A guest column from Mike Passanisi.
Larry Whiteside passed away five years ago last month. Younger Sox fans probably don’t remember his name, but he was one of the most admired and respected writers of his era. He was also the first African-American journalist to cover the Red Sox on a daily basis.
Whiteside came to Boston from Milwaukee in 1973, at a time when pressboxes like those at Fenway were ‘”old boys” clubs where racial epithets among the writers were common. Larry must have heard a lot that offended him, but according to Joe Giuliotti, a longtime Herald writer and close friend of Whiteside, he fit in easily. “There were no problems- he covered the sport very well” says Giuliotti, now retired.
Other journalists saw issues, however. Howard Bryant’s famous book Shut Out: A History of Race and Baseball in Boston, speaks of a prominent Globe sportswriter who “had a general reputation as a racist….He was incorrect in his speech, frequently dropping racial slurs as a matter of habit…The arrival of black reporters changed that.” Once, during a discussion commenting on the inferiority of African-Americans, Whiteside told Bryant “he was over there talking about n_____s. I calmly went over and said ‘if I ever hear that word out of your mouth again, I am going to beat the shit out of you.’ The writer backed off. Whiteside could be tough when he had to.
According to Tom Mulvoy, one of Larry’s superiors, Whiteside “was often in an impossible situation. There would be times when Whiteside and a black athlete would share a drink and compare tales of their similar, lonely roads. Journalistically, the details with which Whiteside would emerge made a great copy, but he knew he ran the risk of breaking a confidence with player…many stories would not appear in the newspaper.” Another editor, Dave Smith, saw Larry in “a remarkably difficult position….If he wrote hard stories on racism in the game, he would be accused of making excuses for black athletes. If he criticized blacks in print, they would recoil at the only black in the press box attacking them. That made him an ‘Uncle Tom’.” According to Giuliotti, possible problems of this type never affected his writing.
Larry would cover the Sox through the heartbreaks of 1975, 1978, and 1986. He was still a feature writer in ’75 (Peter Gammons was the beat man and a rising star). After the seventh game loss to the Reds, Whiteside interviewed the controversial and unpredictable Bill Lee. The Sox had led 3-0 in the sixth when the Spaceman threw an “ephus pitch” to Tony Perez that resulted in a two-run homer and the beginning of the Cincinnati comeback. Never one to mince words, Lee refused to apologize for the pitch and blamed his teammates for not turning a double play earlier in the inning. Some journalists might have questioned Lee’s attitude, but Whiteside started the piece with “It’s the way you have come to expect Bill Lee to go down. Kicking and screaming, fussing and fuming with the Reds or just about anyone else who got in his way.” Larry also did a low-key and effective piece on rookie Jim Burton, the Sox pitcher who surrendered the winning run.
As beat writer in ’86, Whiteside had the unenviable task of reporting the collapse in game 6 and sad loss in game 7. About Saturday night’s contest, he began “The Miracle Mets have returned to Shea Stadium. And the demons of 68 years worth of failure will haunt the Red Sox for at least another day. On that gloomy Tuesday morning after the final game, he began “Pitching carried the Red Sox to the threshold of their first World Championship in 68 years. Pitching has extended the wait through the 69th year. Perhaps that is the most deflating irony of a grand Boston chariot ride that ended in heartbreak. No angry recriminations, just the reality of the Sox’ seemingly eternal pitching problems.”
A few days later, Whiteside conducted a lengthy interview with Sox manager John McNamara. “Johnny Mac” was not known as a friendly or talkative man, even in good times. Despite what must have been a terrible disappointment, Mac was very cooperative. Unlike some writers, Whiteside met McNamara half way, in spite of some bizarre remarks from the manager. Regarding fan target Bob Stanley, he answered “Overall, I think Stanley did a very good job for us, especially in the postseason, when he threw the ball very well.” Given what happened in game 6, a very strange statement. Yet Whiteside would seldom if ever criticize, and that must have helped in interviews such as this one. Unlike some beat people who regularly inject their opinions, Whiteside stayed a reporter. A beat man recently called a Sox loss “a dispirited effort“. Larry would seldom if ever make such a remark
As the 80′s wound into the 90′s, Whiteside’s career seemed to wane a bit. Perhaps because of ill health and perhaps because there were some new, more aggressive writers at the Globe, Larry’s stories began to go off the front sport page. Nick Cafardo and Gordon Edes were the new beat men, and Larry’s work was sometimes limited to feature stories or less important material. With the paper now only printing one daily edition, there was less space for men like Whiteside. For example, in 1998, as the Sox were losing to Cleveland in the ALDS, Larry was covering the National League playoffs.
According to a fine obituary written by Christopher Gasper, Whiteside retired from the Globe in 2004. No stories about the team finally “breaking the curse” that fall appeared under his byline- too bad, because he surely would have enjoyed covering the ultimate victory. Only three years later he was gone, victim of a long illness at age 69.
Whiteside never seemed to “cater” to his readers. “We were not there to win popularity contests”, says Giuliotti. But he definitely had the respect of the players- it was not all about him.” RIP Larry. You are missed.