isn’t trumpeting anything “colossal” beyond giving it his all to give back.

“I’ve always been a guy who wondered about stuff,” he said. “I’ve always wondered why can’t we do this, why can’t we do that.”

If he beats Republican Weldon Woodward of Levasy in November — and no Republican has won an at-large seat since the County Legislature was formed in 1973 — White will find out one way or another.

But he won’t have to wonder “if.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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