Pumpsie Green: The Last of the Firsts

by on July 18, 2019

Elijah ‘‘Pumpsie’’ Green was first black player on the last major league team to put a black man on its roster.  Some baseball aficionados have called him “the last of the firsts.” He died on Wednesday at age 85.

Everybody knows about Jackie Robinson, the UCLA super-star in four sports who broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  But few Americans know that it took another 12 years before every major league team had a black player in uniform. That was Green’s place in history when  the Boston Red Sox inserted him as a pinch runner in a game against the Chicago White Sox on July 21, 1959.

Between 1959 and 1963, Green played parts of four seasons with the Red Sox and one with the New York Mets. He batted .246 with 13 homers and 74 RBIs. He was a switch hitter who threw right-handed and was a versatile utility player, able to play second base, shortstop, and third base.

For some, the name Pumpsie Green is the answer to a baseball trivia question. But, in fact, Green was an outstanding athlete whose opportunity to excel on the baseball diamond was hampered by the slow pace of racial integration in our national pastime and the racism he encountered in both the minor and major leagues during the 1950s and 1960s.

“Growing up in Richmond, California, we had our share of homegrown professional baseball players, like Willie McGee, Mike Felder, and Shooty Babbitt,” said James Farr, a filmmaker who now lives in Pasadena. “Then, there was Pumpsie Green. He was our own Jackie Robinson.”

Green was born in Oklahoma on October 27, 1933. He family moved to the Bay Area during World War 2.  His father, who had been a farmer in Oklahoma, found work at the Oakland Army Base and his mother worked as a welder on the Oakland docks. When the war ended, his father found a job as a garbage man for the city of Richmond and his mother became a nurse in a convalescent home.

Pumpsie was the eldest of five boys who inherited their father’s athletic ability. Pumpsie’s brother Cornell became an outstanding cornerback-safety for the NFL Dallas Cowboys from 1962 to 1974, while brother  Credell, a running back, was an 18th-round draft pick by Green Bay Packers in 1957, but never reached the NFL.

At El Cerrito High School, Green was a standout in basketball, but he preferred baseball, playing first base and catcher. He was offered a baseball scholarship to Fresno State, but his high school baseball coach convinced Green to follow him to Contra Costa Junior College, where he played shortstop for two years.

When Green was growing up, major league baseball had 16 teams, and none on the West Coast.  Most kids who grew up in California at that time cheered for their favorite teams in the Pacific Coast League – a triple-AAA minor league.  Green’s favorite team was the Oakland Oaks, which put its first black player on the field, Artie Wilson, in 1949.  Green modeled himself on Wilson — a left-handed-hitting shortstop who led the league  in hitting and stolen bases that year.  In 1953, at age 19, Green signed a contract with the Oaks, who sent him to play at its Single-A affiliate in Wenatchee, Washington.

For the next six years, Green bounced around the minor leagues. He spent his next two years playing for a team in Stockton, California. In 1955, he was named the California League’s Most Valuable Player. That year, the Red Sox purchased his contract and over the next five years sent him to play for their minor league affiliates in Albany (New York), Oklahoma City, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

The Oklahoma City team was in the Texas League, which also had a team in Shreveport,  Louisiana.

“When the team went to Shreveport,”  Green once recalled,  “I didn’t go, because they didn’t allow blacks to play in Louisiana. So I had a three- or four-day vacation.”  In other Southern towns, he couldn’t join his white teammates at restaurants or local movie theaters. In Southern ballparks, black fans had to sit in segregated sections. Throughout his days in the minor leagues, Green, like other black players, were treated like second-class citizens. In a lot of little towns, that didn’t have black hotels, the black players had to stay in private homes.

Major League Baseball integrated at a snail’s pace after Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Dodgers.  Four years later, when Green was in high school,  only six of major league baseball’s 16 teams had a black player. By 1954, in Green’s second year in pro baseball, only six additional teams put a black player on their roster. The next three teams to integrate were the New York Yankees (1955),  Philadelphia Phillies (1957), and Detroit Tigers (1958). The Boston Red Sox were the final holdout.

It is ironic that the Red Sox were the last team to enlist a black player because at one point it could have been the first to do so.

Starting in the 1930s, reporters for African-American papers (especially Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People’s Voice in New York, and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American), and Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Communist paper, the Daily Worker, took the lead in pushing baseball’s establishment to hire black players. They published open letters to owners and polled white managers and players, some of whom were threatened by the prospect of losing their jobs to blacks, but most of whom said that they had no objections to playing with African Americans), brought black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring training centers, and kept the issue before the public. Several white journalists for mainstream papers joined the chorus for baseball integration.

Progressive unions and civil rights groups picketed outside Yankee Stadium the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field in New York City, and Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. They gathered more than a million signatures on petitions, demanding that baseball tear down the color barrier erected by team owners and Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. In July 1940, the Trade Union Athletic Association held an “End Jim Crow in Baseball” demonstration at the New York World’s Fair. The next year, liberal unions sent a delegation to meet with Landis to demand that major league baseball recruit black players. In December 1943, Paul Robeson, the prominent black actor, singer, and activist, addressed baseball’s owners at their annual winter meeting in New York, urging them to integrate their teams. Under orders from Landis, they ignored Robeson and didn’t ask him a single question.

In 1945, Isadore Muchnick, a progressive member of the Boston City Council, threatened to deny the Red Sox a permit to play on Sundays unless the team considered hiring black players. Working with several black sportswriters, Muchnick persuaded the reluctant Red Sox general manager, Eddie Collins, to give three Negro League players—Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams—a tryout at Fenway Park in April of that year. They did, but it soon was clear that the Red Sox had no intention of signing any of the players, nor did the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago White Sox, who orchestrated similar bogus auditions. But the public pressure and media publicity helped raise awareness and furthered the cause. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers, took the first step, signing Robinson in October 1945, assigning him to the minor league team in Montreal, and bringing him up to the Dodgers in April 1947.

Eleven years later, the Red Sox still didn’t have a black player.  Green was the most likely candidate to integrate the team, but the Red Sox’s top honchos resisted the move.  Boston was known as a racist and segregated city and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was known as a foe of integration.

In 1958, he had a good year with the Minneapolis Millers, who played in the tough American Association league.  On June 16, during an exhibition game against the Red Sox, Green went 3-for-5 for the Millers, including a single, a double, and a bases-clearing triple. He batted 5-for-12 in the American Association playoffs, scoring four runs and batting in another three runs. He played in the winter league in Panama, leading the team in hitting, including a 19-game hitting streak.

The Red Sox agreed to give Green a try and brought him to their spring training camp in Scottsdale, Arizona in early 1959.  But as the only black player on the team, he had to endure the harsh reality of racial segregation. He was not allowed to stay at the Safari, the Red Sox’s hotel, which prohibited black guests. Instead, he had to travel 17 miles to stay at the Frontier Hotel in Phoenix. 

Boston Globe sports writer Milton Gross described Green’s situation.

“From night to morning, the first Negro player to be brought to spring training by the Boston Red Sox ceases to be a member of the team he hopes to make as a shortstop.” Segregation, Gross wrote, “comes in a man’s heart, residing there like a burrowing worm. It comes when a man wakes alone, eats alone, goes to the movies every night alone because there’s nothing more for him to do and then, in Pumpsie Green’s own words, ‘I get a sandwich and a glass of milk and a book and I read myself to sleep.’”

Despite those conditions, Green had an outstanding spring training. He had the fifth highest average on the team, batting .327 (18-for-55) with four home runs and 10 runs-batted-in.  A poll of 11 Boston sportswriters named him the top rookie in spring training. So The Sporting News, the baseball Bible.

However, Red Sox manager Mike Higgins, who was from Texas, was not ready to put a black player on his squad. Columnist Al Hirschberg wrote that at some point in the 1950s, Higgins told him, “There’ll be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.” Another Boston sportswriter, Larry Claflin, recalled that Higgins had once called him a “nigger lover” (then spat tobacco juice on him) when he asked the manager about Green’s prospects with the team.

By 1959, Higgins had learned to stifle his bigotry in public, even telling another sportswriter that Green was “a fine young ballplayer. He can help us.”

After spring training ended, the Red Sox played four exhibition games against the Chicago Cubs in Texas.  Green had to travel separately because in 1959 Jim Crow laws still ruled on buses and trains in the South.  The Cubs, which had integrated in 1953 when they hired Ernie Banks, selected hotels that would allow black guest, but the Red Sox didn’t bother to follow that example.  So Green stayed in the Cubs’ hotel, rooming with a member of the opposing team.

So it wasn’t surprising that after the last exhibition game in Texas on April 7, the Red Sox sent Green back to Minneapolis.  The decision made the front page in the Boston Globe. Manager Higgins said that Green wasn’t ready to play in the majors. When reporters asked team owner Tom Yawkey about Green’s fate, he replied: “The Red Sox will bring up a Negro when he meets our standards.”

The Boston chapter of the NAACP asked the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination (MCAD) to look into the team’s overall hiring practices. That June, Red Sox general manager Bucky Harris told the MCAD that a team executive would make sure that the following year, the team would stay in integrated housing during spring training in Arizona and that the Sox would “continue to scout Negro players as in the past,” would make their scouting reports on players available to the MCAD, and would not discriminate in hiring for various jobs at Fenway Park, including the clean-up crews and food vendors.  Liberal fans picketed outside Fenway Park with signs that said, “We Want a Pennant, Not a White Team.”

All this put Green in an awkward position.  This was 1959, four years after the Montgomery bus boycott but a year before the first sit-ins, then Freedom Rides, then voter registration campaign.  It wasn’t until 1964 that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and another year until it passed the Voting Rights Act.  Jackie Robinson (who retired in 1956) had been an outspoken civil rights activist during and after his playing days, but most Black players  were much more cautious about discussing racial issues among their white teammates, much less in public.  They knew that there were few spots on the major league teams.  The Negro Leagues had collapsed and major league teams were not inclined to advance a black player who seemed to be a “troublemaker.”  In public, at least, Green tried to avoid any controversy.

After returning to play in Minneapolis, he told the local newspaper, “I want to be judged like any other ballplayer. I don’t want to be a crusader. I just want to play ball.”

But in an interview 1997, Green had a different perspective on the Red Sox’s refusal to bring him up to the majors after his outstanding spring training.  “I was just hitting the heck out of the ball.  I led the team in every category you can think of, even home runs, and I was having a great time. Yeah, the job was mine. Then I was sent out.”

In his first 98 games with the Minneapolis Millers in the 1959 season, Green batted .320 with seven homers, guaranteeing him a spot on the league’s All-Star team. Fortuitously, on July 4 the Red Sox replace manager Higgins – who was battling alcoholism – with Billy Jurges.

Two weeks later, the Red Sox brought Green up to “the show” while they were playing the White Sox. In Chicago.  On July 21, he came in as a pinch-runner and remained in the game at shortstop, turning Green into a reluctant pioneer.

The next day, the Boston Globe ran four stories about Green, and only one about the game.  But many of the comments about this milestone were self-congratulatory and patronizing toward Green.   “I’m happy over Green’s elevation,” said American League president Joe Cronin, who had been the Red Sox general manager seven months earlier. “I hope his play has improved sufficiently so that he can stay up here for a long time. His advance has been part of a long-range program in the Red Sox organization. Through it all, Pumpsie has conducted himself as a very fine young man.”

Green’s Red Sox teammates welcomed him and, according to media reports, treated him equally, inviting him to join in conversations and card games.

Green got his first major league hit on July 28 in Cleveland – a single (batting left-handed) off Indians pitcher Jim Perry. That same day, the Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson made his major league debut, making him the team’s other black player (and, not surprisingly, Green’s hotel roommate when they played away games).

When the Red Sox returned to Boston, both Green and Wilson were big news. He was greeted at Logan Airport by TV cameras and photographers. Bill Russell, the star of the NBA champion Boston Celtics who had known Green since high school, welcomed him when he arrived. When he got to the Red Sox clubhouse in Fenway Park, he received a call of support from Jackie Robinson.

He was the Red Sox lead-off hitter in the bottom of the first inning. As Green recalled:

“I got my helmet and started walking up to home plate, and I got a standing ovation,” he recalled in a 1997 Globe interview. “It made me nervous as heck. The one thing I didn’t want to do was strike out and walk all the way back to the dugout.”

Green responded by hitting a triple off the left-field wall. He called it “the greatest feeling I ever had in baseball.”

Green later scored on Pete Runnels’ grounder to first. In the seventh inning, he sacrificed to advance two runners, who then scored on Runnels’ single. The Sox won the first game, 4-1. They lost the second game, 8-6, but Green reached base four times – a single, two walks, and on an error.

As the 1959 season progressed, Green felt good about being on the team.

“There were a bunch of good guys on the Red Sox,” he recalled. “Ted Williams – he would talk to you and give you advice on any matter, even things not about baseball. The whole team was one unit when we walked out on the field. They were supportive of me whenever we played a game.”

Williams, the team’s biggest star and perhaps the greatest hitter in baseball history, made a point of throwing warm up tosses with Green before games.  (Years later, during his Hall of Fame induction speech, Williams called on the Hall of Fame to elect the great Negro League players into the shrine, which it eventually did).

But Green couldn’t have been unaware that the feeling wasn’t unanimous.

Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan remembered that “There were a lot of teammates that had to give up calling Larry Doby [the first black player in the American League who was in his final year, playing for the rival Tigers and White Sox] rotten names. That also included some coaches.”

In a 2009 interview with Bill Nowlin, former Red Sox pitcher Bill Monbouquette recalled his confrontation with coach Del Baker, who used the word “nigger.”  Monbouquette told Baker, “‘I don’t want to hear that,’ and then (Baker) started to give me a bunch of crap, and I said, ‘I’m going to tell you something. I’ll knock you right on your ass. I don’t care if you’re the coach or not.’ I said, ‘You don’t do things like that!’” Later Green said that he felt pressure during every game in the Red Sox uniform.  Being the team’s first black player, in a segregated city with a troubled history of racism, added extra burdens that white players didn’t have to bear.

Over the next four years, the Red Sox used Green primarily as a utility player and pinch runner.  He had some outstanding games and some excellent hitting streak, but for most of that period, he was not an everyday player.  In 1960 he got into 133 games, his most active season off the bench.   During spring training in 1961 he led the team in hitting with an incredible .478 average, earning his the starting role as shortstop when the regular season began, but he quickly slumped at the plate and only played in 88 games that year.

At the end of the 1962 season the Red Sox traded him to the New York Mets, who had just played their first year as an expansion club, comprised mostly of cast-offs from other teams, finishing last (10th) in the National League. Even so, he failed to make the team and was sent to play in their Buffalo farm team, where he hit. 308.  The Mets called him up at the end of season. He hit .278 in 54 at bats. The following year the Mets gave him a shot at making the team, but a hip injury undermined his hitting and fielding and he was shipped back to Buffalo. In 1965, his final year in pro baseball, he played for the Syracuse Chiefs, a Detroit Tigers affiliate.

Green played professional baseball for 13 years, five of them in the majors.  Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many major league ballplayers, white and black, had a difficult time adjusting to life after their playing days were over. The Major League Baseball Players Association didn’t gain momentum until the late 1960s, so most players ended their careers with low salaries, little savings, and few skills outside of baseball. (The starting major league salary in 1967, two years after Green left baseball, was $6,000  — $46,013 in today’s dollars). During and after their playing days, black ballplayers made less outside money from commercial endorsements than their white counterparts and were less likely to be offered positions as minor league coaches or managers.

Green, however, was among the few players (and even fewer black players) in his day who had attended college.  When he retired from baseball, he already had two years of college under his belt and then completed his degree in physical education at San Francisco State University. This opened doors for him to become a baseball coach, math teacher, and truant officer at Berkeley (California) High School for over 20 years.

He and his wife Marie, who were married for 62 years,  lived modestly in El Cerrito, not far from Richmond, where he grew up. They were married for 62 years and had two children — Jerry, a mechanical engineer,  and Heidi Keisha, a schoolteacher and principal — two grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

On April 17, 2009, Green threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Red Sox game in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his major league debut.  The City of El Cerrito honored him in February 2012 with a proclamation honoring his “distinguished stature in baseball history.”  In May 2018, Green was inducted to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame.

In an interview with Danny Peary for his 1994 book, We Played the Game,  Green recalled:

“When I was playing, being the first black on the Red Sox wasn’t nearly as big a source of pride as it would be once I was out of the game. At the time I never put much stock in it, or thought about it. Later I understood my place in history. I don’t know if I would have been better in another organization with more black players. But as it turned out, I became increasingly proud to have been with the Red Sox as their first black player.”

 

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.  He and coauthor Rob Elias are currently writing Rebels of the Diamond: The Baseball Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game On and Off the Field, which will be published next year. He drew on the following sources in writing this piece:

https://www.wbur.org/news/2012/04/18/fenway-segregation;

https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/f9472d8a; https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/dce16a07

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/greenpu01.shtml#all_transactions_other

https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/obituaries/2019/07/17/pumpsie-green-black-player-red-sox-dies/s7L4dEAIq14aThFN7mnu0N/story.html

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