Pumpsie

Pumpsie Green passed away on Wednesday. He was 85. I wrote his story a few months ago.


Elijah "Pumpsie" Green was the first African American player to appear in a game for the Boston Red Sox. He did that on July 21, 1959. You probably know that; it's Baseball Trivia 101. It's likely, too, that you know that the Red Sox were the last team in baseball to integrate.

And you might know -- if you read this blog with any regularity -- that I rarely miss an opportunity to point out that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey is the single worst member in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I am not for throwing people out of the Hall of Fame. But if told I got one of those giant hooks they used on Vaudeville to yank people off the stage, and I had to use it to remove one person … yeah, Yawkey would be out tomorrow. The people of Boston have already done something like this when at Fenway Park they changed “Yawkey Street” back to its original “Jersey Street.”

My only wish is that they had called it "Pumpsie Green Street.”

Let's go back 60 years ... to spring training of 1959.

* * *

Pumpsie Green was not the first African American signed by the Boston Red Sox. No, the first black player they signed was Piper Davis. There's a lot to say about Davis -- fantastic hitter, played for the Harlem Globetrotters, as a Negro leagues manager, he basically raised a young Willie Mays -- but we’ll save all that for his article.

The main point to make about Piper Davis is that the Red Sox signed him in 1950, back in the very early days of integration. Davis was 32 years old. And here’s what happened next: He was sent to Scranton for 15 games, hit .333 and slugged .540. He was promptly released so that the Red Sox didn't have to pay him his full bonus.

That’s not supposition. No, the Red Sox said that’s EXACTLY why they released Davis. They didn’t want to pay him his full bonus. They should give you an idea about the kind of operation Tom Yawkey ran.

In 1953, the Red Sox signed Pumpsie Green at age 19. He was given no bonus. Shortly after that, the Sox signed a promising African American pitcher, the gifted Earl Wilson. In Wilson's scouting report, the scout wrote: "Not too black."*

Green and Wilson would have a friendly race to become the first black baseball player in Boston. Wilson was the better prospect and might have been the first, except that he went into the Marines in 1957. That left the stage for Pumpsie.

Trouble was, Pumpsie Green struggled at the plate. He was a fine defensive player at multiple positions, and he had a bit more power than was typical for a middle infielder in his day. But he couldn't quite get enough hits to capture the Red Sox unsteady attention. Yawkey didn’t want a black player anyway. So it was easy to write off Pumpsie Green after he hit .253 in Minneapolis in 1958.

But then came spring training of 1959. And Pumpsie Green could do no wrong. The writers, the management, even other teams couldn't take their eyes off him. "He never looks overmatched," one writer gushed. Cleveland's manager Joe Gordon, a future Hall of Famer, was thoroughly impressed. "He'll do a major league job for you at any position," he said.

That year, 1959, the Red Sox moved their training camp from Sarasota, Fla., to Scottsdale, Ariz., but they had not escaped the Deep South at all. Green was made to stay separate from the team in a Phoenix hotel more than 10 miles away. He didn't have a car, so -- as the papers reported -- "an Indian boy took him to camp and back." After a while, the Red Sox did rework Green's living arrangements, but they did not do this to get him closer to the team. Instead, they put him up in a hotel where some black Giants players were staying.

The Boston Globe explained all this in their weekly "Ask a baseball question" section.

Q: Why didn't Green stay in Scottsdale, like any other Red Sox player?

A: Because the exclusive Scottsdale hotels, motels and inns would not have him, that's how exclusive Scottsdale is.

The Red Sox should not have lived in Scottsdale themselves under such conditions. If Navy and Notre Dame can spurn the Sugar Bowl and the Deep South because of segregation, certainly a big league team should be able to do the same.

Yes, of course they should have been able to do the same; but the Red Sox were not interested. To the contrary, they had some Jim Crow policies of their own. When the Red Sox and Cubs flew to play an exhibition game in Texas, Green flew there ON THE CUBS PLANE As he disembarked, someone asked, "Who are you?"

Green replied, "I am the foreign correspondent with the Chicago Cubs."

And still, despite all this, Pumpsie Green hit -- .400 for the spring -- and he played good defense anywhere they put him, and numerous reporters called him the star of Red Sox camp. It was clear both from the newspaper stories then and the behind-the-scenes stories that would emerge later that Red Sox GM Bucky Harris was fully impressed and deeply embarrassed by the Red Sox racial intolerance and that he fully intended to keep Pumpsie Green on the roster in 1959.

However, quotes from our hero Tom Yawkey, who is in the Hall of Fame, were not as promising.

"The Sox," Yawkey said, "will bring up a Negro if he meets our standards."

Yawkey was always saying coded stuff like that ... and still, you cannot overstate how popular Yawkey was. Everybody just adored the guy. On most levels, it makes no sense at all. The Red Sox never won a World Series with him as owner. His personal racism cost the team the chance to sign some of the best players in baseball history (including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron).

And he must have had some personal charisma that doesn't translate well in newsprint because, honestly, he constantly comes off like a total jerk. When people stand up to defend him, they always talk about how good he was to his players and how good he was for Boston. I’ve read the clippings. I don’t see it at all.

"We'll bring them in and throw them out," Yawkey said of his team that season. "If the players we have aren't doing the job, we'll get rid of them."

What a charmer.

As it turns out, despite Bucky Harris’ support, Pumpsie Green did not make the team coming out of spring training in 1959. Why? Hard to say. One Boston reporter said that Red Sox manager Pinky Higgins went over his general manager's head and directly into Yawkey's office -- they were close personal friends -- and he said, "There will be no n--- on this team as long as I have anything to do with it."

I don’t know if that story is true. What is true is that Harris suddenly went into deep silence. Stories began including snippets like "Multiple calls to Harris' phone went unanswered," or "Harris was unavailable even though he was known to be in town." My guess is that Harris told his friends in the press that Higgins and Yawkey refused to let him bring Green to the majors and he wasn't happy about it.

He was fired a year later.

The Red Sox refusal to have a black player had been overlooked in Boston for many years. But when Pumpsie Green was sent down, something fundamental had changed. There was an uproar. The offices were flooded with angry calls (1959 version of texts) and telegrams (1959 version of emails). The Boston Globe reported the news on its front page in a story by Bob Holbrook that's some weird combination of editorial and news story and language that has not aged well.

"There was some eye-raising when the announcement came. Writers were searching for batting figures for Green ... Others expected it. And maybe Pumpsie did too. But one thing about Green, he did not take the opportunity to pop off about ill-treatment. He refused pointedly to answer any and all questions shot at him. … A smart boy. There is nothing to be gained by creating a furor over taking another turn in the minors. Which leads us to the point. Was Pumpsie given a "fair shake?" I'd say yes."

Later, Holbrook added this: "Being the lone Negro on a ball club is no fun. The Red Sox should know by now that a team cannot have one Negro ... there must be at least two."

Protest continued to flood in. The NAACP and the Boston Ministerial Association immediately demanded an investigation into the Red Sox' hiring practices. The Red Sox grew so freaked out that they called for an emergency meeting in Boston and promptly released a spectacular series of impossibly stupid statements, such as the one from an unnamed official who explained that the reason the Red Sox didn't hire any African American groundskeepers or maintenance workers was because, "for the past several years, there have been no Negroes applying for jobs at Fenway Park."

The reporter added this telling line after that quote: "This, he pointed out, was not the fault of the Red Sox."

After that fiasco, the Red Sox denied even holding the meeting:

"We certainly have done everything possible to make Pumpsie Green happy," a Red Sox PR man said. "I know that when his wife came down, she came to me one afternoon and said, 'I want to thank you for all your kindness.'"

Then came the most remarkable turn of all: Tom Yawkey threatened to get out of baseball over the criticism. The story appeared in the April 12 Boston Globe under the headline: "Will Yawkey Quit Boston?" Yawkey was sick of all the criticism revolving around Pumpsie Green. He didn't need this nonsense. He didn’t need this game. He didn’t need this aggravation.

From the story:

The greatest danger is that Tom Yawkey, one of baseball's top owners, might be agitated to the point of quitting baseball and the Red Sox. ... Yawkey is the sort of man who gets his back up when he feels anybody is trying to interfere with his operations.

The reporter explained that this wasn't the first time Yawkey threatened to take his ball and go home. When players made numerous demands at the winter meetings, Yawkey responded: "Well, there are two or three things I can do -- and one of them is to withdraw from baseball!"

And another time — this is really incredible — the writer remembered talking with Yawkey after a few negative stories had appeared in the paper.

"What do you think would happen if the Red Sox ever left Boston?" Yawkey asked.

"It would be a pretty darn cold day."

"I mean," Yawkey said, a bit more directly, "what do you think would happen?"

"As a sports town, it would probably break Boston's back."

"Exactly!" Yawkey said, snapping his fingers. "And I could do it like that!"

What a Hall of Famer.

Let's get back to Pumpsie Green. He had been placed in an impossibly unfair position. He was sent back to Minneapolis, and reporters were hounding him to respond to his demotion. There was no percentage in him speaking out. So he didn’t.

"I don't want to be a crusader.,” he said. “I just want to play baseball."

Did he think that the Red Sox had sent him down because he was black?

"I figured I just didn't make the club," he said. "I hope, one day, to play in the majors. If I didn't believe I could make it, I'd try another line of business. But right now, I'm interested in being a good American Association second baseman."

The Red Sox loved that answer, and they used it repeatedly as a shield against all lines of attack. "Hey,” they basically said, “If Pumpsie Green didn't have any problem with this, why should you?"

But the Pumpsie Green saga did highlight race relations in Boston sports. For years, the white newspapers had looked the other way. But now, they didn’t. The Globe printed several stories about the Red Sox’ shameful history and, for the first time, told the story of a tryout set up by Boston city councilman Izzy Muchnick and legendary Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith.

In 1945, with many black soldiers overseas fighting for the United States, Muchnick made numerous public statements about how unfair it was for African Americans to be excluded from Major League baseball. He went public with a letter he received from Red Sox executive Eddie Collins, who insisted that black players didn't WANT to play in the majors.

Wendell Smith saw the letter and immediately contacted Muchnick to state the obvious: Of course African Americans wanted the chance to play. Together, Muchnick and Smith wrote back to Collins who responded: If you can provide black players, the Boston Red Sox will happily give them a tryout.

Muchnick and (mostly) Smith called this bluff. Smith got three players for a tryout — Sam Jehtroe, Marvin Williams and a guy named Jackie Robinson. Collins, realizing he was trapped, agreed to the tryout but only under the condition that no photographers be allowed. He didn't want proof of the tryout to leak out, particularly to a certain owner.

In Muchnick's memory, Jethroe and Williams struggled in the tryout.

But Robinson ...

"I'm telling you," Muchnick told the Globe, "you never saw anyone hit the ball the way Robinson did that day -- bang, bang, bang, he rattled it."

Muchnick added that after the tryout, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin said of Robinson, "If I had that guy on this club, he'd be a world beater." Cronin even talked about signing Robinson and starting him in Richmond.

That was the last Muchnick, Smith or Robinson heard from the Boston Red Sox.

Back in 1959, April passed, so did May, so did June and still the Boston Red Sox were the only team in baseball to have never had a black player in the field. Green was crushing the ball in Minneapolis. Earl Wilson was blowing hitters away. But there was no movement.

Then, finally, something happened: On July 3, 1959, after Boston's fifth straight loss, Yawkey fired his friend Pinky Higgins. Well, that’s not right: Higgins was given some sort of new job. What? Even Red Sox general manager Bucky Harris didn't know. ("I was hoping Mr. Yawkey would come to talk about it," he told the press.) But whatever the case, Higgins was no longer manager.

And eighteen days later, on July 21, 1959, Pumpsie Green came in as a defensive replacement, finally breaking through and becoming the first African American ballplayer for the Boston Red Sox. The next day, he became the first to start a game. Six days after that, Earl Wilson pitched a scoreless inning as he became the first African American pitcher in Red Sox history.

Green played parts of five seasons in the big leagues, four of them with the Red Sox. He was a humble man who taught school and coached baseball for 25 years after he let baseball. He never felt comfortable being called a pioneer. “I would like to be remembered in Red Sox history as just another ballplayer,” he told the author Harvey Frommer. He was, of course, more than that.