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Spring training friendship bested Jim Crow

After a recent story in the St. Petersburg Times, Ward Wilson of Clearwater, right, recalled his friendship with all-star Curt Flood.

Photo courtesy of Ward Wilson

After a recent story in the St. Petersburg Times, Ward Wilson of Clearwater, right, recalled his friendship with all-star Curt Flood.

As St. Petersburg's final spring baseball season slips away, stories from the past intersect like balls and bats. One good tale leads to another.

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Ward Wilson, 73, found a piece of his own long-ago dreams in a recent Floridian story about white and black players who played together but had to live apart while trying out for the big leagues.

The centerfielder in the story was Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinals all-star (who passed away in 1997). In 1956, Wilson and Flood occupied side-by-side lockers at the Cincinnati Reds training camp at Plant Field in Tampa.

Wilson, now a retired men's clothing executive living in Clearwater, had pitched for Jefferson High in Tampa. Though white, he'd also pitched for the Tampa Grays, a black barnstorming team from east Tampa. The Grays called him "the White Whip."

Wilson and Flood tried out for the Reds in '56, when Jim Crow segregation laws were strictly enforced. That didn't stop Wilson and Flood from becoming friends.

For Wilson, the highlight of that spring was forcing Stan "the Man" Musial to line out to second base on an offspeed pitch with a 3-1 count.

At the end of spring camp, both Wilson and Flood were optioned to the Class B Carolina League in High Point, N.C. They agreed to share the driving in Wilson's car.

Flood was at the wheel as they passed near Lake City. A little dog ran in front of their car. Flood saw it too late. He swerved, then stopped and leaped out, expecting the worst. The dog was only stunned.

They went on, but Flood was shaken. Near Waycross, Ga., Wilson suggested they find a motel.

Flood said, "We can't stay together. They won't let me in."

Wilson said he felt ashamed of being white.

When they found a motel, Wil-

son went in and registered. Flood stayed in the car. Then they drove around until dark. When the motel

lights dimmed, Flood snuck in.

They continued rooming together in High Point. Flood was the only African-American on the minor-league team. He was a favorite of the boo-birds until he came to bat with the bases loaded and smacked the ball over the light pole in centerfield.

By summer's end, Flood had been called up by the Reds. Wilson

had so many arm injuries he was shipped to the Mexican leagues.

Down in Mexico, Wilson earned notoriety for one particular sports page headline: Ward Wilson Throws to Win . . . And to Kill. That was after he hit two Mexican star players with wild pitches, provoking a near-riot. He spent the night under police guard.

Wilson and Flood wrote each other for years. Wilson went into the clothing business. Flood was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he became famous for climbing walls to steal home runs.

The night at the motel was never mentioned again.

• • •

Read the Feb. 23, 2008, story, "St. Petersburg spring train-

ing not so black and white," at

life.tampabay.com.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

Spring training friendship bested Jim Crow 03/16/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2008 4:31pm]
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