So while J-Mal has spent some of his summer illuminating the color barrier that still exists in Black baseball both on the field and in the stands, I want to take the time to introduce you to a name I hope you never forget in the context of this same conversation:
Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green.
See, each April, Major League Baseball goes out of its way to celebrate the legacy of Jackie Robinson. With his famous No. 42 being the only universally retired number in professional sports, each Jackie Robinson Day has every player on every team (managers included) wear a nameless 42 jersey in solidarity of recognition for what Robinson meant to the game of baseball. After all, he became the talisman: the Black star that shone brightest, and paved the way for Black America’s foray into the top flight of America’s pastime.
Well, that’s the G-rated and slightly cleaner version of the story, anyway. A bit of “revisionist history,” as it were.
In fact, this Jackie Robinson Day seemed to mark one of the rare seasons where the story of Robinson, his manager Branch Rickey, and the Brooklyn Dodgers finally had a few holes poked in it. But as we’ve seen, that’s true of many legacies steeped in difficult subject matter (see, also: King, Martin Luther, Jr.; X, Malcolm; Ali, Muhammad f/k/a Clay, Cassius). It’s much easier to act as if the courage of men such as these was never tested than it is to point to the fact that, in matters of race and on topics of immense sensitivity, the details – and the resultant human cost to each of these men – may not be fit for a children’s book.
But I digress.
I’m here, instead, to bring to light some realities about the integration of the Major Leagues. While Robinson officially broke the infamous color barrier in 1947, other teams were not so eager or in such positions as to follow suit. There was no Negro League Supplemental Draft. Black baseball continued to exist in barnstorming obscurity amidst Jackie’s Road to the Show. While the Cleveland Indians – whose story of integration is surprisingly pleasant – immediately followed suit with the debut of Larry Doby three months after Robinson, opposition was clear across the board. Sadly, my own Detroit Tigers are not exempt from this sordid mess. The penultimate team to integrate, had Ozzy Virgil, Sr. not gone 5-for-5 on June 6, 1958 for the Detroit Tigers, this article might be about him.
There just had to be those pesky Red Sox.
I’ve already made known some of my feelings about how Boston fans seem to treat professional athletes of color. Anecdotal evidence would often suggest that Boston doesn’t have the greatest reputation of being a beacon of racial harmony, and I’d imagine Fenway in the ’50s had a similar feel. It’s against this backdrop that the Red Sox found themselves on the precipice of the dubious side of history. Owner Thomas Yawkey – a “colorful” character with a very checkered racial past – was already infamous for the lip-service tryout the Red Sox gave Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams in 1945; an incident that is footnoted by the shocking quote-turned-book-title “Get That Nigger Off The Field!“.
But the feel around Green in the mid-50s was different. While Yawkey might not have been ready to accept integration, Boston seemed to be. In fact, the Boston Braves (prior to their move to Atlanta via Milwaukee) were in fact the fifth team to integrate in 1950. Their barrier-breaker? The same Sam “The Jet” Jethroe that Thomas Yawkey wanted off his field 5 years earlier. It would take the Red Sox another 50+ years to shed the legacy of Yawkey’s intolerance, but thankfully it wouldn’t be as long for them to remain the lone all-white team in professional baseball.
Cut to our hero.
All Pumpsie Green wanted to do was play baseball. Didn’t matter where or for whom. He was 13 when Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, but his ultimate goal was to make it no higher than his hometown Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League. His dream began to come true when he was signed by the Oaks out of high school in 1953, but there was much more to achieve. After stops at Single-A Wenatchee (WA) and Class-C Stockton (CA), Green’s rights were purchased by the Red Sox midseason. Managing to keep from reporting to the Red Sox affiliate in Montgomery, AL – not the most friendly of confines for a Black ballplayer – Green finished the 1955 season as the California League’s Most Valuable Player and an All-Star.
Pumpsie began the 1956 season in minor league camp with Boston, but would report to their Single-A team in Albany and finish his season there. In 1957, after getting the chance to play 3 exhibition games against the Red Sox in spring training, Green moved on to the Double-A Oklahoma City Indians and finally to the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers. Though he was promoted to the Red Sox’ 40-man roster for 1957 September call-ups, he would not yet make his debut.
And all of this is just the on-field machinations. Behind the scenes, Green was the center of the natural stir that comes with change combatting reluctance. By all accounts, Green was ready to play in the Majors by the end of the 1957 season, but as the Sox broke camp in 1958 Green was sent back to Minneapolis. With grace, members of the Boston media followed Green’s ups and downs, and his off-field acceptance as well. It was noted that Green often had to stay apart from the Red Sox, even staying with other teams in their integrated hotels, because the team refused to use integrated accommodations. Said Milton Gross of the Boston Globe:
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] 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.’
The day after Green was sent back to Triple-A to start the 1958 season, Globe writer Harold Kaese offered his own indictment:
The Red Sox won no prizes this spring for the way they treated Pumpsie Green. From a strict baseball point of view they may have been doing the wise thing when they optioned their first Negro player to the Minneapolis farm club yesterday. From every other point of view, they undoubtedly have pulled a colossal boner.
Green’s refrain remained the same: he just wanted to play baseball, and he was certain the Sox would give him another chance. 98 games into his season with Milwaukee, Green was an All-Star yet again, hitting .320 with 7 home runs. He was re-called by Boston, and on July 21, 1959 Pumpsie made his big league debut as a pinch runner and defensive substitution against the Chicago White Sox. He’d make his home debut August 4 to a standing ovation. Pumpsie had arrived, and Major League Baseball began its official foray into integration.
Green’s story sounds like what you’d expect, if you take away its historical context. A hard-working, scrappy player who loved the game worked his way up through the ranks and ended up a Major Leaguer and all-star, all while simply touting his desire to play ball. He never aspired to be a trailblazer or a martyr; rather, he played the game the way it was meant to be played and waited for the right team to take a chance on him. His humility followed him through his playing days and beyond, and rarely allowed him to recognize his place in history. In words that echo some of today’s trailblazers, Green has said later in life:
There’s really nothing that interesting about me. I am just an everyday person happy with what I did…I take a lot of pride in having played for the Red Sox. I would like to be remembered in Red Sox history as just another ballplayer.
And right now, I won’t let him be remembered that way. In a time where Black and Brown skin is hunted for sport, it takes a lot of courage to stand in the middle of a ballpark and do your job while remaining helpless against and seemingly oblivious to the full stadium surrounding you.
As a sad aside, you didn’t know if I was talking about the 1950s or the 2010s, did you?
In an era where we continue to challenge the representation of African Americans in professional sports – and particularly the lack of Black stars in baseball and its declining popularity in the Black community – we have to remember that not yet 60 years ago, it was very much the reality that not every team accepted having a Black player on their roster. Black players were still traveling alone, and mercilessly heckled and harassed; their salaries were paltry, but slowly beginning to catch their peers. Being the first, even the last “first”, did not come easy.
With dignity, grace, and a simple love for the game, Pumpsie Green played baseball at the highest level and was good at it. So good that he won over the writers of Boston to champion his cause: to make the Boston Red Sox, in spite of his skin color, because of his tireless work from A-ball to the AAA All-Star Game.
So let’s take a minute to recognize Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green, and what he accomplished July 21, 1959.
And for the love of all things, let us not gaze upon him just as the “Jackie Robinson of Boston.” He is a pioneer in his own right, and was the right man at the right time to do exactly what he did.
And, thankfully, Boston still seems to love him for it.
** Huge h/t to the Society for American Baseball Research and their amazing resources!