The news when it came Wednesday afternoon was surprising only in its suddenness. Those close to former Royals broadcaster Fred White knew he was terribly sick.
The Royals sent out word in the early afternoon that White, 76, had died of complications from melanoma. His death came one day after he officially retired from the club following a 40-year association.
“It’s kind of stunning,” longtime broadcast partner Denny Matthews said. “I talked to him two weeks ago. I was in his office, and nothing looked out of the ordinary or sounded out of the ordinary.
“He didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. Dang. … Somebody has a heart attack or something, well, you can kind of comprehend that. It’s kind of hard to get your hands around this.”
Word leaked out in recent days among close friends that White’s cancer had accelerated at an alarming rate. Many knew the end was near earlier this week when they spoke to The Star regarding White’s retirement.
“We didn’t just lose a teammate,” said Mike Swanson, the club’s vice president for communications and broadcasting. “We lost a friend. And he was probably a better friend than he was a teammate, and he was a fantastic teammate.”
There are no details at this time regarding funeral arrangements. A club statement said White died while in hospice care. The family made a request, through the Royals, for privacy in dealing with their grief.
White joined the Royals’ broadcast team in 1973 and, following Buddy Blattner’s retirement in 1975, teamed with Matthews as the club’s primary voices to 1998.
That Matthews-White pairing spanned the club’s glory years and, for many, provided a soundtrack to it all. White served more recently as the club’s director of broadcast services and Royals alumni.
“Two guys from central Illinois,” Matthews said. “His sense of humor was terrific. Off the charts. It takes the better part of a year of working together before you begin to understand what a guy’s style is and what he likes to do.
“I don’t think it took us very long. We played off each other pretty well and had a good time together. I’ve always told people, ‘The season is long, and the booth is small. So you’d better get along.’”
The decision by the Royals to replace White in 1998 with Ryan Lefebvre initially drew a strong backlash from the club’s fan base. Top club officials at the time wanted a young, fresh new voice.
Matthews and White were viewed as being too similar.
“When I took the Royals’ job, I felt I needed to call Fred,” Lefebvre said. “The people in charge at the time were reluctant to give me his number because it was an emotionally charged topic.
“He told me, ‘Ryan, there are no hard feelings. I’m just going to tell you this: You’re getting one of the greatest jobs in broadcasting. If there’s anything I can do for you, you let me know.’
“That was good enough for me right there. But when he started going on the radio and pleading with the audience to give me a chance … he didn’t have to do that.
“Because Fred was fired, I got the Royals’ job. Because Fred supported and campaigned for me, I’ve had this job for 15 years.”
White continued to spend his baseball off-seasons by calling basketball games for the Big Eight and Big 12 television networks along with many national networks.
Former Missouri All-American Jon Sundvold, a frequent partner on those basketball broadcasts, recalled White earlier this week as “one of the best” in the business.
“Fred White was Royals baseball and Big Eight basketball,” Sundvold said. “For a guy like me who got to listen to him and finally work with him, it was quite a thrill.”
White was the sports anchor at WIBW-TV in Topeka and the broadcast voice for Kansas State athletics before joining the Royals. He was also renown for his kindness to young broadcasters.
It was tip-off recently that White’s health was deteriorating when he was unable to attend the annual visit by the Kansas Broadcasters Association to Kauffman Stadium.
“He was so good with our affiliates, growing that network,” Swanson said. “It had to really hurt him to not be able to attend a couple of weeks ago. He had to beg out of it because of illness and now we all know why.”
Current Royals broadcaster Steve Physioc was working in Hastings, Neb., when he contacted White while on in Kansas City on a trip to visit his parents.
White invited Physioc to then-Royals Stadium for lunch before arranging space for Physioc in an empty booth. Doing so enabled Physioc to cut a tape in a major-league game with the full crowd noise in the background.
“Outside of my father, he was probably the most influential man I’ve ever been around,” Physioc said of White. “He did things for me (professionally) for me (at Kansas State) that I didn’t even know he was doing for me.”
Mostly, though, White is remembered by Royals fans as being the Fred in Denny and Fred.
Matthews paused when asked to recall what will come first to mind in future years when he thinks of White. Finally, a smile came to his voice as he chuckled at the memory.
Any Royals fan of a certain age can close their eyes and hear the exchange.
“We were doing a game one night in Oakland,” Matthews said, “and there were like 37 people in the stands, and it was 14-1 or something in the seventh inning.
“Fred was doing the play-by-play, and I was just sitting there wondering how long the game was going to last.
“He said something like, ‘Boy, there’s hardly anybody here, but look at those two guys in the upper deck.’ They were way down the right-field line — as far as you could get down the right-field line, and as high up as you could get in that big depressing place.
“He and I started talking about these guys. We keep going on about it. ‘Why are they there?’ We talked about it for another seven, eight or 10 minutes in between pitches.
“Finally, I was curious. What kind of knuckleheads would be up there, and why are they here? I picked up my binoculars and looked up where they were — and there wasn’t anybody up there.
“There were two seats that had been pushed up so they were a different color. I remember putting my binoculars down and turning with a poker face.
“I said, ‘Fred, I’m not sure how I’m going to break this to you. But those guys up there in the upper deck? Those are empty seats.’ We laughed about that for the last two innings.”
Well, maybe, just maybe, they were only empty seats on close inspection. White’s eyes were pretty good, remember. His deft touch at calling a game is still recalled by colleagues, friends and fans.
Perhaps, he got it right. For an instant, anyway, maybe there were two souls dropping in for a night of ball. Or just to listen to Fred and Denny as so many did for so many years.
The Royals return Friday to the Oakland Coliseum, which remains as dreary as it was so many years ago. Who knows what we’ll see in that far corner down the right-field line? Maybe three guys. One laughing.