ST. PETERSBURG — Ralph Wimbish Jr. has known many heroic people — 44 to be exact — according to his new book, Heroes: Stories of Sports, Courage and Class.
Each of the book’s 44 chapters details a personal interaction with someone who impacted the life of the retired sportswriter and editor.
There are stories about Jackie Robinson, George Steinbrenner, Tiger Woods, Dan Marino and Diego Maradona.
But, among all those heroes, Wimbish Jr. has two favorites: his mother and father, C. Bette Wimbish and Ralph Wimbish Sr. Both were civil rights pioneers who helped integrate St. Petersburg.
Interstate 375 is named for his mother, but there’s no public honor for his father. Wimbish Jr. hopes his book changes that.
“I just feel he deserves equal treatment to what my mother got,” said Wimbish Jr., a 69-year-old resident of North Carolina who worked for the Tampa Bay Times (when it was the St. Petersburg Times) and New York Post.
Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, agreed that Wimbish Sr. is worthy.
“Unequivocally,” she said. “He certainly made a mark, not only in St. Petersburg but in all of Florida and nationwide. He should never be forgotten.”
Lipsey Scott is working to upgrade to a new facility at an estimated cost of up to $20 million. Perhaps a wing of that facility, like the library, could be named for Wimbish Sr., she said.
Pressed for his own suggestions, Wimbish Jr. laughed.
“I have a vested interested, since it is my name too,” he said. “But a baseball field would be nice.”
Baseball is part of his father’s legacy.
Raised in St. Petersburg’s Gas Plant district for Black residents, which was later demolished to make way for Tropicana Field, Wimbish Sr. first rattled the status quo in the 1940s.
Soon after graduating from medical school, he built a home in a white section of Tampa.
“Mysteriously, the house burned down in 1948 on the night before my family moved in,” Wimbish Jr. wrote in his book. “My dad later told me he put the blame on the owner of a nearby store whom he suspected belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.”
Wimbish Jr. was born in 1952. His father moved the family to St. Petersburg and opened a medical practice there.
“He worked 24 hours a day,” Wimbish Jr. said. “He would make house calls at 2 a.m., deliver babies at 5 a.m., see patients all day” and attend NAACP meetings at night.
Head of the St. Petersburg NAACP in 1960, Wimbish Sr. led sit-ins, pickets and boycotts of city businesses that either refused to serve Black residents or treated them as lesser.
“Some people say we should wait,” Wimbish Sr. told reporters at the time. “I have waited 30 years in this town, and nothing has happened yet.”
The peaceful protests achieved desegregation in early 1961. Wimbish Sr. led another effort that same year.
Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, but Black players were still forbidden from staying in St. Petersburg hotels and motels. Back then, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees held preseason practices at Crescent Lake Park and played Spring Training games at Al Lang Stadium.
For years, Wimbish Sr. opened his home to Black players. Some dined or lounged there. Others roomed there.
When Wimbish Jr. was around 7, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson was charged with looking after him during a game.
“So, the game ended,” Wimbish Jr. said. “We were in the locker room, and I started running around doing whatever. The next thing you know, I’m over his knee, being spanked by Bob Gibson.”
Elston Howard, the New York Yankees’ first Black player, was their most frequent overnight guest.
“Back then, everyone called me Mickey,” Wimbish Jr. said. “So, Elston takes me into the locker room one day and introduces me to Mickey Mantle as Mickey and he says, ‘Hey, that’s my name.’ So that’s my Mickey Mantle memory.”
But while his family’s close relationship with the Black players was fun for Wimbish Jr., the root of it angered Wimbish Sr. He wanted the hotels and motels to open their doors to the Black players. So, in 1961, Wimbish Sr. announced he would no longer house Black players or find them lodging at another home. It would up to the teams to push for integrated lodging.
“The time has come when more adequate provisions without discrimination should be provided by the clubs themselves,” he told reporters.
The Yankees moved their Spring Training to Fort Lauderdale, where they found integrated housing.
The New York Mets relocated their Spring Training to St. Petersburg, where they and the Cardinals used integrated motels.
In response to his father’s successes in 1961, Wimbish Jr. said, someone burned a cross on their lawn. It had happened once before, five years earlier. He didn’t learn of either incident until he was an adult.
As a sixth grader, Wimbish Jr. was the first Black student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in St. Petersburg and, in 1964, “became the Jackie Robinson of the Lake Maggiore Little League,” he wrote.
He recalls no pushback from the white students, players or families.
Meanwhile, Wimbish Sr. also successfully integrated Pinellas County golf courses before dying of a heart attack in 1967.
“He was always on the go,” Wimbish Jr. said. “It just wore him out.”
His mother would go on to graduate law school, become the first Black female lawyer in Pinellas County and the first Black person elected to the St. Petersburg City Council.
“Her peers elected her vice mayor,” Wimbish Jr. wrote, “and she began to get things done, like overhauling the city’s water system, improving hiring practices and instituting one of the country’s first mandatory seatbelt laws.”
She died in 2009 and the highway was renamed in her honor in 2017. “She deserved that,” Wimbish Jr. said.
As for his father, “He is kind of forgotten, which is too bad. He was amazing.”
Correction: C. Bette Wimbish was the first Black female attorney in Pinellas County. This story has been updated to clarify that fact.