Six decades ago, during the 1961 Major League Baseball spring training season, Ralph Melvin Wimbish, an African-American physician in St. Petersburg, Florida, forced city authorities, hotel owners, and team officials to integrate player housing and allow the whole team to live under one roof, history says.
A civil rights pioneer, Wimbish would help integrate spring training and St. Petersburg 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 U.S. Army and began studies at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, before getting married and having three children. While living in St. Petersburg with his family, he opened a medical office and became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“He worked 24 hours a day,” Wimbish’s son Ralph Wimbish Jr. told Tampa Bay Times in 2021. “He would make house calls at 2 a.m., deliver babies at 5 a.m., see 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 which worked with the NAACP to challenge segregation laws in St. Petersburg. The group held protests at lunch counters, organized store boycotts, and so on between 1954 and 1960.
“Some people say we should wait,” Wimbish told reporters at the time. “I have waited 30 years in this town, and nothing has happened yet.”
The peaceful protests paid off as the city experienced the integration of beaches, restaurants, golf courses, and so on. But what perhaps made Wimbish popular was his integration of spring training. Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, but spring training in Florida had not. Black players were still not allowed to stay in St. Petersburg hotels and motels. Segregation was still present in Major League Baseball’s annual spring training. Even though African-American players could have contact with Whites on the field, once the game or practice was over, all must go to separate quarters per 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 Tampa Bay Times. Wimbish and other African-American homeowners opened their homes to Black players. Some of the players lounged there or roomed there while others went there to dine. Wimbish did not like this arrangement as he wanted the hotels and motels to take in the Black players.
In 1961, he told reporters that enough was enough. He indicated that he was no longer going to house Black players or help get them lodging at homes of other African Americans. He asked the teams to push for integrated lodging.
“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 integrated housing. The New York Mets also moved their Spring Training to St. Petersburg. They and the Cardinals used integrated motels there.
Wimbish took a public stand against the segregated conditions of 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 successfully integrating 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 is yet to be recognized.