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When Hope Didn't Spring Eternal for Black Baseball Players in Florida

By Bill Lucey, March 1, 2015
The Philadelphia Phillies holding training camp in Clearwater, Florida in the spring of 1962.

Spring training is traditionally an exciting time for Major League Baseball players. It’s a time for them to get back to doing what they do best: hitting, fielding, stretching muscles, getting reacquainted with old friends, meeting new teammates, and basking in the sun, when others back north are still fighting the last cold blast of the biting winter.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when racial strife was bursting at the seams through much of the United States, spring training for black baseball players in the South was an especially miserable and degrading time.

By the middle of the 1950s, black players represented more than ten percent of Major League Baseball active rosters.

After the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, the legal challenges of segregation with other public facilities were successful, representing a major civil rights victory.

Jim Crow laws represented the racial caste system, which operated predominantly in the Southern and border states between 1877 and the mid-1960s, which mandated de jure segregation in all public facilities, including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains, relegating African-Americans to second-class citizenship.

According to Jack Davis, professor of history at the University of Florida: “After the Brown decisions (1954 and 1955), Florida hardly budged from its Jim Crow traditions, and that tradition was hard core. From Miami to Pensacola, Florida was a Jim Crow state. In the late 1940s, a sociological study measuring the degree of racial separation in over 100 American cities found Miami to be the country's most segregated (black/white not Cuban/native-born).”

As the saying went, the only thing integrated during spring training were the dugouts.

When black baseball players arrived at spring training, they were prohibited from lodging with their white teammates at the more luxurious hotels in the Sunshine State. Usually, they were forced to check into segregated boardinghouses in the dilapidated poorer black sections of town.

Not only were black players segregated in Florida, but so were black baseball fans. At Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, there was a segregated seating section for black fans. Their grandstands for spring training wouldn’t become integrated until 1962.

According to Charles Fountain in his book Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training, “In West Palm Beach, the ballpark didn’t even have a gate for the black fans; they entered through a hole in the fence. Inside, blacks drank from the ‘colored’ water fountains and used the ‘colored’ facilities, if the park even had them.”

Credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

“Sam Lacy [a pioneering African-American sportswriter],” Fountain went on to write, “once asked where the ‘colored’ restroom was in one Florida ballpark and was directed to a tree some thirty or forty yards beyond the right-field fence.”

Before the mid-1960s, the Soreno Hotel in St. Petersburg prohibited black players with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees from staying there, including Yankee catcher Elston Howard, future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, and future National League President Bill White.

When Curt Flood first arrived for spring training for the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1956 as an 18-year-old guileless rookie, he headed for the front desk of a Tampa hotel, identified himself as Cincinnati's new addition, and requested a room key. Before the desk clerk could respond, Flood was whisked away by a black porter who didn’t want this teenager to have to endure the humiliation of being denied a room because of the color of his skin. The porter quickly hailed Flood a cab to Ma Fletcher’s Boarding House, where other black baseball players stayed, including Frank Robinson.

Slugger Frank Robinson at the Reds’ Tampa, Florida training camp in 1963. Robinson, a right-handed batter, showing off his left-handed swing.

Thanks largely to the benevolence of two leaders of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, some black players found alternative housing away from the tattered conditions of the segregated boardinghouses.

Ralph Wimbish, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and Robert J. Swain, a dentist, owned rental properties in St. Petersburg and drew a handsome sum for housing black players of the Cardinals and Yankees in the area for a number of years.

Not all segregated boardinghouses, it should be noted, were decrepit or substandard. The New York Times reported about the segregated living conditions for black players in Pompano Beach (a city just north of Fort Lauderdale), where the Washington Senators trained. There, black players stayed at a spacious house, equipped with a special dietician hired to prepare the food, while the players had access to the swimming pool and other facilities of a black park.

By renting out a former air force base in Vero Beach, Florida, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers were the only team to avoid segregating its black players.

Young Roy Campanella, Jr. is shown here with his father at Dodgers training camp in Vero Beach, Florida in 1952.

Even though the Dodgers didn’t have to endure the segregation of their black players, it didn’t stop Jackie Robinson from venting his deep displeasure with the inexcusable conditions in the South. “After ten years of traveling the South,” the Dodgers second baseman told the Sporting News after the 1956 season, “I don’t believe the advances there have been fast enough. It’s my belief that baseball itself hasn’t done all it can to help remedy the problems faced by those players in Organized Baseball.”

The tide began to turn in the early 1960s.

As of 1961, 13 of the 18 Major League clubs held spring training camps in Florida. The other sites were in Arizona and California, states without segregation requirements for black ballplayers.

The Chicago Cubs, who had previously held spring training on Catalina Island off the coast of California, moved their training camp to Arizona in 1951. 

The first stinging indictment questioning the status quo in the segregated South came from Wendell Smith, an influential African-American sportswriter under the headline “Spring Training Woes,” which splashed across the front page of the Chicago American on January 23, 1961. After talking with a number of black players (who wanted to remain anonymous), Smith concluded there was a “growing feeling of resentment in the Negro player over the ‘embarrassment, humiliation and even indignities’ he was forced to endure in Florida every spring.”

So moved by Smith’s column, Wimbish and Swain called a press conference to announce they would no longer assist black players in finding housing during spring training, reasoning it was up to the team officials of the Cardinals and Yankees to force city officials to integrate living conditions. The president of the Florida chapter of the NAACP, A. Leon Lowry, then fired off a piercing letter to every Major League team training in Florida, requesting a swift end to segregated housing.

In February 1961, the New York Times reported on some of the shocking conditions of a boardinghouse in a predominantly black section of Bradenton, Florida (a tropical spot south of Tampa Bay). The boardinghouse consigned two players to a room, and residents regularly had to tolerate long lines for the use of only two bathrooms. And the players usually came to blows over which television show to watch in the single set in the living room.

The Times article quoted future home run king Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves, complaining that “sometimes the place is so crowded that they have two guys sleeping in the hall. You wake up in the morning and rush for the bathroom and if you’re the last one all the hot water is gone.”

White players, on the other hand, didn’t have to put up with such shoddy lodging conditions at the more upscale Bradenton Hotel on the other side of town.

 

Milwaukee’s Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Joe Adcock at Braves Field in Bradenton, Florida in the spring of 1961.

An explosive event finally triggered the loosening of barriers for black ballplayers in March 1961. The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce sponsored its annual “Salute to Baseball” breakfast in honor of New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals players. Bill White, an African-American and first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, noticed that black ballplayers were excluded from the breakfast. White blew his stack and went public with a sharp rebuke to the city for such offensive bigotry.

Approximately a month before the Bill White diatribe, Curt Flood expressed his pent-up frustration with a Pittsburgh Courier reporter, when he was quoted as saying: “The rookie who is trying to win my job can bring his wife to camp and live in the most lavish surroundings. Me, I’m forced to leave my wife at home because we can’t find a decent place to stay.”

These public statements prompted black players to orchestrate a forceful campaign, elbowing team officials to pressure the city to end their segregated practices. Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler then published a story in a black newspaper in St. Louis outlining black ballplayers’ demands for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch beers—the brewery owned the Cardinals—unless changes were made with how black players were treated.

Eventually, Cardinals owner August A. Busch Jr. threatened to move the team out of the St. Petersburg area unless more facilities were integrated. The city’s yacht club board took the ultimatum seriously and publicly announced the “Salute to Baseball” breakfast was open to all players, regardless of race. And team officials successfully pressured the business community to integrate all the hotels other than the Soreno and Vinoy. The following year, in 1962, the Colonial Inn swung open its doors to both black and white players of the New York Mets. The Cardinals, meanwhile, rather than deal with the city, just bought their own hotel in St. Petersburg.

After the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in public places, Florida slowly but surely opened its doors to African-Americans in the leisure and entertainment industries. Professor Davis points out, however, that integration in Florida didn’t come nearly as fast at the state level. “Despite Brown [v. Board of Education] and later the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited distributing federal funds to racially discriminatory programs” Davis says, “public schools remained mostly segregated until 1971.”

In addition, as late as 1966, black players were still subjected to blatant discrimination at public places. When the Boston Red Sox were training in Winter Haven that year, two drinking establishments refused to serve Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson. Enraged, Wilson commented, “I think I’d rather be in Mississippi. . . . There you know you’re not wanted.”

Legally sanctioned segregation in neighborhoods in Florida, moreover, wouldn’t end until 1968.

According to Jon Wilson, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter and currently a part-timer with the Florida Humanities Council, “In 1965, African-American police officers sued the city government to win the right to patrol white neighborhoods and arrest white people. Schools began integrating very slightly during the 1960s. . . . It wasn’t until the 1971 court-ordered busing edict that St. Petersburg schools became truly integrated.”

Presently, Florida has much to be proud of. After all, they can now boast two professional baseball franchises. Some now even point to Florida as representative of the nation because of its diverse population, drawn from states throughout the United States and several Latin American countries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida is composed of one of the largest African-American populations in the country.

Still, not all have forgotten the dark days of segregation in the Sunshine State.

According to James Schnur, special collections librarian from the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg: “The sad truth is that racial segregation in Florida did persist into the 1960s. In fact, some have argued that Bill White’s treatment in St. Petersburg during the 1950s was one of the reasons that the National League expansion that brought the Marlins and Rockies into existence bypassed Tampa Bay.”

“Tampa business executive Frank Morsani,” Schnur explained, “had tried to buy the Minnesota Twins from Calvin Griffith but abandoned plans to do so, and Griffith sold the team to Carl Pohlad to keep it in the Twin Cities. Morsani later claimed that Tampa Bay was almost a lock for the NL expansion, but White’s memories of his years as a player certainly allowed him to flex his muscles as NL president.”

This is just another telling reminder that some memories, especially the hurtful ones, never really fade away.

Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/272705

 

 

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