Baseball Under Siege: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training
Dr. Ralph Wimbish’s home was one of the nicest and largest in the Southside neighborhood of St. Petersburg, Florida. The pink seven-room home, with its manicured lawn, had a polished look and was built on a lot big enough to fit two houses. It also boasted an uncommon luxury for households in 1961: a swimming pool.
Impressive by itself, the doctor’s house stood out even more in contrast to those belonging to his neighbors, all of whom, like him, were African American. Their houses were far more modest and not as well maintained. Life in St. Petersburg, similar to much of the South, was dictated by the laws of segregation. Well-to-do families of color, such as Wimbish’s, had limited choices of where they could live. Even though Wimbish was a distinguished family physician and could have afforded to do so, he did not have the option to move to the upscale neighborhoods where his white colleagues resided.
In March 1961, Dr. Wimbish was expecting a visit from Alex Haley, the future author of the monumental best-seller Roots. Beginning to make a name for himself, the forty-year-old Greenwich Village-based journalist was one of the few African Americans in the US writing for “mainstream”—that is, non-black—magazines. His credits includedThe Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor, and Reader’s Digest. Haley wasn’t there to interview the debonair six-foot tall, 212-pound, well-groomed physician for a profile puff piece. He was sent on assignment to St. Petersburg by SPORT, a popular monthly magazine known for its in-depth sports stories that went beyond the highlights of a game.
By 1961, thirteen of the eighteen Major League Baseball teams trained in Florida each spring. If Florida was the hub for spring training, St. Petersburg was ground zero. It was the only city that hosted two Major League Baseball teams: the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. Unlike sports reporters who were sent down south to keep fans back in the chilled northern states informed and excited about their teams and the prospects for the coming year, Haley’s assignment was more complicated. That season, spring training was underway and embroiled in racial controversy.
For Haley, St. Petersburg must have seemed like a time warp. Living in the hippest and most politically progressive neighborhood in New York City, he was used to rubbing elbows with whites and blacks on a daily basis. That was not the case below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Upon arrival at the airport, Haley was picked up by an African American taxi cab driver (white drivers were not allowed to transport black passengers). Haley was driven to the Southside, and dropped off in front of a two-story home large enough to house three baseball players and the homeowner, formally known as “Mrs. Williams.” The Cardinals had hired her on short notice to provide room and board for first baseman Bill White, center fielder Curt Flood, and pitcher Bob Gibson.
When Haley arrived, White met him at the bottom of the stairs.
“You fly down here hot to do a story to show what segregation’s like on a ball team,” White informed Haley. “There isn’t any segregation on the team. The segregation is in St. Petersburg—and Florida. That’s the story!” Before he returned to his upstairs room, White, a large man six feet in height, shouted a few more words at the journalist as he made his way back to the cab. “Now you saw that house,” the driver said. “Well, I’m going to take you to see the Vinoy Hotel, where the white [Cardinals] players stay.” “I bet you ain’t got nothing much finer in New York.”
Built in 1926, the Vinoy Park Hotel was less than five miles away from Mrs. Williams’s house, but its short distance was misleading. For all intents and purposes, it was a world away. “That’s it,” the driver informed to Haley as they pulled up to the 375-room hotel. Haley may have gotten out of the cab to get a closer view of St. Petersburg’s largest and most prominent hotel, but he was not allowed inside.
“I’ve heard some suites in there that cost a hundred dollars a day, the driver shared with Haley. The view, Haley noted, was stunning. Green benches and palm trees dotted the waterfront. The harbor nearby was lined with yachts, and on the “Million-Dollar Pier,” hotel guests, tourists, and residents, all neatly dressed and groomed, strolled or relaxed. “Colored work in there, but that’s it!” the cabbie remarked. Less than a mile away, the New York Yankees stayed at the Soreno, a seven-story, three-hundred-room, Mediterranean Revival-style hotel also built on the waterfront in the 1920s and offered the same breathtaking views.
From the Vinoy, Haley could have walked the eight-tenths of a mile south along the waterfront to Al Lang Field, where the Cardinals and Yankees played their preseason home games. The ballpark was named after the town’s former mayor who died the previous year and was affectionately known as “Mr. Baseball.” The Cards practiced at the ballpark, too, while the Yanks practiced at nearby Miller Huggins Field, named after the Yankees’ famous manager. Haley did not make the trek by foot to the stadium. He stayed with the cab. It was smart to avoid the walk as blacks did not stroll along the waterfront unless they wanted to attract trouble.
“When you get out of the game today,” the driver told Haley, “you call for me and I’ll take you where you’re staying. And after you eat and get ready,” he went on, “I’ll take you to see Dr. Wimbish.”
When Haley arrived at Al Lang Field, there was plenty of action outside the ballpark. There were hucksters selling memorabilia —autographed baseballs, pennants, team pins. Children, black and white, stood behind the outfield wall, hoping to catch a home run. A couple of middle-aged men faced one another in the parking lot and tossed a ball back and forth. Baseball fever was in full swing.
Haley caught a view of Bill White signing autographs for fans, but when White’s teammate Stan Musial appeared, the fans abandoned White for the future Hall of Famer. Once inside the stadium, Haley watched the opposing team, the Milwaukee Braves, take batting practice. Up at bat was the Braves’ Hank Aaron, an African American player who was considered “one of the most valuable pieces of property in baseball” years even before he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. The Cardinals and the Braves were ready to do battle. What more could a fan want beside the sunshine, freshly cut grass, swaying palm trees, ocean breeze, and baseball? The Cardinals beat the Braves one to nothing that afternoon, but Haley was far more interested in what occurred after the game was over.
“Inside the Cardinals’ clubhouse,” as Haley described in his article for SPORT, “the showers hissed, towels snapped on bare tails without regard to their color, gags and gibes flipped about in the pungent atmosphere of fresh-watered bodies and rubbing alcohol. But the camaraderie ended at the front door.” The black players, White, Flood, and Gibson, made their way to the exit and encountered autograph seekers, where they spent a few minutes fulfilling the requests for a signature, then walked across the street to an orange station wagon that was rented for them by the team. Their white teammates went over to the Vinoy, where a post-game nap or a dip at the hotel’s pool was routine following the game. A few of the players who hadn’t seen any action on the field might have wandered off to play a round of golf.
The men inside the orange station wagon left the waterfront and crossed the tracks for the Southside whose main thoroughfare, Haley observed, was “lined with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and dank bars.” There were other businesses, too, including drug stores, medical offices, barbershops, beauty salons, a ballroom, and numerous liquor stores. Still, as the driver pointed out, there was “not even a decent restaurant for them to eat in while all the rest set and chow in the Vinoy.”
The residents did not fare any better. A Canadian journalist described the Southside of St. Petersburg as “block after block, unpainted shacks and tenements, some with outdoor toilets and kitchen sinks on the back porches…. In many cases, the only drinking water [is] provided by an outdoor communal faucet, to which everyone in a row of tenements [must] trek with his pitcher.”
The cabbie drove Haley to the boarding house, then later, to the home of Dr. Wimbish.
I hope you enjoyed reading chapter 1 of Baseball Under Siege: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training. For more information about this book, visit http://www.adamhenig.com/baseball.