Book Review by Benjamin Pratt
Jackie Robinson, fielded by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was the first African American to play major league baseball. It was not until 1955 that the pin-striped New York Yankees integrated their team with catcher Elston Howard. While many teams fielded two, three and even four black starters, Howard was the only African American who played regularly for the Yankees at the end of the 1950s.
Integration came slowly to America’s favorite sport, even though it went well among players on the field.
Desegregation lasted longest, not on the playing field, but in housing for players at spring training. By 1961, thirteen of eighteen major league baseball teams trained in Florida. Florida cities thrived on sunshine and the economic boost of baseball-driven tourists. None more so than St. Petersburg, FL, which hosted two teams, the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.
Adam Henig eloquently tells the story of the integration struggles of St. Petersburg in his latest book, Under One Roof. The long history of this racially divided city and the exceptional efforts of Dr. Ralph Wimbish (1922-1967), a fearless fighter for equal opportunities in health, housing and education set the stage. Wimbish, the founder of the St. Petersburg Ambassadors Club, is credited with leading the integration of St. Pete’s lunch counters, theaters, public restrooms, swimming areas, schools and hospitals. His spacious, beautiful home, built on the racial dividing line in the city, was the place black celebrities visited and stayed in the segregated city.
Ralph and Bette Wimbish hosted Dizzie Gillespie, Alex Haley, Jesse Owens, Cab Calloway, Elston Howard, Althea Gibson since none of them could rent housing in the all-white local hotels.
Once teams integrated, Wimbish would escort black players around his community searching for housing during spring training. In 1961, he said, “Damn it, we’re not going to do this anymore.”
He had support from journalist Wendell Smith, a superb pitcher in his youth who was never signed because he was African American. Instead, Smith became a journalist with a cause: integration of the sport. On January 7, 1961, Smith published a column demanding baseball executives to stop supporting Jim Crow. “The time has come for big league owners to rebel against hotels which bar their Negro players during Spring training.” Some team executives, like Dodgers’ Branch Rickey and Sox’s owner, Bill Veeck, used their economic leverage to push justice forward. The Yankees cooperated but St. Louis, like so many other teams, did their best to avoid the issues.
This short, well-crafted book, reminds us how many justice issues are won or lost at the local level. It makes clear how significant are the vitality and power of specific players in the fight to bring forth justice. It also reveals the sad truth that the loss of a significant leader can change the course of the struggle. Ralph Wimbish died prematurely in 1967. In spite of the efforts of his wife Bette Wimbish to continue the work, the loss of Ralph resulted in many setbacks in St. Petersburg’s struggle for justice.
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ADAM HENIG also has contributed a column to ReadTheSpirit magazine about how he undertook the challenge of writing this new biography. (You’ll want to read Henig’s story, in part, because it includes a photo of Wimbish.)
BENJAMIN PRATT is an author and columnist who, among other things, loves baseball. If you’d like to learn about some of his books, then please visit Ben’s author page.