Frank White grew up in the old Rondo neighborhood's Cornmeal Valley, nurturing a love for baseball and basketball at the Ober Boys Club.
He went on to coach and supervise youth athletics at recreation centers in his old neighborhood before embarking on a 32-year career as recreation manager for the City of Richfield. Along the way, White started working with the Minnesota Twins to resuscitate baseball in the inner city while also launching efforts to promote sportsmanship.
Now, in retirement, the 76-year-old has a new incarnation: Historian. Once a boy who ducked his head so teachers wouldn't call on him, White has become a published author. He tells the stories of St. Paul's — and Minnesota's — Black sports greats in the hope of spreading their feats to a wider audience.
In a recent interview with Eye On St. Paul, White talked about how his career in youth sports and recreation led to his first research project, and how digging into his father's sporting past launched a deeper dig into local Black history.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: Decades ago, you organized basketball tournaments and roller-skating programs for Summit-University kids. While working for Richfield, you started working with the Twins to revive baseball in the inner city. And now, you've made it your mission to tell the stories of Minnesota's Black baseball history. Why do all these things?
A: I think it comes from my family roots. I believe it's in my fabric — to interact with people, to be curious. To help. My grandfather, my mother's father, was an unofficial consul for Mexico. When people would come here from Mexico, they would stay with my grandparents. The other part is I just enjoy telling stories.
Q: Did you want to be a historian when you grew up?
A: No. I thought I wanted to be a CPA. But it seems that it wasn't meant to be [laughs].
Q: You left St. Paul Parks and Recreation [in 1978] but still stayed involved in youth sports in the inner city. Why stay connected here?
A: I have a pride instilled in me. My great grandfather came here in 1893. My grandfather on my mother's side came in the '20s from Mexico. When I think about what they've accomplished and what I have learned in my research [about St. Paul], it deepens my roots in St. Paul.
Q: How did you go from directing youth sports and recreation to researching local Black history?
A: I used to have a contract job with the Minnesota Sports Federation. So on weekends, I would have to travel to tournaments to make sure [tournament officials] were doing what they were supposed to be doing. And I remember always going to Dred Scott Field [in Bloomington]. And I would look for something about Dred Scott.
So, when I was ready to retire, I said to Randy Quale [former director of Bloomington Parks and Recreation], "The fact that Bloomington named this Dred Scott field is tremendous. But there is nothing out there to tell you who Dred Scott is." He said: "Frank, I got some money, let me put some signage out there."
We ended up putting together a program about Dred and Harriet Scott for hundreds of kids. That led to other projects. [Including his 2010 book "They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota" and a number of articles as part of the Minnesota Black Baseball Project.]
Q: You've never been trained as a historian?
A: No. I used to go places with my dad and I always wondered why things were where they were. I always loved history. I was always curious as I traveled with my father. You know those signs that note historic places? I was always that guy who would pull over.
I'm working on a second book, but it's been slowed by COVID. About Toni Stone, Stacy Robinson. I'm also doing a permanent display on Toni Stone at Benjamin Mays school [which stands where Stone lived as a girl].
I find the research interesting because I'm still learning — about my dad, about my family. [White's father, Louis, is considered one of St. Paul's greatest Black athletes; he even played baseball with traveling Negro Leagues teams when he was young.]
My dad just never talked about things. And I don't mean that in a negative way. With a lot of people their dads didn't talk about things either. But he never passed on this history, although he did tell me my great uncle was one of the first Black firefighters in St. Paul. He did tell me that.
Q: So, do you ever wish you'd become a CPA?
A: Even though I love math, I really love interactions, I love to tell stories. As a CPA, I don't think I could have done that.