Spring training in black and white

John Fea directs us to this terrific LIFE magazine photo album from Dodgertown, spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., in 1948.

That photo is by LIFE’s George Silk, and there are plenty more at the gallery linked above.

This was spring training the year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball — the year after the big year of 1947 and Jackie and Larry Doby and the major milestone of baseball’s first black players.

But while the playing fields of Dodgertown were integrated in 1948, the rest of Vero Beach — and the rest of spring training — was not.

This was still the segregated South. This was still Jim Crow.

And it would stay that way for another 14 seasons — until after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, until years after Jackie Robinson retired.

Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, and by 1960, every team had black players. But every team still had spring training, and spring training means heading south.

Bill White, who was an All Star and Gold Glover for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1950s and ’60s, described what that meant in an article for CNN.com a few years ago:

When I started playing for the Cardinals in 1959, the team’s black players — great players like Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, George Crowe and others — weren’t allowed to stay in the team hotel during spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. Instead we were put up in a boarding house in the “black section” of town.

Restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, bathrooms, drinking fountains, even the stands in the spring training ballparks we played in were segregated. The only place we could hang out with our white teammates was in the locker room and on the field.

Most baseball fans think of players like Gibson and Flood as members of the next generation — black superstars who played in the years after segregation and the color barrier. But for much of their career, such players spent every spring living under the segregated system of Jim Crow.

Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey are players we tend to think of as coming after all of that. But for many years for all of them, spring training meant segregated restaurants, hotels and bathrooms.

When we think of segregation and baseball, we think of it as something long, long ago, but segregated spring training was part of the baseball career of players like Dick Allen, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Tony Perez, Donn Clendenon, and Matty, Felipe and Jesus Alou.

Bill White describes how that eventually changed:

In 1961, some black players — me included — began to speak out publicly against the off-the-field segregation we had to endure during Florida spring training.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do. This was before baseball free agency, a time when the “reserve clause” gave team owners complete control over a player’s career. A player who was thought to be too outspoken — the word “uppity” was sometimes used — ran the risk of being sent down to the minors or released. But we felt it had to be done.

It worked. As the story went national, pressure built on major league teams to do something. In the Cardinals’ case, when the team hotel in St. Petersburg still refused to admit blacks, the team leased a small beachfront motel for the entire team. Soon people were driving by to gawk at the then-unprecedented sight — in the Deep South, anyway — of black men and white men and their families living together, eating together, even swimming in the same pool together.

It took a couple of years, but according to Harry Kingman,* 1962 was the last year any of the teams had segregated facilities for spring training.

Even then, though, the teams’ integrated facilities were still down south under Jim Crow. Dodgertown was desegregated in 1961, but the rest of Vero Beach wouldn’t be for several more years.

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* Kingman, a former ballplayer, supported the black players’ efforts to desegregate spring training through his advocacy group, The Citizens’ Lobby for Freedom and Fair Play. Referring to Kingman as a former ballplayer doesn’t begin to tell the story, though. He started only one game, going 0-for-3 with a walk for the 1914 Yankees. Baseball-wise he is remembered only as the lone Major Leaguer to have been born in China. He left after one season to become a missionary in Shanghai, where he also coached baseball. He got booted out of there for upsetting the colonial authorities for all the right reasons, so in 1927, while his former team was dominating the American League, he was coaching baseball in Japan. … Go read Bob Timmerman’s SABR bio of Kingman for a look at a long and fascinating life. “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy.”

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    It would not surprise me if this was a wedge that helped open up more avenues for the wider Civil Rights Movement.  

  • P J Evans

    There’s a book about baseball called Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein. It’s about Willie Mays, in particular, but it also looks at society. It talks about spring training in (segregated) Arizona.

  • Jfea

    Thanks for the link, Fred.  Love your blog!

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     It would not surprise me if this was a wedge that helped open up more avenues for the wider Civil Rights Movement.

    It was a wedge that operated in concert with other, similar fights in other venues.  Look up the treatment of black musicians and entertainers in the same time period.

    It’s one of those things where talking about sports and music doesn’t actually matter.  Except that sports and music do matter when talking about them highlights societal problems and serves to let sunlight in.  A critical mass of people would not have cared if the groundskeepers remained segregated or the busboys remained segregated.  But if you’re talking Willie McCovey or Mavis Staples people pay attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tomstone Thomas Stone

    Having grown up in South Florida, it’s bizarre to be reminded how much Old Dixie culture was down there, before Disney in Orlando and waves after wave of retirees from New York and Connecticut to Boca and a few big corporate moves to the Palm Beach area meant that one was hard pressed to find a Southern accent in most of the towns I knew, including Vero. 

    It’s something I always kind of regretted as a kid- I was a carpetbagger myself, but I knew perfectly well I was growing up in a sort of domestic settler state- but hell, maybe some parts of culture should be stomped down, one way or the other.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I remember reading somewhere that the cultural irony of Florida was that the northern part of the state was Dixie while the southern part of the state was Yankee, thanks to migration and settlement patterns (the northern part of the state being long settled Dixie territory while the influx of retirees mainly settled in southern Florida.)  

  • http://www.facebook.com/tomstone Thomas Stone

    More or less, though it varies a bit- the Gulf Coast is pretty consistently Alabamesque all the way down, apart from Tampa, which is an odd mixture of urban, redneck, and Scientologist. And Miami and the Keys are both ecosystems unto themselves, since the former has such a huge density of immigrants (Cuban, Haitian, some South American- it’s a great place for interesting food) and the Keys are like half super rich people and half six foot six ballroom gown wearing drag queens (I miss Key West). But yeah, for the most part, in South Florida you’d never know you were in the South, and in the Panhandle you’d never know it wasn’t 1953.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    This post and the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece it references seems an appropriate addition to the conversation…

  • Kaleberg

    This was a problem for CCNY’s football team in the 1930s and into the 1960s. They couldn’t take some of their best players south of the Mason-Dixon line.


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