July saw the passing of Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, a utility infielder for the Boston Red Sox and, briefly, the New York Mets. Green was the Red Sox’s first black ballplayer. That fact is particular noteworthy because Boston was the last major league team to integrate. The Red Sox did so in 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
Green died almost 60 years to the day that he debuted for the Red Sox.
It was never Green’s ambition to play in the major leagues. He wanted to play for his hometown team, the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League, a league so full of talent that it was sometimes called the third major league. Green’s ambition was nearly realized when the Oaks signed him. To his disappointment, however, Oakland dealt him to Boston before he could play in the PCL.
As he worked his way to the majors, Green experienced plenty of racism, and not just when he played in the south. According to Green’s SABR biography, in Scottsdale Arizona, where the Red Sox trained during the spring, he was unable to stay with the team. He had to reside at a motel 17 miles away from his teammates. Later, he stayed at a Phoenix hotel with the San Francisco Giants.
In 1959, when the Sox finished in Arizona, they swung through Texas with the Chicago Cubs for a few final exhibition games. The Cubs found integrated hotels, but the Red Sox didn’t bother to. Thus, Green stayed with the Cubs.
When the Red Sox sent him back to the minors in 1959 after he had completed an excellent spring, it was widely believed that the decision was due to his race, a claim that gained traction because Boston’s manager, Pinkie Higgins, had once said that no n****r would ever play for him.
However, Green did not support the view of sportswriters and activists that his demotion was race-based. He said he could use more seasoning (at Triple A Minneapolis) and was confident he would get a shot with the big league team.
That shot came in July 1959, but only after Higgins was replaced as Boston’s manager by Bill Jurges (pictured with Green on the home page). The Red Sox players took to the rookie infielder, Ted Williams in particular. Staring on Green’s first day with club, he became Williams’s throwing partner in pre-game warmups. Williams also gave Green batting tips.
One Red Sox player said that, with Green on the team, players (and some coaches) would have to give up calling Larry Doby (who had integrated the American League years earlier) “rotten names.” Pitcher Bill Monbouquette says he threatened one of the team’s coaches who used the “N” word in Green’s presence.
Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, who knew Green from back in Oakland, was also very supportive. Gene Mauch, who managed Green at Minneapolis, was a big Green fan. Green would later call Mauch the best manager he ever played for.
Green’s career never lived up to the expectations of Mauch, who had predicted great things for him. However, he holds a special place in Boston Red Sox history. In April 2012, the Sox gave him the honor of throwing the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park on Jackie Robinson Day.
Green led a rewarding life after baseball. He earned a degree in physical education from San Francisco State University, and went on to coach and administer baseball at the high school level in Berkeley, California for decades.
NOTE: Football fans of a certain age will remember Pumpsie’s younger brother, Cornell Green, a star defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys.
UPDATE: Ernie Broglio, who played high school ball with Green and also signed with the Oakland Oaks, died the day before his former teammate. My tribute to Broglio is here.