Adam Henig. Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training. Minneapolis, MN: Wise Ink Creative Publishing, 2016. Pp. 132. Review by Josh Howard.
Under One Roof is a personal story. Adam Henig tells the story of Dr. Ralph Wimbish, an African American physician, and his (and others’) role in the desegregation of baseball spring training sites in Florida during the early 1960s. Dr. Wimbish worked tirelessly to fight against segregation in baseball in addition to a broader fight against racial injustice in St. Petersburg and the national as a whole. Henig tells a local story, one about a family working bravely within their community to fight injustice. Baseball, in the form of spring training, just happened to be part of their struggle, and Henig’s story carries importance far beyond Florida baseball diamonds.
From 1946 through the early-1960s, American League and National League baseball clubs maintained segregationist policies while in Florida for spring training. Black and white players would share the diamond and often the locker room, but local social custom dictated that black players must go their separate ways after the ballplaying was through. Black players were forbidden to stay at the team hotel as teams deferred to local segregationist practices (which were most often not actually law, just custom). This also meant that black players often could not bring their families with them to Florida, as these players rarely knew where they would be lodging until actually arriving in Florida. In contrast, white players’ accommodations were usually handled by the team directly, so there was no question the players and their families would be provided safe, comfortable accommodations.
Desegregating spring training is a tale that contrasts with the narrative forwarded by mainstream representations of Jackie Robinson and the removal of baseball’s color barrier. Major League Baseball tends to present Robinson as a near-instant cure to baseball’s ills. Instead, as Henig shows in this book, Robinson was but the first step. It took ballplayers, owners, and—perhaps most importantly—locals to change yet another of baseball’s unjust practices. The story of desegregating baseball spring training in Florida is one that has been told, but not often, primarily through the work of Jack Davis and Brian Carroll. Generally though, the story has not received personal or local treatment. Davis and Carroll generally place their focus upon major league baseball clubs and players. Although local stories and agents do receive attention, never do these authors delve so deep as Henig.
Henig places much of the credit for desegregating spring training with the local black community and with African-American ballplayers. The narrative centers upon Dr. Ralph Wimbish and his family. The Wimbishes all participated in fighting for civil rights, including Betty (Ralph’s wife) being the first black member of the city council and Ralph Jr. integrating the local little league. The first big moment in the baseball desegregation effort came from black leaders in Florida, led by Wimbish, when it was declared that local black families would no longer assist black ballplayers in finding housing for spring training. As Wimbish publicly stated, “Living conditions for the colored players in the Florida camps are not satisfactory…it’s time management of the clubs takes a hand” (56-7). This move stirred the press, which in turn led to public statements from prominent baseball figures such as Branch Rickey, Roy Campanella, and Bill Veeck. The NAACP sent a letter to major league clubs with Florida spring training formally requesting they stop patronizing segregated hotels. Bill Veeck—owner of the Chicago White Sox—openly challenged the Sarasota hotel where his players stayed, quickly winning the fight as the locality consented to black players staying at the formerly all-white hotel.
The story of the Wimbish family is critical in understanding spring training desegregation because it highlights the very real peril facing African Americans (both players and non-players) in Florida. During the early 1950s, aggressive whites chased the couple out of Tampa when a Klan member burned their recently purchased home before they moved in. The Wimbishes were thus forced back to Ralph’s hometown of St. Petersburg. Ralph Wimbish would become a leader in the St. Petersburg civil rights community in the coming years, for instance, by organizing a federal lawsuit ending St. Petersburg’s long-standing tradition of segregated beaches. Dr. Wimbish was effectively in danger every day in Florida, as were his black peers and black ballplayers. His family’s story reminds the reader that professional ballplayers suffered more than just poor housing and a longer walk; they were forced into an atmosphere of threatened violence and oppression all while their teammates lived comfortably in quality hotel accommodations with their families.
Too often and for too long, the white savior narrative holds sway within the history of baseball desegregation. For instance, Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck—wealthy white club owners—certainly deserve some credit for integrating the major leagues, but over-emphasizing their roles often diminishes the role of major players doing much of the actual work, such as journalist Wendell Smith or Dr. Ralph Wimbish (not to mention the work of black ballplayers). Henig recognizes this problem and seeks to address it. Rickey and Veeck are portrayed as wealthy white owners who ultimately did the right thing, but were still flawed individuals. Both tolerated segregation and outright racism for years, and both only challenged the status quo once it made financial sense to do so.
Returning to historiography briefly, this book could be considered a microhistory. The story of spring training desegregation goes well beyond Dr. Ralph Wimbish, but his rich stories reveal just how difficult and personal this process was. Certainly, there were other Ralph Wimbishes in Florida and elsewhere. While at first this works appears as a biography, it is instead a work of broader civil rights history. Henig carries the narrative outside of Florida often, for instance noting the front office culture of a few professional teams. This is important—at least as important as the local Florida story—because it shows how many professional teams were either ignorant or outright hostile to the plight of African-American ballplayers. It also displays that Henig did not constrain this work simply to the world of Dr. Wimbish, but instead sought out the broader American narrative.
Altogether, Henig’s book makes a significant contribution to the literature on baseball’s relationship to the American Civil Rights movement. There are two major shortcomings however. First, it is quite short with about 100 pages of text (not counting some end notes). Granted, Henig told this story concisely and effectively, but perhaps a bit more on black media or the black athletes themselves could have clarified the narrative. Second, there are no citations, thus making it difficult to connect this work to others like it. There are notes in the back of the book, but they are unnumbered and difficulty to trace back to the text. Still, Henig’s work is commendable and worth reading for anyone interested in baseball civil rights (or the connection between sport and the Civil Rights Movement, for that matter).
Josh Howard is Assistant Professor of Public History at Lamar University. Howard has an upcoming article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography on amateur baseball and “gentlemanliness” in Appalachian Virginia and created The Wendell Smith Papers, a digital archive and exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.