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When baseball defied segregation off the field

By Bill White, Special to CNN
  • Bill White played baseball in the 1950s and '60s, when segregation was still common
  • The players were integrated, but they often had to eat and board separately, he says
  • In 1961, some black players, including White, began speaking out, risking their careers
  • White: Desegregation of sports helped prepare America for desegregation nationwide

Editor's note: Bill White played first base for the New York/San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s and '60s. He was a radio and television broadcaster for the New York Yankees for later was named the first black president of Major League Baseball's National League. His autobiography is "Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play." Watch the Philadelphia Phillies face the Atlanta Braves for Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game on TBS Sunday, May 15, 1:30 PM.

(CNN) -- Everyone knows that Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball "color barrier" in 1947. But what many people today may not know is that while Jackie's courageous performance integrated major league baseball on the field, it took many more years of struggle to break the baseball color barrier off the field.

As a major league player with the New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1950s and '60s, I was part of that struggle.

It may be difficult for young people today to believe, but back then black players were often not allowed to eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels or live in the same neighborhoods as their white teammates, not just in the "Jim Crow" South but in many places across the country.

For example, as the only black player on a minor league team in Iowa, I vividly remember having to eat my dinner on the team bus while my white teammates were eating in a "whites only" restaurant during a road trip in Kansas in 1954.

Even black major league players, men at the top of their profession, weren't spared those kinds of indignities. 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.

Many white players and team owners were indifferent to the restrictions placed on black players. The prevailing attitude was, "That's just the way it is. We're not politicians or lawyers. There's nothing we can do."

It was a difficult time. How, we wondered, could people cheer for us on the field and then refuse to let us into a restaurant? How could Major League Baseball treat us -- and pay us -- like first-class citizens in the ballpark and then turn its head when we were treated like second-class citizens after the game was over?

Fortunately, the passion for freedom and equality that had been sweeping the nation, from the bus stops of Montgomery, Alabama, to the schoolhouse steps of Little Rock, Arkansas, eventually caught up to Major League Baseball. 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.

Meanwhile, other major league teams also changed their spring training housing policies. Soon the Major League Baseball Players Association voted unanimously to refuse to play in any city that required black and white players to use separate living facilities.

Of course, compared with the accomplishments of people like Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others, this was a small step. After all, we were just baseball players, not civil rights crusaders. It would take many more years before Major League Baseball was as open to blacks in the front office as it was to black players on the field.

Still, I believe the desegregation of baseball and other professional sports on and off the field helped prepare America for desegregation throughout the country. Looking back on it a half-century later, of all the things I did in baseball, being a part of that struggle is the thing of which I am most proud.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bill White.