When Jackie Robinson joined baseball, black players were still banned from hotels until this man intervened

Six decades ago, during Major League Baseball’s 1961 spring training season, Ralph Melvin Wimbish, an African-American doctor from St. hotels and team officials to integrate player accommodation and allow the entire team to live under one roof, the story goes.

A civil rights pioneer, Wimbish would help bring spring training and St. Petersburg on board but he is largely forgotten today and there is no public honor for him.

Born on July 24, 1922 in Cordele, Georgia, Wimbish and his parents later moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. He graduated from the all-black Gibbs High School before heading to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee where he met his future wife, Carrie Elizabeth “Bette” Davis.

From 1941 to 1945, Wimbish served in the United States Army and began studies at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, before marrying and having three children. While living in St. Petersburg with his family, he opened a medical practice and became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“He was working 24 hours a day,” Wimbish’s son, Ralph Wimbish Jr., told the Tampa Bay Times in 2021. “He was doing house calls at 2 a.m., delivering babies at 5 a.m., seeing patients all day” before attending NAACP meetings at night.

And to continue his fight for equality, he helped form a men’s civic organization called the Ambassador Club that worked with the NAACP to challenge segregation laws in St. Petersburg. The group staged protests at food counters, organized store boycotts, and more. between 1954 and 1960.

“Some people say we should wait,” Wimbish told reporters at the time. “I’ve waited 30 years in this town, and nothing has happened yet.”

The peaceful protests paid off as the city saw the integration of beaches, restaurants, golf courses, and more. But what may have made Wimbish popular was his integration of spring training. Jackie Robinson joined Major League Baseball in 1947, but not spring training in Florida. Black players were still not allowed to stay in hotels and motels in St. Petersburg. Segregation was ever-present during Major League Baseball’s annual spring training. Although African-American players could have contact with white people on the field, once the game or practice is over, all must go to separate quarters in accordance with local segregation laws.

At the time, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees held preseason practices at Crescent Lake Park and played spring training games at Al Lang Stadium, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Wimbish and other African American landlords opened their homes to black players. Some players lounge there or stay there while others go there for dinner. Wimbish disliked this arrangement as he wanted hotels and motels to accommodate black players.

In 1961, he told reporters that enough was enough. He indicated that he would no longer house black players or help house them with other African Americans. He asked teams to push for integrated hosting.

“The time has come when more adequate provisions without discrimination should be provided by the clubs themselves,” Wimbish told reporters.

The Tampa Bay reports that at the end of the day, the Yankees moved their spring training to Fort Lauderdale, and there they found built-in housing. The New York Mets have also moved their spring training to St. Petersburg. They and the cardinals used integrated motels there.

Wimbish has taken a public stand against segregated conditions for black players and achieved results. Sadly, he passed away six years after making headlines. He died of a heart attack in 1967, but not before he made it to Pinellas County Golf Courses. His wife was also a civil rights pioneer who became the first black female lawyer in Pinellas County and the first black person elected to the St. Petersburg City Council. She has a highway named after her while Wimbish has yet to be recognized.

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