Playing pro baseball while black

ST. PETERSBURG

In Tampa Bay baseball circles, the name Bill White often brings a mixed reaction.

As president of the National League in the 1990s, he helped award Florida's first expansion franchise to Miami, not St. Petersburg.

A few years later, the San Francisco Giants were ready to move here but White and others squelched the deal.

Yet for all his sway in baseball's back rooms, White's biggest legacy came five decades ago, when he stuck his neck out and complained about segregation.

Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier 14 years earlier, but black ballplayers who trained in Florida still could not sleep in team hotels, swim at beaches or join white buddies for a round of golf.

Players typically kept quiet because they were fighting for jobs. Then White, a first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, gave a blistering interview that ended the fiction that the baseball had exorcised its racial demons.

The resulting firestorm was a historical tipping point and a profound gift to St. Petersburg, baseball and America as a whole.

• • •

Bill White's autobiography, Uppity, was released recently by Grand Central Publishing. It sells for $17.81 on Amazon.

The book covers his 13-year playing career and his years as a Yankees' announcer and National League president. Hard-core fans will appreciate anecdotes about Willie Mays, Phil Rizzuto, George Steinbrenner and others who made up the game.

But the book is also about race, particularly during the 1950s and '60s.

White, now 77, began his professional career in 1953 with a New York Giants farm club in Danville, Va. He was the only black player in the Carolina League, which fans noted in the crudest of fashion.

"I was 19 years old and completely unprepared for what was happening,'' White writes. As slurs cascaded down at one visiting park, "my impulse was to climb into the stands.''

Instead, he flipped a middle finger, sparking a mob scene that ended with White and fellow players brandishing bats to get to their bus and out of town.

Racism in St. Petersburg was less raw, local historian Ray Arsenault said, but segregation was strictly observed. The city's professed image as a tropical paradise didn't cotton to black faces, other than the occasional waiter or maid.

"African-Americans were about 25 percent of the population, but they were not allowed to sit on the green benches,'' Arsenault said. "They didn't want black kids in bathing suits walking through downtown to the beaches, where tourists could see them. There were clearly defined residential zones, attempting to sanitize the downtown.''

Black ballplayers conformed while in town for spring training, bunking with families in the black community.

It was the same all over Florida, where 13 of the 18 big-league teams trained. Even the venerable Henry Aaron recalls a Bradenton boarding house that sometimes got so full that players had to sleep in hallways.

Spring training "was like suddenly being transported to apartheid South Africa,'' writes White, who trained here after being traded to the Cardinals in 1959.

Makeshift lodgings, though, had an unintended side effect. It thrust ballplayers square into the heart of St. Petersburg's burgeoning civil rights movement.

NAACP president Dr. Ralph Wimbish and his wife, Bette, housed players as well as out-of-town entertainers like Dizzie Gillespie and Cab Calloway. The Wimbishes were organizing lunch counter sit-ins and demonstrations at segregated theaters and beaches. When players gathered around their backyard pool, race was a prime topic.

Wimbish "was a tough man who had no fear for his life,'' White said in a recent interview. "We talked about him and Bette picketing Webb City and what was going on in this country. We talked about stopping all this'' discrimination.

In 1961, with the players' consent, Wimbish held a press conference to announce that the black community would no longer provide housing. Teams should pressure hotels to accept all players.

At first, the response was tepid. None of the ballplayers had complained personally. "We don't make the rules and regulations of various localities,'' said Cardinals general manager Bing Devine.

Bill White reached his personal limit a few weeks later and the controversy grew wings.

The Chamber of Commerce had invited white players to its annual "Salute to Baseball'' breakfast at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, which did not integrate until 1985. Not even black stars — like White, Yankee catcher Elston Howard or Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson — were invited.

White summoned an AP reporter. No more polite acquiescence.

"When will we be made to feel like humans?'' White complained. "This thing keeps gnawing away at my heart. As long as things continue to go on, I'd rather not train here. I'd rather train somewhere else, like Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.''

Headlines followed all over the country.

Anheuser-Busch owned the Cardinals. After a black newspaper in East St. Louis urged a beer boycott, the Cardinals ditched the Vinoy Hotel for the following spring and leased the Outrigger motel near the Sunshine Skyway, which agreed to integrate.

Black players could finally bring their wives and children south for the spring. Both races frolicked in the motel pool.

"All this integration was so unheard of in Florida,'' White writes, "that people would drive by the motel all day just to gawk.''

That put pressure on other teams, said University of Florida historian Jack E. Davis. Some even bought their own hotels so they could integrate. Holdouts like Philadelphia and Minnesota caved after black fans threatened to boycott regular season games.

"A grassroots effort that grew out of St. Petersburg changed baseball,'' Davis said.

White's lament also helped change St. Petersburg, Arsenault said. While it was a Southern town in some respects in 1961, it wasn't wedded to segregation as a way of life, as were cities in Mississippi or Alabama.

More important was business, which depended heavily on spring training. Having baseball players speak out offered leverage that accelerated integration all over town.

Restaurants, hotels and other public venues weren't inclined to cling to old ways if that meant losing money, Arsenault said.

"When there was a stain on their image and honor, they backed down pretty quickly.''

• • •

An enduring nugget of Tampa Bay baseball lore is that White killed the Giants move to St. Petersburg in 1992 because of ill feelings over segregation days.

Creative Loafing even ran a story titled "Did We Lose the Giants in the 60s?''

In an interview at the time with St. Petersburg Times reporter Marc Topkin, White was incredulous. "That was 30 years ago. It doesn't even cross my mind,'' he said.

Among other things, denying a team to St. Petersburg would hurt Ralph and Bette Wimbish and other members of the black community White came to know during spring training.

White did not deal much with the Giants move in his book. But in an interview, he said keeping the team in San Francisco was a business decision. He worried that the dome was not a good venue for baseball, that access was difficult and that St. Petersburg's older demographic would not support season tickets.

San Francisco had a new group willing to buy the team and keep it in town, "and I believe in stability,'' he said.

White declined to speculate how the stability principle might play out as baseball angles for a new stadium for the Rays. "I'm not in baseball anymore,'' he said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and material from Times files contributed to this report.

Uppity

Grand Central Publishing.

320 pages, $26.99

Excerpts from "Uppity"

Part of an AP interview about spring training segregation that Bill White gave in 1961:

"I can't stay at the same hotel as the white players. These players are my friends, yet I can't go swimming with them. I can't even go to the movies with them. Driving on the highways, I've got to be on the lookout for a Negro restaurant to eat because they won't let me in where the white folks eat. But the filling stations on the road have no compunction about selling me gas. The greenback knows no color.

"These things go on every day and yet they advise us to take it easy, we're making progress, don't push it too fast, it will come. How much longer are we to wait? When will we be made to feel like humans?"

On meeting George W. Bush at MLB headquarters in 1989, after Bush and Dallas businessman Rusty Rose became co-managing partners of the Texas Rangers:

About five minutes into the presentation I looked over and saw George Bush and Rusty Rose leaning back in their chairs, with their expensive cowboy boots propped up on the conference table, and they were both reading copies of the Wall Street Journal.

It wasn't my meeting, so I didn't say anything. Maybe that was just the way they did things down in Texas. And of course I never imagined that this then unknown Texas oilman and new baseball team owner would someday become the governor of Texas and then the president of the United States.

But I know this: If it had been my meeting, I would have politely told those Texans to take their damn cowboy boots off my conference table and pay some attention.

On meeting Jackie Robinson outside a Harlem nightclub, where Willie Mays was showing White around:

Jackie came up to say hello to Willie, and after they talked a bit he finally noticed me and stuck out his hand. "Hey, kid. How you doing?'' he said. And the best I could manage was "Hi.'' Years later, when I was involved in a bitter controversy over segregation in spring training, Jackie went out of his way to offer me his support, which I deeply appreciated. Jackie was not the greatest baseball play ever, but he was a great man. Willie Mays was both.

Playing pro baseball while black 04/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 8, 2011 12:15pm]

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