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 in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that he’s the single worst member of the Hall.
I am not for throwing people out of the Hall of Fame. But if given the giant hook they used to yank people off Vaudeville stages, I would pull Yawkey out of Cooperstown tomorrow. I was thrilled when, last year, the Red Sox changed the name of the little street that they called “Yawkey Way” back to its original name of “Jersey Street.”
The only way that would have been better is if they called it “Pumpsie Green Street” instead.
Let’s go back 60 years … to spring training of 1959.
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Pumpsie Green was not the first African American signed by the Boston Red Sox. That was Piper Davis, a huge Negro leagues star.* There’s a lot to say about Davis — fantastic hitter, as a Negro leagues manager, he basically raised a young Willie Mays — but let’s save that for his article. The main point is the Red Sox signed him in 1950 when he was 32. He went to Scranton for 15 games, hit .333 and slugged .540, and was released so that the Red Sox didn’t have to pay him his full bonus.
Really. That was the reason they GAVE PUBLICLY, which gives you an idea about the kind of operation Tom Yawkey ran.
*For a time, Piper Davis was also a big star on the Harlem Globetrotters, as was another Negro leagues great, Ted Strong.
In 1953, the Red Sox signed Pumpsie Green at age 19. He was given no bonus. Shortly after that, the Sawx signed a promising African American pitcher, the gifted Earl Wilson. In Wilson’s scouting report, the scout wrote: “Not too black.”
The two 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, leaving 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 catch anyone’s attention; in 1958, he hit just .253 in a full season in Minneapolis.
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 apparently did not move out of the Deep South. 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 not to get him closer to the team. Instead, they found him a different Phoenix hotel where some 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.
But the Red Sox did stay in Scottsdale … it doesn’t seem like they even considered doing anything else. But it went beyond just that. 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, 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. Red Sox reporters later said that it was clear from background conversations that Red Sox GM Bucky Harris fully intended on keeping Pumpsie on the roster.
But 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 stuff like that … and somehow people in Boston loved him for it. You cannot overstate how popular Yawkey was. Everybody just adored the guy, even though the Red Sox never won a World Series with him as owner, even though 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 through newsprint because, honestly, he constantly comes off like a total jerk. When people reminisce about him, they say he was good to his players and good to Boston. Maybe. But it doesn’t really show up in his interviews.
“We’ll bring them in and throw them out,” Yawkey told the press that year. “If the players we have aren’t doing the job, we’ll get rid of them.”
What a charmer.
It turned out like this: 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.”
The story has never been corroborated, but there’s plenty of smoke that suggests Higgins was a racist — he verbally assaulted a different Red Sox sportswriter for expressing appreciation for Minnie Minoso. There’s also the fact that Bucky Harris proved to be shockingly unavailable for comment after Green was demoted. It wasn’t just that he didn’t talk, the stories all said things 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).
There was an uproar in Boston after Pumpsie Green was sent down. The offices were flooded with angry calls (1959 version of texts, for you kids out there) 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, um, 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.”
The NAACP and the Boston Ministerial Association immediately demanded an investigation into the Red Sox’ hiring practices. As the protests kept coming in, and reporters kept writing stories, the Red Sox grew so freaked out that they called for an emergency meeting in Boston. They promptly released a spectacular series of impossibly stupid statements, such as the one from an unnamed official who explained that the reason the Sawx 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 excellent line after that quote: “This, he pointed out, was not the fault of the Red Sox.”
Then the Red Sox denied they held 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 it was Yawkey’s turn. There was an amazing story in the April 12 Boston Globe under the headline, “Will Yawkey Quit Boston?” The general theme is exactly what you might have expected: Yawkey was threatening to get rid of the team because he was sick of all the criticism revolving around Pumpsie Green. He didn’t need this nonsense.
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 acted this way. He wrote that 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!”
You would think that might be the worst Yawkey story in the relatively short article. But no. The reporter also remembered a conversation he had with Yawkey after a few negative stories about the team had appeared.
“Jerry,” Yawkey said, “what do you think would happen if the Red Sox ever left Boston?”
“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!”
The funny part is, the reporter wasn’t even trying to make Yawkey look bad. He was, in a weird way, trying to make Yawkey look GOOD.
Let’s get back to Pumpsie Green, who had been placed in an utterly impossible situation. After arriving back in Minneapolis in the American Association, he said: “I don’t want to be a crusader. I just want to play baseball.”
There was no percentage in speaking out. Not then. And, really, not now either.
“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 did like that answer, and they used it as a shield against all lines of attack. (“Hey, Pumpsie didn’t have any problem with this, why should you?”)
One thing the Pumpsie Green saga did do was highlight race relations in Boston sports. This led to the Globe printing several stories in April 1959, including one about 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 had made some public statements about how unfair it was that African Americans were excluded from the majors. He got a letter (which he made public) from Red Sox executive Eddie Collins, who insisted that black players didn’t WANT to play in the majors.
Wendell Smith immediately contacted Muchnick to say that OF COURSE, African Americans wanted the chance to play. Muchnick wrote back to Collins, who said that if Muchnick could provide black players of worth, he’d happily give them a tryout.
So, Muchnick and (mostly) Smith called the bluff. Wendell Smith gathered up three of the best players and athletes in the Negro leagues — Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams and Jackie Robinson. And they showed up for the tryout. Collins agreed to hold it, 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.
By 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.
And that was the last Muchnick, Smith or Robinson heard from the Boston Red Sox.
Yes, April was filled with Pumpsie Green news, but it grew quiet in May. It was quieter in June. Green was crushing the ball in Minneapolis. And Earl Wilson, back from his tour, was pitching fantastic himself. And behind the scenes, the pressure was being exerted on the Red Sox to stop being the only all-white team in baseball.
On July 3, 1959, after Boston’s fifth straight loss, Yawkey fired his friend Pinky Higgins. Well, he didn’t actually fire him; he gave Higgins a new job. What was the new job? 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.
Eighteen days later, on July 21, 1959, Pumpsie Green came in as a defensive replacement, 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.