Mr. Robinson let me watch the Yankees

By RALPH WIMBISH Special to the Times
Published April 15, 2007

Editor's note: Sixty years ago today Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There will be celebrations at every major league game, and many players will wear Robinson's number, 42, to honor his memory. A little more than a generation ago St. Petersburg, like other Southern cities, had color barriers at every turn - schools, lunch counters, theaters, golf courses and swimming areas. At the forefront of the local civil rights movement were Ralph and C. Bette Wimbish. Wimbish, a physician, was president of the local NAACP, and in 1969 Mrs. Wimbish became the first black person elected to the St. Petersburg City Council. This reminiscence was written by their son.

The man at the door had a familiar smile from a wrinkled old baseball card. Jackie Robinson, the man who had opened the doors of baseball for blacks, was now opening his front door for me.

The year was 1964. My dad, the late Dr. Ralph Wimbish, a civil rights leader from St. Petersburg, had brought me, an 11-year-old Yankee fanatic, and the rest of my family to the Connecticut home of the Brooklyn Dodger great for a weekend visit.

Jackie Robinson, I'm proud to say, was a friend of my father. As president of the St. Petersburg NAACP in the early 1960s, my dad led the fight against spring training segregation. Bill White, the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman, used to call my dad "The Devil" because of all the hell he raised, organizing boycotts and integrating department stores, lunch counters and golf courses.

In 1961, my dad announced he would no longer be responsible for finding housing for black players. He believed the Yankees and Cardinals could force the local hotels to integrate. As a result, the Yankees moved their spring base to Fort Lauderdale the next year.

In those days, our house frequently played host to a slew of prominent blacks who were denied rooms at local hotels. In addition to ballplayers like Elston Howard and Curt Flood, our guest list included Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson and even Cab Calloway.

But on this particular weekend in May 1964, two years after Jackie Robinson's induction into the Hall of Fame, it was our family's turn to be his guests. Coming to New York that Memorial Day weekend, mainly to take in the World's Fair, I little realized how special this visit would be.

It was a dark Friday night when our car pulled up in front of the Robinson home outside of Stamford. After my 4-year-old brother and I tumbled out of the backseat and toward the door, I got to shake hands with "Mr. Robinson." He even laughed when I told him one of my best friends in school was named Jackie Robinson.

It was late, so Rachel Robinson and my mother showed me the way to Jack Jr.'s bedroom. Robinson's son was about four years older than I, but lucky for me he was away for the weekend.

The next day, while "Mr. Robinson" and my father were playing golf, I, being a Yankee fan, spent much of the afternoon in the Robinson den, a wood-paneled room lined with old baseball photos and plaques. Yeah, that was impressive, but I was more interested in the TV set. The Yankees were playing the Angels on Channel 11 at the Stadium, a game I remember the Yanks were winning until Bobby Knopp blasted a grand slam off Al Downing.

Late in the game, as I was awaiting a Yankee rally that never came, Mr. Robinson came into the room and made his way to his favorite chair. During a commercial break I went to the bathroom. When I came back, Robinson had switched to Channel 9 to watch the Dodgers play the Mets.

Hey! But what could I say? I wanted to watch the Yankees, but I sat there restlessly until the next commercial. Mr. Robinson, sensing my uneasiness, rose from his chair (there was no remote control back then) and switched back to the Yankee game.

Being the devil that he was, my father gave me one of those looks as he assured our host that there was no need to watch the rest of the Yankee game. But Mr. Robinson wouldn't hear it. He looked over at me and agreed to put up with the voice of Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto for one more inning.

Later, after the Yankees had been vanquished, 9-5, we made our way back to Channel 9 for the Dodgers-Mets game. My dad and I listened as Mr. Robinson talked baseball. He seemed to be confident that the Dodgers would be returning to the World Series that fall. (They didn't; the Cardinals won the National League pennant.) But what I found particularly amazing was that he could read pitches off the TV. Even with TV camera positioned way up in the mezzanine behind home plate, he was able to distinguish between a curveball, slider or fastball.

Watching baseball with Jackie Robinson was something I will never forget. Sure, I'll never forget the trophies, the cookout and the fireworks I shot off the night before we left. But I don't remember if I thanked him for his hospitality and, most important, everything he did for my favorite game.

Thanks, Mr. Robinson, thanks.

As a youth in St. Petersburg, Ralph Wimbish was himself a pioneer. In 1964, he became the first black player in the Lake Maggiore Little League. A 1974 graduate of the University of South Florida, he is now an assistant sports editor at the New York Post. In 2001, he was co-author of Arlene Howard's memoir of her husband, Elston and Me: The Story of the First Black Yankee.