At his best, Bill White hit for average and distance.
Sixty years ago, in July 1961, White achieved an unprecedented slugging feat against the Dodgers, then tied a major-league base hit record held by Ty Cobb.
A left-handed batter and first baseman, White did the following:
_ On July 5, he became the first player to hit three home runs over the right-field fence in a game at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
_ From July 17 to July 18, he totaled 14 hits in four games, equaling a record set by Cobb 49 years earlier for most hits in two consecutive doubleheaders.
In 1961, White was a National League all-star and Gold Glove Award winner who was among the Cardinals’ leading hitters, but the club wanted him to produce more power. In each of the three previous seasons (1958-60), Ken Boyer was the only Cardinal to hit 20 home runs.
Heading into the game against the Dodgers at the Coliseum, White was hitting .294 with five home runs for the season.
The Coliseum seemed an unlikely place for White to go on a home run binge. The distance from home plate to the fence in right-center was 440 feet and it was 390 feet in straightaway right. Left-handed sluggers, such as the Dodgers’ Duke Snider, found those dimensions daunting.
The Coliseum was friendlier to right-handed pull hitters, with a distance of 251 feet down the line from home plate to the left field fence. Though a screen stretching 42 feet high was erected, routine fly balls reached the seats.
Adding to the degree of difficulty for White was the Dodgers’ choice of a starting pitcher, left-hander Johnny Podres. White hit for a higher average and with more power against right-handers than he did left-handers.
Batting second in the order in the last game managed by Solly Hemus, White grounded out his first time at the plate against Podres.
Leading off the third, White swung at an inside fastball from Podres and pulled it over the fence near the foul line for a home run.
An inning later, facing Roger Craig, White got a hanging changeup and drove it over the wall in right-center for a two-run home run.
The next time up, with two outs and a runner on second in the sixth, White was walked intentionally by Craig.
In the eighth, White led off against rookie Jim Golden and hit a slider into the seats in right-center for his third home run.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, White was the sixth Cardinals player with three home runs in a game. The others: Frank Shugart (1894), George Harper (1928), George Watkins (1931), Johnny Mize (1938 and 1940) and Stan Musial (1954).
Lee Walls of the 1958 Cubs and Don Demeter of the 1959 Dodgers also hit three home runs in a game at the Coliseum, with all carrying the short distance to left.
“I took extra batting practice last Monday determined to practice getting out in front of the ball,” White said to the Post-Dispatch. “I believe the club expects it of me.”
White had a chance to hit a fourth home run in the game when he faced Golden again in the ninth. He took a rip and lined a double to the base of the wall in right near the foul line.
Asked whether he was trying for a home run, White told the Los Angeles Times, “I wasn’t thinking so much about that as the fact that the first pitch might come pretty close to me. Then, when I did hit the ball, it looked for a second or two like it might hook in there for another homer.”
Two weeks later, with Johnny Keane managing the club, the Cardinals faced consecutive twi-night doubleheaders against the Cubs at St. Louis.
White produced 14 hits in 18 at-bats in the four games, all won by the Cardinals.
When Cobb achieved the mark while playing for the Tigers against the Athletics at Philadelphia in 1912, he was 14-for-19. Cobb had seven hits in 11 at-bats in the doubleheader played July 17 and, after an off day for the teams, he was 7-for-8 in the doubleheader played July 19.
In an eerie bit of serendipity, White’s record-tying performances occurred on almost the same exact July dates as when Cobb achieved the feat. In addition, Cobb died on July 17, 1961, the same day White played the first of the two doubleheaders.
White was 8-for-10 in the July 17 doubleheader against the Cubs.
In the first game, he was 4-for-5, getting three singles against starter Don Cardwell and another single versus Don Elston. Boxscore
White went 4-for-5 again in the second game. He had a double and a single against starter Jim Brewer and two singles versus Barney Schultz. Boxscore
Julian Javier also had eight hits, including seven in succession, for the Cardinals in the doubleheader.
The second game didn’t end until nearly 1 a.m. When White got home, he sat up with an ailing child and didn’t get any sleep, the Associated Press reported.
In the morning, White fulfilled a commitment to instruct youngsters at a baseball clinic at a local park from 10 a.m. to noon. According to the Post-Dispatch, White had lunch after the clinic, went to Busch Stadium and took a 45-minute nap in the trainer’s room before batting practice.
Showing no signs of fatigue, White was 3-for-4 in the opener of the July 18 doubleheader. He had two singles and a home run against starter Glen Hobbie. Boxscore
In the second game, White again was 3-for-4. He had a pair of triples, one against reliever Mel Wright and the other versus Don Elston. The hit that tied Cobb’s record was a double against Bob Anderson that “just escaped Ed Bouchee’s leap at first base,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Boxscore
Asked about tying the record, White told the Post-Dispatch, “It feels good to win two more ballgames.”
For the two doubleheaders, White had nine singles, two doubles, two triples and a home run.
White had a .417 on-base percentage in July 1961 and hit .331 for the month.
He finished the season with these numbers: .286 batting average, 28 doubles, 11 triples, 20 home runs and 90 RBI. Against the Cubs, he had 33 hits in 21 games and batted .371.