As early as the 1930’s, African-American reporters sent open letters to owners while polling white managers and players and bringing Black players to unscheduled tryouts in hopes of integrating baseball. These journalists—along with several white writers from mainstream papers—pressed hard for baseball’s gatekeepers to hire Black players as unions and civil rights groups picketed outside of ballparks in multiple cities.
After a member of Boston’s city council threatened to ban baseball on Sundays until the Red Sox gave at least one Negro Leaguer a tryout, the Sox held what became known as a “sham tryout,” inviting Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams to Fenway Park in April 1945, though it was clear the team had no intention of signing any of them. (It’s rumored that the Red Sox passed on Robinson, Willie Mays, Larry Doby, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron.) In 1950, the team signed Lorenzo “Piper” Davis to a minor league contract, but he was released before making it to the majors.
Born Elijah Jerry Green in 1933, Pumpsie ended Boston’s fight against integration by becoming their first Black player.
Much is said about Jackie Robinson being the first, but Pumpsie Green’s experiences as the last doesn’t garner as much attention. He never wanted to be in that position. “I did the best I could with what I had,” Green told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2018. “I had a little success, and I enjoyed that. I always say to myself, ‘I accomplished the first thing I set out to do because I always wanted to be …’ well, I didn’t always want to be a major-league ballplayer, I’ve always wanted to be an Oakland Oaks ballplayer because that was the big team around here.”
Pumpsie Green grew up in Richmond, California. A three-sport athlete at El Cerrito High, he decided to forego a baseball scholarship to Fresno State University, playing shortstop at Contra Costa College before signing with the Oakland Oaks in 1953, who sent him to their Single A team in Wenatchee, Washington. Green never made it to the Oaks roster, his contract sold to the Red Sox in 1955. After buying his contract, the Red Sox wanted Green to report to Montgomery, Alabama, but Green refused, citing the ongoing violence surrounding the civil rights movement. Earl Wilson, a Black pitcher in the Red Sox organization, was in Alabama. Perhaps the team wanted Green and Wilson together, but Pumpsie didn’t want to feel unsafe. He was then sent to Albany, New York to join the Albany Senators for the 1956 season. He spent the next season playing for the Oklahoma Indians, and the one after with Minneapolis Millers.
Before spring training in 1959, the NAACP once again pressured the Red Sox to sign a Black player. Green was invited to their spring training in Arizona. Upon arrival to the team hotel, he was denied a room. Scottsdale was a sundown town—African-Americans had to be out of the town before the sun disappeared from the sky. He ended up getting a room 17 miles away, in Phoenix, where the San Francisco Giants were staying.
According to Boston sportswriter Al Hirshberg’s 1973 book, “What’s the Matter with the Red Sox?” then manager Mike “Pinky” Higgins once said, “there will be no n——s on this team as long as I have anything to say about it.” Despite “the best spring I’ve had in my life,” Green wasn’t on the Opening Day roster. The Boston chapter of the NAACP was outraged. The rest of the league had integrated, and teams were experiencing winning seasons with Black players on their rosters. Boston had a guy who tore up spring training and it was now obvious he wasn’t being called up because he was Black. Despite being hounded by various civil rights groups to speak out, Pumpsie decided against it, figuring it would hurt his chances. Like Jackie, he was forced to ignore racism in the hopes his great ball play would speak louder. “So far as I’m concerned, I’m no martyr. No flag carrier. I’m just trying to make the ballclub, that’s all. I’m not trying to prove anything else but that. I’m not even interested in being known as the first Negro to make the Red Sox. I just want to make the Red Sox and all the rest of it can wait, “ he said in 1959.
On July 10, after Higgins was fired (he would later be rehired), twelve years after Jackie Robinson’s famed debut, and three years after his retirement, the Boston Red Sox called up 25-year-old Pumpsie Green. He made his major-league debut on July 21, 1959 on the road against the Chicago White Sox. Playing in the Bay Area, Green had played on mixed race teams before. The Pacific Coast League integrated over five seasons between 1948 and 1952. His experiences with the Red Sox were a different beast, one he wasn’t ready for. Pumpsie wasn’t allowed to eat or sleep with his Boston teammates. He almost didn’t have anyone to play catch with before games, until Ted Williams stepped up. Williams warmed up with Pumpsie every day. Celtics legend Bill Russell also lent a hand in helping the young ballplayer transition. Russell gave him advice and frequently invited him to dinner. While Earl Wilson would make his debut for the Red Sox a week later, Green’s early Boston tenure was an isolating experience.
On August 4, 1959, he finally made his debut at Fenway Park against the Kansas A’s. He was the leadoff hitter, hitting ahead of Ted Williams, and he played second base. The crowd to see Boston’s first Black player was much larger than usual and African-American spectators showed up en masse. There were so many of them, that a section of center field was roped off for them.
“It seemed like I was lightheaded,” Green recalled in 2009, “because they were screaming and hollering. Boy, I just don’t know. So I went and got my bat, and on my way up to home plate, the whole stands, blacks and whites, they stand up and give me a standing ovation. A standing ovation, my first time up! And the umpire said, ‘Good luck, Pumpsie,’ something like that.”
Green has lived his life reluctantly accepting his place in history. He was 13 years old when Jackie broke the color barrier, and he never expected nor wanted to be on the path started by him. During his time with the Red Sox, Pumpsie was isolated and alone. None of his teammates had a relationship with him outside of practice and games. In March of 1959 Boston Globe writer Milton Gross described the isolation: “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.’”
In the decades that followed, Pumpsie’s views on his place in history began to change. “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.”
In his first at-bat in front of the home crowd, Pumpsie hit a triple to left-center field, high off the Green Monster. The crowd roared. He received a standing ovation. In his words, it went like this: “So he came in there with a slider out over the plate. I put a good swing on it and I hit the s— out of it, and the ball went high off the left-center field fence and I slid into third base with a triple. And the people, especially the people in center field, they went absolutely out of their minds.” The Red Sox went on to win that game 4-1. Green considers it to be his greatest Fenway memory.
Today, Pumpsie Green lives a quiet life away from major league baseball in his hometown Northern California. His playing days are long gone. His health has started to decline. His playing career is now mostly a footnote in baseball history. Pumpsie deserves more than what baseball has given him. He deserves the spotlight he was reluctantly pushed into all those years ago.
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