One-time Aurora resident Deacon White entering baseball's Hall of Fame
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James Laurie "Deacon" White died near St. Charles in 1939, just 25 days after the first induction ceremony at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Now, 74 years later, the one-time Aurora resident regarded by historians as one of the greatest catchers in baseball's early years, is about to take his rightful place among the legends enshrined at Cooperstown, N.Y.
White is one of three who will be inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame today. He'll enter along with umpire Hank O'Day and New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and their plaques will be displayed in the same room with those of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.
Each of the three inductees received at least 12 votes from the 16-member pre-integration era committee -- the minimum needed to be selected for induction.
White played from 1868 to 1890, including a stint in 1876 with the Chicago White Stockings -- the team that later became the Chicago Cubs. He helped them win their first pennant.
He started playing in an era very different from today when catchers went behind the plate with no glove and no mask.
So it's no surprise his hands were frequently bruised and his fingers often broken.
"My dad used to tell me they were like holding onto a tree branch," said Jerry Watkins, Deacon White's 66-year-old great-grandson, who will give the speech on White's behalf Sunday in Cooperstown.
Watkins, of Wheaton, will be joined by roughly 50 family members from across the country to honor a man most of them never met -- but all heard stories about growing up.
White was born Dec. 7, 1847, in Caton, N.Y., and started playing baseball for the Forest City Baseball Club of Cleveland in 1868. Legend has it he learned the game three years before from a Union army soldier returning from war.
The Forest City team later became part of the National Association -- the precursor to the National League. It was the first attempt at a "major league," according to Joe Williams, a baseball historian who has researched White's career.
That's why Williams considers White's double off Bobby Mathews during the first inning of the first game of the National Association to be the first major-league hit.
White finished his career with 1,140 runs, 2,067 hits and 988 RBI -- maybe not Hall of Fame numbers by today's standards, Williams says, but compiled at a time when teams only played between 40 and 80 games a season.
Today, baseball's regular season is 162 games.
Williams calls White "absolutely the best catcher of the 1870s," who caught more games -- 409 -- than anyone else that decade. Tall and slender, White had reflexes as "quick as a cat," Williams said, and knew how to catch the ball without doing too much damage to his hands.
During baseball's early days when White played, pitchers threw underhanded and catchers would stand much farther back than they do now. Pitchers often would bounce the ball in near home plate.
Until gloves were introduced in the 1880s, the catcher was more important than the pitcher, Williams said.
"If you didn't have a good catcher, you didn't win ballgames," he said. "What made the catcher less important was equipment. Then more people could catch. Before equipment, you needed someone who was quick and could catch the ball."
White was one of the first catchers to move closer to the plate, Williams said.
Around the time catchers' equipment was being introduced in 1880, White, at 32, moved to third base, where he was able to extend his career and play for another decade.
He eventually played all nine positions on the field during his career and spent time with a total of seven teams, including championship seasons with the Boston Red Stockings and Detroit Wolverines. In 1875, he was the first Most Valuable Player.
He was 42 when he retired and the oldest player in the league at the time, according to the Hall of Fame.
After baseball, White and his wife, Marium, moved to Mendota to become head residents at the Maple Hall women's dormitory at Mendota College, an Advent Christian school where their daughter Grace had been enrolled. During the day, White worked as a groundsman.
The school later moved east and became Aurora College -- today known as Aurora University. White's daughter, Grace, married Roger Watkins, who was a longtime member of the college's board of directors.
In 1930, White moved into the Watkins' home on Calumet Avenue -- just blocks from campus.
A devoutly religious man, White likely earned his nickname of "Deacon" because of his calm demeanor.
"He always carried the Bible, drank water and didn't swear when the umpire made a bad call," said Jerry Watkins, his great-grandson.
He says his dad knew White very well, and was about 15 at the time of White's death.
Roger Watkins and his family would often spend summers at their cottage at Rude Camp, which later became the Riverwoods Christian Center north of St. Charles. White, at age 92, was there with his family on July 7, 1939, when died.
An Associated Press story from the time reported that doctors believed his death "was hastened by the heat."
The very next day, the AP reported, Aurora civic and business leaders were going to honor White at a centennial baseball celebration. White hadn't gotten the nod that year in Cooperstown.
"He probably should have been inducted, maybe in 1939 or soon after," Williams said. "(At the time), there wasn't a baseball encyclopedia, social media or that kind of thing. He didn't get a lot of support."
Williams said he believes White was chosen for induction this year because the Hall of Fame selection committee now includes some baseball historians who were able to make the case for his election.
"There hasn't been a longer time that someone's been championed to get into the Hall of Fame," he said.
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