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MLB vs. Florida: When the league protested segregated living quarters during spring training

Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and more spoke out to create a standoff between MLB and the state of Florida

Major League Baseball wanted its black and white players to integrate at team hotels and venues during spring training. The state of Florida did not want integration.

That’s how 12 of MLB’s 18 teams found themselves in the middle of an intense standoff during this week in 1961. Whispers about pulling out of the Sunshine State and moving spring training to states like California or Arizona were beginning to sound less like rumors and more like the league’s resolution to the issue.

MLB’s leadership drew its line in the sand that its black players deserved, at the minimum, the right to live and eat with their white counterparts during spring training. MLB gave Florida an ultimatum: accept the whole team in housing or prepare for a mass exodus from the state.

This all started in January, when the New Pittsburgh Courier‘s Wendell Smith broke the news that there was animosity from the black players about their treatment during the spring and an unnamed owner who told Smith he would relocate his team as soon as possible if the issue went unresolved.

“If they continue to force us to make our negro players live apart from the team, I am going to pull the club out of Florida as soon as I can find a training site in the West,” the owner told Smith on Jan. 7, 1961.

“How do you think we feel?” an unnamed player asked in the same article. “When we have to get off the bus in the negro section of town and the rest of the team goes on to the hotel where they stay across the tracks? It certainly is embarrassing to us. There is a lot of joking about it during spring training, but behind the joking there is a lot of bad feeling. I don’t understand why the owners, who spend thousands of dollars in these training camp towns, don’t take a stand and tell the hotels that they have to take all the players or none.”

Robert Wimbish, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), issued a statement condemning the Jim Crow living accommodations. Prior to 1961, the NAACP helped the league find hotels that would allow black players. But it dawned on Wimbish that by helping teams do this, the organization was aiding separate but equal, which ran counter to the NAACP’s ideals.

Ten black players had spoken out about their dissatisfaction with the segregated living quarters, including Milwaukee Braves outfielder Henry “Hank” Aaron.

“We most certainly are displeased,” Aaron told the Baltimore Afro-American on Feb. 11, 1961. “At least I am, and I know Wes [Covington] and Billy Bruton who was with us until traded this winter, also resented having to live away from the rest of the club.

“The people with whom we stayed were very nice to us,” said Bruton, who was dealt to the Detroit Tigers. “It was nothing to do with them personally. But what gives anyone the idea that we shouldn’t have wanted the same accommodations as were afforded the rest of the guys?”

While there was no formal organization of the complaints, the individuals speaking up were mostly saying the same thing and speaking out against Braves general manager Birdie Tebbetts, who said that the Braves had received no complaints from their players about dual living accommodations.

In fact, Tebbetts said the players seemed satisfied with the way things were. That outraged the black ballplayers who had spoken up and opened the door for more to discuss the issue, so MLB knew it wasn’t just confined to one squad.

“He [Tebbetts] says the players haven’t complained,” the Cincinnati Reds’ Frank Robinson said. “All of us have been hurt by the condition. It could be nothing but their indifference that kept the owners from understanding how we felt. You don’t have to be told that you’re digging a pin in a man’s face.”

By March, cities in Florida began testing the league, offering a single floor in a hotel to the black major leaguers. MLB pointed out the living quarters were still segregated and that would not be to its satisfaction. In Sarasota, Florida, the Chamber of Commerce found one sympathetic motel that would allow the Chicago White Sox team to stay in integrated living quarters. While in Bradenton, Florida, the training stands and washrooms at the stadium of the Braves’ facility had all racial distinction markers removed.

The New York Yankees (St. Petersburg), St. Louis Cardinals (St. Petersburg), Braves (Bradenton), Kansas City Athletics (West Palm Beach), Tigers (Lakeland), Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater), Washington Senators (Pompano Beach), Baltimore Orioles (Miami), Cincinnati Reds (Tampa Bay), Pittsburgh Pirates (Fort Myers), Minnesota Twins (Orlando) and White Sox (Sarasota) all had facilities in towns with dual living accommodations.

The lone club in Florida free of Jim Crow housing discrimination was the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since 1949, the team used an abandoned air base at Vero Beach, Florida, 150 miles north of Miami. All of their players lived in the same barracks and ate together. The five teams that practiced in California and Arizona also had no such issues with segregation.

On July 10, in San Francisco at the team meetings before All-Star Weekend, the issue would come to a resolution as the league examined Florida’s reaction to their demands.

“They shouldn’t have to guess whether we like it or not,” said Vada Pinson of the Reds. “Nobody enjoys being regarded as something inferior — not good enough to live with his brothers.”

Said the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dick Ricketts: “Last year, I was up to here with this thing. I beat about St. Petersburg so long, trying to find some place decent to live and eat. I was ready to sleep in my car when a good friend came to my rescue.”

Eleven months after the issue was first reported, five of the 12 teams that lived in segregated housing found new accommodations.

The White Sox remained in Sarasota but paid $500,000 to buy the hotel so the whole team could live and dine together. After more than 25 years, the Yankees pulled out of St. Petersburg and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Like New York, the Braves relocated from Bradenton to the resort of Palmetto, Florida.

St. Louis threatened officials in St. Petersburg that it would follow the Yankees’ example, and in a sudden change of heart, the officials amended the policy. The Orioles remained in Miami, but before doing so they put word out that they would only stay in a hotel that accepted all players.

The first-year New York Mets took over the Yankees’ St. Petersburg vacancy with the caveat that the team would move there only if there were no racial restrictions. But as a new spring training approached, black players on the Reds, Pirates, Phillies, Tigers, Athletics, Senators and Twins were subjected to another trip to Florida with segregated living and dining quarters.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.