When A Dance With A White Woman Divided An NFL TeamS

Occasionally, we'll select stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that we urge you to read for one reason or another. Today: the St. Louis Cardinals of the mid-1960s and their "racial problem."

"The Anguish Of A Team Divided," by Jack Olsen (Sports Illustrated, July 29, 1968)
The below is excerpted from the final installment of Jack Olsen's remarkable five-part series for Sports Illustrated, "The Black Athlete—a Shameful Story." (Click for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) All five parts are worth a read, even if we do live in enlightened 21st century America, where Nothing Is Ever About Race and where ESPN judges its MLK Day talking heads not by the color of their skin or whether they know dick about Dr. King, but by the content of their Q rating.

Some of the lily-white members of the Sideliners [the St. Louis Cardinals' wives club] almost swooned dead away last season when they looked up from their drinks to see the extremely black Bobby Williams doing the boogaloo with the extremely white Kit Gambrell, the lissome wife of Split End Billy Gambrell. The Gambrells are Southerners—Billy is from Georgia and his wife from South Carolina—but they treat people as individuals, and on at least one occasion Billy has been close to a fistfight over the subject of race on the Cardinals. His wife tells the story of the dance:

"It was at the Falstaff Inn, where the team goes to relax, and Bobby went out on the floor in front of 300 people and said, 'Come on, Kit, let's dance,' and I certainly wasn't about to embarrass him. I felt that if my husband didn't object—which he certainly didn't—and Bobby Williams had always treated me like a lady, well, I certainly wouldn't embarrass him. And you know how the boogaloo and the stomp and these modern dances are: you don't even touch your partner. But I was shocked when I saw what was happening when we started to dance. You could see the huddles gathering and people whispering together. They were getting upset. It hurt me so much for people to act so small."

Willis Crenshaw remembers the scene; indeed, it was one of the dramatic high points of the Cardinals' lackluster season. "There was no roll of drums or anything like that," Crenshaw says, "and nobody hollered, 'Stop the music!' but everybody knew what was going on. The tension filled the place like a low cloud."

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Bobby Williams did nothing to ease matters when he thanked Mrs. Gambrell for the dance and strolled to the side of one of the most prejudiced wives of one of the most prejudiced players to ask her for the next dance. "She said she was just too tired," Williams says, chuckling at his own audacity, "but she was really scared. My wife was there; she got a big kick out of it."

Other incidents involving race and sex have not been so funny to the black Cardinals. One white woman who was seen sitting in a nightclub with a Negro player was called "nigger lover" to her face by a white player. Not many years ago a white member of the Cardinal staff told a white maid at training camp that she should stop seeing one of the Negro players. He told her she would be better off to date somebody like—well, er-himself. The maid compromised; she dated both men, and for the rest of the season she kept the black player informed about the white man's racial outbursts. "That was a great help for team solidarity," says Johnny Roland. "It was like Peyton Place."

A white player bristles at the nerve of Negroes who tell such tales out of school about the master race. "They say things like that about whites and then they want our respect!" he says. "Well, they won't have our respect as long as they keep getting caught with white women. To me, that's the worst offense there is: dating white girls. They'll take a white girl out, and then they'll stand up in a team meeting and say, 'We demand your respect.' And our Southern guys just hate 'em for it!"