How Bill White, Curt Flood, and others integrated Cardinals spring training

Fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Bill White, a four-time all-star and the defending National League Gold Glove Award winner at first base, arrived in St. Petersburg, Florida, for spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals.

While some of the Cardinals’ star players, such as Stan Musial and Ken Boyer, rented beachfront properties for their families, most of the Cardinals stayed at the team hotel, the Vinoy Park Hotel. However, for black players such as White, Bob Gibson, and Curt Flood, the Vinoy Park was off-limits. Hotel rules did not allow black men and women to stay at the hotel. As a result, the black players stayed at a boardinghouse on the other side of town, where a widow named Mrs. Williams rented rooms .[1]

Two years earlier, in 1959, White had been traded to the Cardinals alongside Ray Jablonski in exchange for Don Choate and Sam Jones. White, who missed the 1957 season due to military service, returned to a Giants team that now featured two other first basemen in Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey. When the New York Daily News asked him how he fit in with the team, he told the reporter that he didn’t. Instead, he suggested that the Giants trade him.[2]

However, that didn’t mean he wanted to go to St. Louis. As White wrote in his 2011 autobiography, “At the time, St. Louis was the worst city in the league for black players. We couldn’t stay at white hotels there, and couldn’t eat in the white restaurants. For black players on the board, it was a terrible environment.”[3]

White also remembered how the Cardinals and their fans had treated Robinson in his first year in the majors. During spring training, a black cat had even been thrown onto the field.[4]

When White arrived for his first spring training with the Cardinals in 1959, he realized that St. Petersburg wasn’t much better. At the airport, he caught a “black” taxi (driven by a black driver for black passengers) to the team hotel. When he arrived, the desk clerk informed him that his room was with the “other” players. Another “black” taxi was called to take him to the boardinghouse, where White ran into Gibson and Dick Ricketts.

“So this is the way it is here?” White asked. “Black players can’t stay in the team hotels?”

Gibson shrugged. “Welcome to St. Petersburg,” he said.[5]

White, who had grown up in Warren, Ohio, brought national attention to the team’s segregation in 1961. On March 9, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce scheduled a “Salute to Baseball” breakfast. Hosted at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the event would celebrate the economic benefits spring training brought to the community. Members of the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees were invited to serve as guests of honor.

In the days ahead of the breakfast, a notice was placed in the Cardinals clubhouse letting the players know who was invited. The list was comprised entirely of players living in the team hotel. The names of White, Flood, and Gibson were nowhere to be found.

“Not one of the players listed was black,” White wrote. “That was bad enough. Then I saw that the list included a couple of rookies who had never swung a bat in the majors. The idea that the local bigwigs wanted to honor unproven players while ignoring proven players because of the color of their skin rankled me. No, it more than rankled me. Combined with all the other crap that black players had to take, it made me furious.”[6]

White shared his frustrations with Associated Press reporter Joe Reichler.

“When will we be made to feel like humans?” he asked. “They invited all but the colored players. Even the kids who never have come to bat once in the big leagues received invitations – that is, if they were white. I wanted very badly to go. I think I’m a gentleman and can conduct myself properly.”[7]

Of course, White’s criticism went far beyond a mere chamber of commerce breakfast.

“How much longer must we accept this without saying a word?” White asked Reichler. “This thing keeps gnawing away at my heart. I think about this every minute of the day. … As long as those things continue to go on, I’d rather not train here. I’d rather train somewhere else like Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.”[8]

Reichler’s story hit the Associated Press wire at 5:20 p.m. on March 8. The response from both the Cardinals and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce came within hours.

“We invited baseball players, not colors,” said Richard A. Parker, president of the Chamber of Commerce, who noted that the Chamber asked both the Cardinals and Yankees to invite their players. “There is absolutely no reason why White and other Negro players don’t have invitations. We had a breakfast like this for the Holiday Bowl teams and Negro players attended. White and the others can consider this a personal invitation from me. I certainly hope they attend.”[9]

Cardinals public relations director Jim Toomey took the blame for the list of invited players posted in the clubhouse, asserting that he only listed the players residing in the Vinoy Park Hotel because it was close to the yacht club and it would be more convenient for those players to attend the 8:15 a.m. breakfast.

“Not all ballplayers are eager to get up early in the morning to attend a breakfast,” Toomey said. “To make sure we will be adequately represented, I put up a list that made it more or less mandatory.”[10]

Toomey noted that other players who weren’t invited included Musial, Red Schoendienst, Lindy McDaniel, Joe Cunningham, and Hal Smith, and also said that White had not brought his concerns to the ballclub before speaking to Reichler. He did not mention that the reason none of the black players were staying in the Vinoy Park Hotel was because hotel policy forbade it.

The media was quick to categorize the incident as a misunderstanding. The March 9 Tampa Bay Times headline announced, “Today’s Town Meeting Big Story – By Mistake.”[11] The headline in the Press and Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, New York, read, “Bill White Eating Words?”[12]

On March 10, the Tampa Bay Times ran a photo of Yankees catcher Elston Howard at the breakfast (after White refused to attend) with a cutline that read, “NO SEGREGATION at yesterday’s Chamber of Commerce ‘Salute to Baseball’ breakfast but only Yankee Catcher Elston Howard, left foreground, turned up to prove it. Due to a misunderstanding, Cardinal Negro players stayed away.”[13]

Nonetheless, White’s criticisms drew attention to the team’s segregated housing. One black newspaper in East St. Louis suggested that if this was the way Anheuser-Busch, the owner of the Cardinals, treated its players, maybe black customers should boycott its beer.[14] That prompted the brewery to send Al Fleishman of the Fleishman-Hillard public relations agency to St. Petersburg to meet with White. As a Jewish American, however, Fleishman understood why White was making his stand.

“They wanted me to tell you to cool down,” Fleishman told White, “but the hell with that. The last thing you want to do now that you’ve got their attention is to cool down. You need to keep pressure on their ass.”[15]

While Fleishman offered private support, others were taking public steps to desegregate spring training housing. About a month earlier, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, a physician who served as president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, announced that he and Dr. Robert Swain would no longer assist Major League Baseball teams in arranging separate housing for black players. Wimbish, who had organized the picketing of lunch counters at city drug and department stores, said it wasn’t logical to battle for integration while helping to segregate players.

“The time has come when more adequate provisions without discrimination should be provided by the clubs themselves,” he said.[16]

The week of February 4, Flood spoke out about the situation in an interview with the Pittsburgh Courier.

“The rookie who is trying to win my job can bring his wife to camp and live in the most lavish surroundings,” he said. “Me, I’m forced to leave my wife at home because we can’t find a decent place to stay. It just doesn’t make sense.”[17]

At spring training, Flood told Cardinals owner Gussie Busch that it was unfortunate that he and the other black players had to be separated from their teammates.

“Do you mean to tell me that you’re not staying here at the hotel with the rest of the fellas?” Busch asked.

Flood was flabbergasted. “Mr. Busch,” he said, “don’t you know that we’re staying about five miles outside of town in the Negro section?”[18]

Facing public pressure, the Cardinals asked the Vinoy Park Hotel to allow its black players to stay there with their teammates. The hotel refused. Instead, a local businessman bought adjacent beachfront motels called the Skyline Motel and the Outrigger Motel and made the facilities available to the Cardinals. In a show of solidarity, players like Musial and Boyer, who had private beachfront condos, even moved into the motel. In all, 29 of the 32 players lived in the motel (three of the players with family from St. Petersburg stayed elsewhere).[19]

The shared facility suddenly made Cardinals spring training a bonding experience. The food at the Outrigger, based on the motel’s Polynesian theme, was unpopular with the players, so the Cardinals and their families hosted nightly barbecues. As Brad Snyder wrote in his biography of Curt Flood, “White and Gibson cooked, pitching coach Howie Pollet made the salad, and Boyer and pitcher Larry Jackson purchased the meat and worked the grill. Players, front-office personnel, and sportswriters stayed there, 137 people in all, including 32 wives and 25 children.”[20]

Team activities at the motel included a fried chicken picnic dinner, movie nights, costume parties for the kids, fishing trips, and even cruises on Busch’s yacht.[21]

“To get it accomplished, there were a lot of unsung heroes,” White wrote in 1994. “Stan Musial and Ken Boyer gave up their personal comforts to move in with the black players, and that lent a large measure of credibility to what we were doing. I also appreciated the considerable efforts of (general manager) Bing Devine and Arthur Fleischman of the Cardinals front office, because as long as the ballclub accepted segregation, there would be no change. It took a lot of people to pull off what we did, and in the end I think most of us came away with a new respect for the South. It was our own little civil rights movement.”[22]

“The Cardinal motel became a tourist attraction,” Gibson wrote in his autobiography, Stranger to the Game. “People would drive by to see the black and white families swimming together or holding one of our famous team barbecues.”[23]

While White received criticism in the press, he did receive a letter of support that he would cherish in the years to come.

“Dear Bill,” the letter said. “I just wanted you to know that that I appreciate everything that you’ve done for black baseball players. Keep up the fight.” The signature at the bottom of the letter read, “Jackie Robinson.”[24]


[1] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 68 (Kindle edition).

[2] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 59 (Kindle edition).

[3] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 60 (Kindle edition).

[4] Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler (1994), Stranger to the Game, New York; Penguin Books USA, 59.

[5] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 68 (Kindle edition).

[6] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 72 (Kindle edition).

[7] Bill Beck, “Today’s Town Meeting Big Story – By Mistake,” Tampa Bay Times, March 9, 1961: Page C1.

[8] Bill Beck, “Today’s Town Meeting Big Story – By Mistake,” Tampa Bay Times, March 9, 1961: Page C1.

[9] Bill Beck, “Today’s Town Meeting Big Story – By Mistake,” Tampa Bay Times, March 9, 1961: Page C1.

[10] Bill Beck, “Today’s Town Meeting Big Story – By Mistake,” Tampa Bay Times, March 9, 1961: Page C1.

[11] Bill Beck, “Today’s Town Meeting Big Story – By Mistake,” Tampa Bay Times, March 9, 1961: Page C1.

[12] “Bill White Eating Words?” Press and Sun Bulletin, March 9, 1961: Page 23.

[13] “Salute To Baseball Biggest Town Meeting,” Tampa Bay Times, March 10, 1961: Page C1.

[14] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 75 (Kindle edition).

[15] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 77 (Kindle edition).

[16] Jack Ellison, “Negro Major Leaguers Face Housing Problems,” Tampa Bay Times, February 1, 1961: Page C1.

[17] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Plume, 59.

[18] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Plume, 57.

[19] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Plume, 59.

[20] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Plume, 59.

[21] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Plume, 59.

[22] Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler (1994), Stranger to the Game, New York; Penguin Books USA, 59.

[23] Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler (1994), Stranger to the Game, New York; Penguin Books USA, 58. 

[24] Bill White (2011), Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, New York, N.Y.; Grand Central Publishing, Page 79 (Kindle edition).

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