By ADAM HENIG
Author of Under One Roof
A couple of years ago, when I began researching my second book, Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training, I had no title in mind, no contacts, and little to go on. The central figure, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, did not even have a Wikipedia page.
What I did have was an article I came across during my research on Alex Haley, the subject of my first book. Before he was a famous author, Haley was the ultimate freelancer, contracting himself out to any magazine who would hire him. In 1961, SPORT magazine, a now defunct publication that was the precursor to Sports Illustrated, had contracted Haley to write a story about segregation in Major League Baseball’s annual spring training. Although African American players could have contact with whites on the field, once the game or practice was over, it was off to separate quarters, adhering to the local segregation laws.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, where the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals were based, Dr. Wimbish, a local African-American physician, took a public stand against the segregated conditions that black players were forced to endure. His position made headlines across the country. Alex Haley went to St. Petersburg to cover the man and the event. The article Haley penned not only ignited the idea for Under One Roof, but became the foundation of my research. In addition to news articles, books, and archival documents, the other vital components of my research were interviews with Dr. Wimbish’s children, especially his middle child and namesake, Ralph Wimbish Jr.
When I began corresponding with Ralph, Jr. a retired sports journalist and editor, he was excited to have his father’s life story told for the first time. After our initial phone conversation, he did something that every biographer desires: He opened up my subject’s world. Ralph Jr. put me in touch with his family’s former neighbors, colleagues, and friends, including former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman and President of the National League, Bill White.
When I visited St. Petersburg and interviewed the two surviving children in Ralph’s sisters’ living room, it felt, for the first time during the course of my research, that Dr. Wimbish had truly come alive. For a biographer, this is crucial. I learned about the mundane—where he liked to dine (Jewish delis), the cigarettes he smoked (Salem), and the musical instrument he played (piano)—as well as the intimate details of his life, notably the relationships he had with his wife and children.
As I embarked on this journey, coincidentally, the topic of racism in America had once again simmered to the surface. To this day, African Americans continue to suffer basic infringements of their rights as citizens, whether as victims of unprovoked violence, sometimes fatal, judicial inequality, or numerous other forms of social and economic bias. Indeed, racism in the United States remains a persistent problem that will not disappear on its own.
There is no question that if Dr. Wimbish was alive today, he would have been on the front lines of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. When he was battling injustices in the 1950s and the 1960s, Dr. Wimbish was characterized as “the devil” by the southern white establishment, and criticized by some African Americans as reckless, risking all the gains that they had made over the years.
He was advised to take it slow. But who benefits by marking time? Those who want to maintain the status quo are the chief beneficiaries. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the story of Under One Roof, for fundamental social change to occur, pressure must be applied immediately and effectively. Dr. Wimbish applied that pressure fearlessly, despite the risks to his own safety, his family’s well-being, and to his livelihood; it is why he deserves to be remembered.
Care to read more?
BENJAMIN PRATT reviews—and recommends—Henig’s book, Under One Roof.
ADAM HENIG is the author of Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey (2014) and Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training (2016). His writings have appeared in the San Francisco Book Review, African American Literature Book Club (AALBC), Medium, The Biographer’s Craft, and Blogcritics. He has been a guest on the New Books Network podcast and the television program, Beyond the Game. A graduate of California State University, Chico, Adam lives with his family in Gilroy, California. To find out more about Adam, visit his website or sign up for his monthly newsletter at www.adamhenig.com.