Heroes, History, and St. Pete
In 1961, local Black civic leaders and civil rights activists Dr. Ralph Wimbish and Dr. Robert Swain sent shockwaves through the baseball world. They refused to continue the practice of opening their homes and hotels to Black players who were not permitted to stay with their white teammates in local St. Petersburg hotels.
Their actions weren’t meant to discriminate against the Black players – just the opposite. Their stand effectively ended segregation of baseball’s spring training, and brought on the integration of hotels in St. Petersburg, helping set in place a decade of tremendous change and social upheaval in the pursuit of civil rights for Black Americans.
It’s interesting to note that when Dr. Wimbish and Dr. Swain bucked the status quo of segregated accommodations for Black players, the story ran in every paper nationwide. But, the papers didn’t mention that because the Yankee’s first Black ballplayer, Elston Howard, couldn’t stay at the team hotel, he slept in young Ralph Jr.’s bedroom at the Wimbish family home instead.
Dr. Wimbish’s wife, C. Bette Wimbish, was equally prominent in the local fight for civil rights. She was St. Petersburg’s first Black city councilperson, once held the highest position of any Black woman in state government, and made historic runs for statewide and national office.
These stories and more have been chronicled in a new book by Dr. Wimbish’s son, Ralph Wimbish, Jr., a sports journalist and author whose childhood in St. Pete put him on the front lines of civil rights activism in the 1960s. Heroes: Stories of Sports, Courage and Class, is a collection of Wimbish Jr.’s experiences from his incredible upbringing, and the storied journalism career that took him around the world and allowed him to meet many prominent athletes.
Wimbish recounts starting his career in the Midwest where he found himself on the picket line in a workers’ strike, and then spent time cutting his teeth in a gritty, smoke-filled newsroom with big personalities in Pittsburgh. His journey to his dream job, assistant sports editor at the New York Post, included some unusual posts, including a stint in Rome where his office was bombed for political reasons. He also landed a position with Golf Digest where he met some of his heroes, made an impression on a young Tiger Woods, and honed his love for the game that his father fought to play when St. Pete’s golf courses were still segregated.
A book tour in September brought Wimbish Jr. on a victory lap of his hometown, where he spoke on successive nights at The Carter G. Woodson Museum, Tombolo Books, and the St. Pete Museum of History. I caught up with him by phone between rounds on his annual golf trip to Virginia Beach to talk about his book, growing up in St. Pete, and his parents’ legacy.
We talked about the irony that I-375 is prominently named the “C. Bette Wimbish” highway in honor of his mother when she had her own fight over the construction of I-275.
In the mid-1970s, many homes in St. Pete’s predominantly Black neighborhoods – including the home Wimbish Jr’s father built on 15th Avenue South – stood in the path of the new highway. Homeowners complained that they were not offered enough money to allow them to find similar homes elsewhere in the city. Mrs. Wimbish sued the state arguing that it was unfair for homeowners to receive less compensation because their homes were in low-income areas when they were forced to live in that area because of the color of their skin.
Wimbish Jr. recalls that Black businesses along 22nd Street also suffered from the disruption the highway caused. He told me that his mother argued that Black property owners weren’t being compensated fairly as they had been economically depressed for years because of segregationist practices. An all-white jury ruled against her.
Dr. Wimbish, a physician and towering figure in St. Petersburg’s Black community, was the leader of the local NAACP. He not only challenged the segregation of hotels, but was among the leaders of the lunch counter sit-ins in St. Petersburg, at the height of civil rights activism in the ’60s.
“I remember early in my life wanting to go to McDonalds or Biff Burger and my mom would say you had to be a member,” said Wimbish Jr. Eventually his parent’s activism paid off, allowing Black families to enjoy movies at the Florida Theater and dine on Central Avenue, or anywhere else in town. Wimbish Jr. himself was the first Black player at Lake Maggiore Little League.
While his mother has been recognized by the City of St. Petersburg, you won’t find Dr. Ralph Wimbish, Sr.’s name on anything locally. When I asked Wimbish Jr. how he’d like to see his father recognized, he said he wasn’t sure, but he’d like to see it happen, adding, “My mom has her own Wikipedia page, but my dad doesn’t.”
Heroes has forty-four chapters of Ralph Wimbish Jr.’s tales, from watching baseball on TV with Jackie Robinson as a child, to seeing Magic Johnson play in the NCAA Tournament, and Diego Maradona’s last World Cup. He witnessed remarkable local history and some of the sports world’s most famous moments. You can find his book at Tombolo Books on 22nd Street and 1st Avenue South, just a stone’s throw from where he lived history.