Aurora honors life, character of local baseball legend
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A little more than two months ago, former Aurora resident and 19th-century baseball legend James "Deacon" White was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
On Sunday, Aurora University and the city of Aurora added to that honor by giving the 200 block of south Calumet Avenue the honorary designation of "James 'Deacon' White Way."
The dedication of the new street sign -- White's granddaughter and oldest living relative, Betty Jackson, helped unveil it -- was part of a day's worth of activities honoring White and his family for their contributions to the university and the larger community.
"It'd be hard to find a family that means more to Aurora University than this family," Rebecca Sherrick, the university's president, said on Sunday during a tribute to White inside the university's Perry Theatre.
White's professional baseball career lasted from 1871 to 1890. He played on a variety of teams, including the Chicago White Stockings, a precursor to the Chicago Cubs. He posted a career batting average of .312, an impressive figure for baseball's "dead ball era," when scores were low and hits hard to come by. His primary position was catcher, which he played during a time when mitts, masks and chest-protectors were not used. White's great-grandson, Wheaton resident Jerry Watkins, said he used to hear stories about the toll that playing catcher in those days took on White's hands.
"My dad told me they were gnarled and twisted like tree branches," Watkins said.
White's association with Aurora University began when he sent his daughter, Grace, from New York to Illinois to attend Mendota College. White and his wife later moved to Illinois themselves, and when Mendota College relocated to Aurora, so did White and his family. They lived together in a house on Calumet Avenue, White's home until his death in 1939.
White's surviving relatives and descendants remained involved in Aurora College, as the school was renamed. (It eventually became known as Aurora University.) White's son-in-law, Roger Watkins, was a longtime member of the board of trustees. Many of White's grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the university. One grandson served it as dean. Joan Watkins, a great-grandchild, is today a part-time instructor.
Many of White's living relatives traveled to Cooperstown, N.Y., this July to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame, more than 120 years after his final game as a player. The honor was long overdue, family members said. Jerry Watkins, a devout Cubs fan, said that for a while he'd nearly lost hope that it would ever happen.
"But we Cubs fans are good at waiting," he said.
On Sunday, family members gathered again to enjoy a local celebration of White's legacy. They celebrated not just his baseball accomplishments, but also his integrity and character. White was a devout Christian who neither drank nor swore -- traits that were fairly unusual in baseball's rough-and-tumble early days. His teammates named him "Deacon" because he read the Bible in the locker room.
"My great-grandfather would have been honored to see all this support," Jerry Watkins said. "Thank you."
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