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Once upon a time, St. Pete was the center of baseball’s fight for civil rights

John Romano | Black ballplayers in 1961 were fed up with having to live apart from their white teammates during spring training. Enough raised their voices to change the game, and Florida, forever.
Pitcher Bob Gibson (left) and first baseman George Crowe (right) were among a handful of black ballplayers on the St. Louis Cardinals spring training roster in St. Petersburg in 1961. The guy in the middle is someone named Stan Musial.
Pitcher Bob Gibson (left) and first baseman George Crowe (right) were among a handful of black ballplayers on the St. Louis Cardinals spring training roster in St. Petersburg in 1961. The guy in the middle is someone named Stan Musial. [ Photo by Ernest Fillyau ]
Published Jun. 6, 2020
Updated Jun. 6, 2020

In retrospect, the protest lacked a defining image. A lone player taking a knee, or two athletes raising their fists. Instead, the drama played out far from the fields and is mostly lost in history’s back pages.

And yet, a civil rights protest in 1961 was among the most effective and meaningful in baseball history. And St. Petersburg was at its epicenter.

To set the stage, Major League Baseball was about to begin its 15th season since Jackie Robinson had broken the color line. Every team was integrated even if most had only a handful of black players.

The issue was spring training. Twelve of the 18 big-league teams were training in Florida, which had recently elected avowed segregationist Farris Bryant as governor. And nearly every spring training site was still clinging to Jim Crow laws that kept black players out of most hotels.

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In St. Petersburg, the St. Louis Cardinals were at the Vinoy Park Hotel and the New York Yankees were at the nearby Soreno Hotel off Beach Drive. The Philadelphia Phillies stayed in Clearwater’s Fort Harrison Hotel and the Cincinnati Reds were at the Floridan Hotel in downtown Tampa.

Meanwhile, their African-American teammates were sent to the black section of towns to live with families or in boarding rooms.

It had been like that forever, but change was coming faster than anyone would have guessed.

The first sign of discontent was when legendary African American sports writer Wendell Smith wrote a story in the Chicago’s American newspaper in January 1961 that anonymously quoted black players complaining about being forced to accept substandard living conditions in Florida. Players had limited choices for dining and often went without medical treatment because the trainers were at the team hotels.

Days later, other newspapers picked up on the story and quoted a 27-year-old Milwaukee Braves rightfielder talking about the cramped conditions at one Bradenton home.

“Sometimes the place is so crowded that they have two guys sleeping in the hall," Hank Aaron said. “You wake up in the morning and rush for the bathroom and if you’re the last one, all the hot water is gone."

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In St. Petersburg, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, a physician, and Dr. Robert Swain, a dentist, had either hosted black ballplayers in their homes or arranged for other accommodations. Having just fought for the right for black people to each at local lunch counters, Wimbish said he would no longer participate in baseball’s segregation and vowed in 1961 to stop helping the Yankees and Cardinals.

The protests soon began to grow. The NAACP in St. Louis threatened to boycott the Anheuser-Busch brewing company, which owned the Cardinals. The Philadelphia NAACP talked about boycotting Phillies games.

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By early February, Yankees president Dan Topping was insisting all his players stay at the Soreno or there would be consequences. When the hotel refused, Topping suggested the Yankees would move their headquarters to Fort Lauderdale. There have been suggestions the Yankees were already planning to move because they were tired of sharing Al Lang Field with the Cardinals, but Topping’s threats started showing up in New York newspapers, which portrayed tourist-dependent St. Pete as a backwater hick town.

The story exploded nationally on March 9 when Cardinals first baseman Bill White pointed out that dozens of white players from St. Louis and New York would attend a community breakfast at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club but that no black players had been invited.

“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," White said. “How much longer are we to wait? Until Judgment Day? When will we be made to feel like humans? When will they throw away those signs reading ‘for whites only’ or ‘for coloreds only?’ As long as those things continue to go on, I’d rather not train here."

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The Cardinals and Yankees and local officials insisted black players were invited and it was simply a miscommunication, but the damage had been done. The story was picked up in papers across the nation.

There was still opposition, but it was clear Florida was either going to change or was going to suffer a tremendous economic hit.

The Reds left the Floridan Hotel the next spring and moved to the Causeway Inn near the Courtney Campbell. The Phillies abandoned the Fort Harrison and moved down the street from the Reds at the Rocky Point Beach Motel. (The Fort Harrison reversed its policies a year later and invited the Phillies back.) The Soreno continued to fight and, after the Yankees left for Fort Lauderdale, the Mets took over at Al Lang Field and opted to stay on St. Pete Beach.

By 1964, every team training in Florida was staying under one roof.

All it took was enough people speaking with a unified voice.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.