Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Last of the Firsts—Pumpsie Green and the Boston Red Sox

Pumpsie Green batting, running, and fielding for the Boston Rec Sox.

Sixty years ago today the Boston Red Sox did it at far from home at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 21, 1959 in a losing game against the red hot White Sox, the eventual American League Champions that year.  The BoSox, languishing below .500 and way back in the pack, sent Pumpsie Green into the game as a pinch runner.  He had no effect on the 2-1 loss to the Pale Hose.  But that brief appearance made Boston the last of the pre-expansion Major League Baseball teams to field a Black ballplayer.  That was more than 12 years after Jackie Robinson took his famous bow with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
You would have to be a very hard core baseball nerd indeed to have ever heard of Pumpsie Green.  Although by all accounts a very nice and rather shy man who returned to his California home town to become a high school coach and beloved figure, Green was barely a journeyman ball player with a short 5 year Big League career with generous time back down in the Minors who never became a regular in the lineup and was used mainly a utility infielder and pinch runner.  
Pumpsie Green 1960 baseball card.
Contrast that record with those who broke the color barrier at other teams.  Owners generally followed the Dodger’s Branch Rickey in introducing top flight players from the Negro Leagues in hopes that real star talent that could boost their teams in the pennant races would eventually win over all but the most hard core racists among their fans.  In addition to the legendary Robinson other team firsts included standouts and some future Hall of Famers like Cleveland’s Larry Dolby (1947), Hank Thompson for the St. Louis Browns (1947) and the New York Giants (1949), Monte Irvins also with the Giants on the same day as Thompson, Minnie Miñoso for the White Sox (1951), Ernie Banks with the Chicago Cubs (1953), and Elston Howard in New York Yankee pinstripes (1955).
Long time Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.
This was not an accident.  The Red Sox organization never wanted to integrate and resisted all pressure to do so for as long as possible.  Whether this was due to the personal racism of owner Tom Yawkey and the team’s long time manager and Yawkey’s drinking buddy, Texas born and raised Mike “Pinky” Higgins is the subject of much debate.  Higgins often gets more of the blame and after his death some of his former players recalled racist comments.  Baseball writer Al Hirshberg reported in his 1973 history of the team that in the ‘50’s Higgins had bluntly told him “There’ll be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.”
But even before Higgins’s ascent, Yawkey had proven reluctant to hire Blacks.  Not that he did not have the chance.  In fact the Red Sox had first crack at Robinson and other future greats.  Robinson’s first Major League try out was at Fenway Park on April 16, 1945.  As he was finishing up someone yelled from the stands “Get that Nigger off the field!”  It was a humiliating moment for Robinson who remembered it with bitterness.  Some have attributed the shout to Yawkey himself.  Others have scoffed at the idea that the elegant Yale educated owner would have said anything that crude even if he agreed with it.  But he clearly oversaw an organization where it was possible and perhaps encouraged.  The team also passed up first rights to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
Under Yawkey and Higgins the Red Sox did develop a number of Black prospects in their minor leagues system, but consistently traded them away for less promising white player or released them outright before they could hit the majors.  The team pointedly kept its spring training home in Tempe, Arizona which had no hotels that would accommodate Blacks who would have to stay in Phoenix 15 miles away while they were being evaluated for the big team.
Was Manager Mike Higgins really behind Boston's long hold out against Black players?
Management apologists—and they are legion in Boston—claim that it was not the animus of Yawkey and Higgins, but the Red Sox fan base that was to blame.  
Boston always had a reputation as a liberal city in regard to race.  Famously it was a hot bed of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law and a cradle of Abolitionism.  Rev. Theodore Parker and a cabal of wealthy abolitionists had secretly bankrolled John Brown.  Senator Charles Sumner was a lion of abolitionism and a Radical Republican bane to Abraham Lincoln and his hopes of re-integrating the South back into the Union.   In the post-war Reconstruction Era most of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation firmly supported Black citizenship and voting rights in the south and the generous 40 acres and a mule policy of the Freedman’s Bureau.  Years in the future, in 1967 the state would elect Edward Brooke the first Black in the Senate since Reconstruction.
But often forgotten were the anti-abolitionist riots that the righteous minority in the city had to face.  Also forgotten is the strength and appeal of the anti-immigrant and anti-Black Know Nothings in the 1850’s.  The liberal, Republican and largely Unitarian elite began to leave the city for the leafy suburbs in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries leaving the city itself a Democratic power house and populated largely by Irish, Italian, and other immigrants and their dependents.  It had, compared to other Northern cities, a small Black population which was bitterly resentenced in the teaming white working class neighborhoods.  Just how deep the animus ran would be shown years later when Southie and other white working class neighborhoods erupted into years of sometimes violent opposition to bussing to desegregate the school system.
Liberal whites in the suburbs might have watched the Red Sox on TV, but the seats at old Fenway were filled by those working class whites who, we are told, would stage a revolt if they saw Black players on the field.  Perhaps.  But other cities had similar resistance and managed to integrate after overcoming initial resistance.
The boost that talented Black players provided to teams was one big reason.  Boston suffered from its long holdout.  Under Higgins’s managership after early marginal successes the team went from a perennial powerhouse and pennant contender to a consistent bottom dweller in the standings.  Sports writers were beginning to blame that on Higgins’s stodgy management style and on his refusal to bring on talented Black players.
Perhaps that is why with the team languishing again in the cellar, and days after the usually fawning Boston newspapers began singing the song about missing great Black players that Yawkey finally canned Higgins as manager and replaced him with Billy Jurges.  But he kept his good drinking buddy close to him in senior management as a special advisor.  The move allowed Higgins to never be personally responsible for introducing a Black player on the team.  
Later that summer pitcher Earl Wilson was also called up.  Neither player set the league afire—perhaps an “I told you so” moment for Higgins.  The Red Sox finished the season a dismal 100 games under .500 and staring up at the White Sox and the hated Yankee dynasty that would go on to dominate Baseball through much of the ‘60’s.
Fenway Park circa 1960 on a post card.  The ball wasn't the only thing white....
Early the next season Higgins talked himself back into the dugout where he managed his Black players without ever personally insulting them but lavishing them with scant affection.  After retiring as a manager in 1962 with a career record only two games over .500, Higgins was promoted to officially become General Manager.  As Yawkey’s confidant he had effectively been acting in that capacity without portfolio for years.
The Red Sox went on to field Black Players, including some stars.  But they always tended to have fewer on the field than most teams.  And they generally preferred dark skinned Latinos to African Americans.  Sometimes it seemed that they were back sliding.  As late as 2009 they began the season with not a single Black player in the season starting lineup.  
Meanwhile demographics in Boston have changed.  Over the last 30 years Yuppies and their descendents Hipsters have returned to the city and recolonized neighborhood after neighborhood squeezing the old ethnic enclaves and Black neighborhoods alike.  Many Blacks have been pushed into surrounding towns and suburbs.  The Yuppies and hipsters became noisy and loyal members of the Red Sox Nation.  Indeed when I was last in Boston in 2007 it seemed like by law no male in his 20’s or early 30’s could be seen on the street without a Red Sox cap beat up just enough to indicate that it sat on the head of a non-tourist.  They buy out the increasingly expensive seats in Fenway Park displacing the working class fans that kept the team afloat in its leaner years.
The Yuppies and Hipsters tend to be more tolerant, or polite, about race than the denizens of Southie.  Yet attendance at Fenway remains overwhelmingly white, rivaling the bleached look of fans in Atlanta and Houston where Astros management once hired Black vendors to sit in vacant seats in the boxes behind home plate to give the illusion inclusiveness on national TV during a playoff series.
As for Pumpsie himself, he was uncomfortable even talking about his experiences.
Elijah Green was born on October 27, 1931 in Boley, Oklahoma.  He got his unusual nickname from his mother.  His family relocated to Richmond, California largely to give their athletic sons the best possible opportunity. Two brothers were drafted into the National Football League and Cornell Green was a long-time safety on the Green Bay Packers.  Pumpsie also showed promise as a three letter man at El Cerrito High School.
Green considered basketball to be his best sport, but baseball seemed like the best ticket to a professional career. He attended the two year Conta Costa College to which his high school coach had moved.  In his second year there he tried out for and was signed into the system of the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. 
In 1954, Green batted .297 in his second season with Oaks affiliate the Wenatchee Chiefs, and was promoted the next year to Stockton Ports. Green’s contract was purchased by the Red Sox organization during the 1955 season but he was allowed to finish out the season in Stockton.  He worked his way up the Reds organization as a short stop and second baseman over the next three years.  All the while he saw more talented Black prospects traded away from the organization.  
After spending the 1958 campaign with the Minneapolis Millers, Green was called up to Red Sox spring training the next year.  As one of the few remaining Black prospects in the system, he drew a lot of attention and some largely unmerited press hype.  But he was sent back to Minnesota where for the first half of the season he played some of the best ball of his career, hitting .320 in 98 games.

Green was especially grateful for the support and friendship of slugger Ted Williams, the team's acknowledged leader.  That helped the whole team embrace him even in the face of manager Mike Higgins' hostility and fan dissatisfaction.
He never got enough playing time with the Red Sox to get into much of a groove with his bat or glove, although he was valued for his speed on the base paths.  He only played 50 games for the rest of the season and hit an anemic .233.  All of his starts were at second base, not his natural position as a short stop.
In 1960 he settled into a role as a utility man giving regular starters a rest or, because he was a switch hitter for use against left-handed pitchers.  He appeared in 133 games, some of them as a pinch runner and divided his time between second and short.  
Green was off to a relatively hot start in 1961 and looked for a while like he might break into the status of a regular starter.  But in May he was hospitalized with appendicitis and put on the disabled list for a month.  He was still in physically weakened condition when he came back to the club.  Still he put up his best numbers in the Majors--six home runs, 27 RBIs, 12 doubles, and four stolen bases
Despite the promise the 1962 season was a humiliation.  Famously after a weekend sweep  by  the hated Yankees in New York City Green and his buddy pitcher Gene Conley jumped off a team bus that was stuck in Bronx traffic and disappeared. The pair was found two days later at Idlewild International Airport trying to board a plane for Israel, with no passports or luggage.  The famously bizarre episode became the butt of comedian’s jokes but was never explained.
The next year Green was traded to the New York Mets for the 1962 season.  The Mets kept him on their Buffalo Bison affiliate roster most of the year.  He made only 17 spot appearances with the big league club and swung a bat for the last time as a major leaguer on September 26, 1962.
Before returning permanently to the Minors for the final two years of his career, Green racked up a .246 batting average with 13 home runs and 74 Runs Batted In (RBI) in 344 games. 
After retiring from organized Baseball Green became the baseball coach and a summer school math teacher, and councilor at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California.  He settled back in El Cerrito with his longtime wife, Marie.  He was a respected, even beloved, citizen of his adopted hometown which honored him in 2012 with a proclamation for his “Distinguished status in the history of Baseball.”
Throwing out the first pitch at Fenway 50 years later.
The Red Sox organization was getting some flak for never recognizing his contribution in integrating the team.  Back in 1959 the often loquacious Yawkey had not one word to say in the press about the event and management had done damn little to highlight it ever since.  Finally on April 17, 2009 at the beginning of the season 50 years after of his debut, Green was invited to throw out a first ball. He was invited back to do the same before Jackie Robinson Day in 2012 and was among the old timers in attendance for Fenway’s 100th anniversary celebrations later that month.
But there has never been a Pumpsie Green Day.  And don’t hold your breath for the Bobble Head promotion.
Just five days ago on July 17 Green died at the age of 85 in California earning brief obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post and a longer notice in the Boston Globe.

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