He lost his big league job to Duke Snider and had to compete for playing time with Roberto Clemente, but Dick Whitman still managed to forge out a 13-year career in professional baseball.
Born in Woodburn, Ore., in 1920, Whitman played for the semi-pro Silverton Red Sox alongside future big leaguers Johnny Pesky and Joe Erautt in 1938 and 1939. The following year, he enrolled in the University of Oregon, where he hit a school-record .397 for the varsity baseball team over the next three seasons.
His performance would convince Brooklyn Dodgers’ scout Tom Downey to sign him in 1942 and Whitman split that summer between the Dodgers’ Class-C and Class-B affiliates in Santa Barbara and Durham, respectively. At the end of the season, his big league aspirations were sidetracked by military service. He enlisted in the army and eventually served in the 83rd Infantry Division in Europe from December 1944 to January 1946 where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. During that conflict, he suffered shrapnel wounds and frost bite and was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his bravery.
Whitman returned to the Dodgers in the spring of 1946 and managed to crack the big league roster. In 104 games that year, he hit .260 and belted his only two major league homers.
Unfortunately, Whitman found himself behind Dixie Walker, Carl Furillo, Pete Reiser, Gene Hermanski and Arky Vaughan on the Dodgers’ outfield depth chart the following year and he was relegated to the Triple-A Montreal Royals for the majority of the season. In his first action with the Canadian club, Whitman put together his finest professional season, batting .327 and socking 10 homers in 141 games.
This performance was a key reason that he headed north with the Dodgers again the ensuing spring and Whitman was hitting .291 through 60 contests, when Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey promoted Duke Snider from Montreal. Snider was hitting .327 with 17 homers and 77 RBI in 77 games with the Triple-A club. So despite his impressive showing, Whitman was sent back to Triple A to make room for Snider. In Montreal, Whitman proceeded to bat .272 in 40 games and helped lead the Royals to a league championship and a Junior World Series title.
Whitman spent the entire 1949 season with the Dodgers but was utilized in just 23 games. On November 14, 1949, he was purchased by the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1950, he would spell Phillies outfielders Del Ennis, Richie Ashburn and Dick Sisler and register a league-leading 12 pinch-hits. The “Whiz Kid” Phillies captured the National League pennant and Whitman had three pinch-hit appearances in the 1950 World Series.
“Dick was quite an important part of the team,” former Phillies teammate Robin Roberts told the Arizona Republic in 2003. “When you win a pennant with a short margin like we did, we needed his help.”
But after appearing in just 19 games for the Phillies the following year, Whitman was dealt back to the Dodgers on June 8, 1951. Brooklyn assigned him to their Triple-A team in St. Paul, where hit .311 over the rest of the season. He batted .333 for St. Paul again in 1952, but it wasn’t enough to earn him another big league promotion.
He began the 1953 campaign with St. Paul, before he was reassigned to the Montreal Royals. His .317 batting average in 78 games with the Canadian club helped propel them to another league championship and Junior World Series title.
When he returned to Montreal in 1954, the team was overstocked with outfielders and Royals manager Max Macon was criticized for playing the left-handed hitting Whitman over the club’s right-handed hitting prospect Roberto Clemente. Clemente and Whitman were essentially platooned with each other throughout the season.
In 1955, Whitman returned to his home state of Oregon to compete for the Portland Beavers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He hit .304 as a 34-year-old, before accepting a job as player-manager of the San Jose JoSox of the Class-C California League for 1955 and 1956 seasons.
The gritty Oregon native stepped away from baseball after the 1957 season to become a maintenance manager for a water company in San Jose. He stayed in that position for 29 years, before he and his wife, Joan, decided to retire to Peoria, Ariz.
In Arizona, Whitman loved to play golf and became an avid Diamondbacks fan.
“He was thrilled to see the rise of the Diamondbacks,” his wife, Joan, told the Arizona Republic. “He loved watching them and was an armchair coach.”
Whitman died of a heart attack on February 12, 2003 at the age of 82, leaving behind his wife, three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“He loved baseball, loved playing the game,” said his wife, Joan, after his death. “It was his life and he made it a great life.”
*This is the 13th article in my series about members of the 1954 Montreal Royals. You can read my articles about Roberto Clemente, Billy Harris, Don Thompson, Gino Cimoli,Chico Fernandez, Glenn Cox , Joe Black, Ed Roebuck, Jack Cassini , Bobby Wilson, Ken Lehman and Charlie Thompson by clicking on their names.