KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Few Royals fans will forget the news in the fall of 1998 when the Royals and then radio partner Entercom shockingly decided to remove longtime broadcaster Fred White from the radio booth after he had served more than 25 years with the franchise.
No reason was given for the dismissal, and fans were left stunned … and outraged.
White himself was bewildered. “The Royals,” he told me at the time, “have been my life.”
No one would have blamed White, who passed away at age 76 on Wednesday due to complications from melanoma, for harboring any bitterness back then. In fact, when the Royals hired his replacement, Ryan Lefebvre, prior to the 1999 season, one might have expected White to turn a cold shoulder to Lefebvre.
But that was never White’s style.
After Lefebvre moved to Kansas City from Minnesota, he felt he owed a call to White, the icon he was replacing.
“I really didn’t know what to say to him at that point,” Lefebvre said. “I wasn’t comfortable at all. But Fred just said, ‘Look, Ryan, let me tell you this: You’ve got a great job, a great ballpark to work in and great people around to work with. Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you. I mean that.’ “
Little did Lefebvre know at the time how much he would lean on White in the years to come.
“I don’t know many people as genuine as Fred White,” Lefebvre said.
We look back at White’s life now and celebrate a career devoted to helping the Royals on the airwaves, in the community and just about every way he thought he could. The Royals announced Tuesday that White officially was retiring after 40 years with the club, first as an announcer and mostly recently as the team’s director of broadcast services and director of alumni. News of his passing came Wednesday.
White said often he wouldn’t trade his career for anything, mainly because of the people he met and the great friendships he developed.
One of those friendships was with Royals legend George Brett.
“Fred cared about the Royals and cared about everyone,” Brett said. “He wasn’t just a broadcaster to us players. He was our friend.”
Former Royal Mark Gubicza also felt he had a special relationship with White.
“To us, he was just one of the boys,” Gubicza said. “I can remember so many times when we had to take a road trip and we all piled into George’s (Brett) Ford Bronco. It was me and George and Sabes (Bret Saberhagen) and Fred, and we just laughed and laughed all the way to the airport. He was like a teammate to us. Just one of the guys hanging out.
“And that was Fred. He was so easy to get along with. There are so many egos in the media today, but Fred never had one.
“I’m really going to miss him.”
Of all White’s friendships, the one with Lefebvre was perhaps the most unlikely, considering the circumstances of their acquaintance.
When Lefebvre joined the radio booth with Denny Matthews in 1999, Lefebvre became labeled as the “new guy” in town, and fans pined for White’s voice on air.
“It was real tough at that time,” Lefebvre said. “The team wasn’t winning, there were all kinds of changes going on with ownership, there was uncertainty, and then there was this new guy replacing the beloved Fred White.
“I pretty much took a beating with the fans.”
But through it all, White refused to throw that new guy under the bus.
“I remember that Fred was on the radio not long after the 1999 season started,” Lefebvre said. “He was on a sports-talk show and fans were calling in complaining about me and wishing Fred would get his job back.
“This went on with caller after caller after caller. And finally, Fred just said, ‘Hey, listen everyone: Ryan Lefebvre is not the reason I lost my job. Let’s give him a chance.’
“I’ll never forget that.”
Still, Lefebvre didn’t feel accepted among Royals fans over the next two years. But that began to change when a twist of fate put White back in the booth during the 2001 season.
Matthews at that time had decided to cut back on his schedule, and the Royals, under some fan and media pressure, opted to return White on air for a handful of games.
“Obviously, we were paired together for those games,” Lefebvre said, “and I remember sitting next to Fred, and I think we were in Cleveland or somewhere, and it just started to feel comfortable. Fred started joking with me on the air, and I joked along with him, and everything felt good.
“To this day, I think those first few times with me and Fred in the booth together changed everything. I think the fans felt that because we were on the air together and because Fred was at ease with me, that it must mean I’m an OK guy. It was Fred who made them comfortable with me.”
The friendship between Lefebvre and White was born, and it was bonded in 2005 even before Lefebvre’s struggle with depression became public knowledge. White was one of the first people to persuade Lefebvre to get help.
“He was that crying shoulder to lean on,” Lefebvre said. “I owe him so much.”
White never let his firing from radio in 1999 affect his love for the organization, either. Soon after the firing, he took another position with the Royals as their director of broadcast services. White’s mission was to strengthen the team’s weakening radio affiliate network.
“That always really impressed me,” Lefebvre said. “He took it upon himself to go out on the road, drive to Iowa and Nebraska and Kansas and Missouri and meet with all these affiliates face to face to try to build the network back up. I mean, who does that after they’ve been fired?
“In later years, he became director of the alumni and just did a wonderful job of reconnecting the Royals’ past with today’s team and today’s fans. I think that has made a big difference with the older players, and I know it has with the fans.
“But that’s who Fred was. He cared about the Royals so much.”