An overt act of racism in Florida helped bring spring training baseball to Tucson more than 60 years ago--even though this small Southwestern city was far from being immune to racial prejudice.
In his autobiography, Veeck--As in Wreck, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck recalled what led him to bring the team west to train in 1947.
Several years earlier, before he bought the Indians, he had been talking to some black fans sitting in the bleachers of a ballpark in Ocala, Fla. The town's sheriff, followed by the mayor, told Veeck he had to leave, because the area was "for Negroes only."
Veeck was infuriated. After he purchased the Indians in 1946, Veeck decided to have the team train in Tucson, where he owned a ranch outside of town.
In the spring of 1948, the team returned to the desert for its second spring training season. Included on the roster was 24-year old outfielder Larry Doby, who the previous July had become the first black player in the American League. While the rest of the Indians stayed at downtown's fancy Santa Rita Hotel, Doby lived with an African-American family, because the hotel's management claimed his presence would "hurt business."
That reaction shouldn't have been surprising. In addition to the Santa Rita, two other leading establishments in Tucson refused to accommodate black customers--downtown's Pioneer Hotel and the El Conquistador Hotel on Broadway Boulevard.
In the late '40s, the city also had a segregated elementary public-school system, and black people had to sit in the balcony of movie theaters.
Despite the litany of discriminatory practices in Tucson, Veeck wrote that the management of the Santa Rita promised in 1948 to accommodate black players in the future. That didn't happen.
When the Indians returned to Tucson in 1949, the team had Doby and four other black players on their roster, including the legendary Satchel Paige. All of these men had to be housed with local African-American families.
In 1950, Doby came to Tucson with his wife, Helyn, and infant daughter, Christina. Not only did they continue to have to room with a black family, but also according Doby biography Pride Against Prejudice, by Joseph Thomas Moore, the situation at the Santa Rita had, if anything, become worse.
When Doby's wife took her child into the hotel's lobby to get a drink of water, Moore reports, they were "intercepted there by a vigilant member of the hotel staff ... (and) instructed to leave the hotel."
In a 1992 interview published in the Arizona Daily Star, Doby said: "The town and the weather were great; some of the people were, and some weren't."
Doby also recalled that "we (black players) weren't allowed to stay with the team until 1954 or '55."
The racial discrimination practiced by most of Tucson's hotels continued well beyond that date. A report prepared in 1957 showed that 77 percent of the hotels, 67 percent of the motels and 33 percent of the city's restaurants still discriminated.
In response to the report's findings, Tucson Mayor Don Hummel issued a Thanksgiving Day plea to the community. "Let us use this next year," Hummel said, "to help eradicate these (discriminatory) practices."
After unsuccessfully trying for two years to get the Arizona Legislature to ban racial discrimination in public accommodations statewide, Hummel in 1960 pushed for a local law to accomplish the same thing. Many in the business community opposed the proposal.
"(It) is tantamount to an admission that Tucson is a segregated city," the Star quoted a business group as stating. After a public hearing on the proposed law, which drew 1,000 people, the City Council delayed action for several months.
During that time, written pledges of nondiscrimination were obtained from almost every Tucson business involved with public accommodation. As a result, the ordinance was dropped from consideration.
The effort to end racial bias in public accommodations didn't end there. In 1963, a restaurant on Benson Highway was accused of discrimination and picketed by members of the NAACP.
The following year, the city's Human Relations Commission called on the City Council to finally approve an ordinance banning discrimination in public accommodations. "The industry is no longer able to police itself, so an ordinance is necessary," the council was told.
Tucson's city attorney, Calvin Webster, took a different view. He concluded: "The governing body of the city of Tucson has no power to adopt civil rights legislation. Such power rests with the Legislature of the state of Arizona."
Ignoring that opinion, in June 1964, the council enacted a public-accommodation ordinance by a 4-2 margin.
In casting the deciding vote, Mayor Lew Davis declared: "I will vote in favor of this ordinance, because it is good for Tucson, good for this council and good for everybody."
A decade later, Doby--who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998--returned to Tucson for spring training as part of Cleveland Indians management. Moore writes, "He could see how much Arizona had changed: Hotel and dining accommodations were all fully integrated. The difference reinforced his belief that positive change could occur in his country."
Moore concludes: "It also gave him immense satisfaction to know that he had been a principal agent of that change."