Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 18, 2019

The Legacy Of Pumpsie Green

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be at NASCAR’s annual stop in New Hampshire on Sunday. That day’s post will be delayed until Monday. As always, thanks for reading.

He was the last to be first. Yet Pumpsie Green, who died on Wednesday at the age of 85 after several months of failing health, never saw himself as a trailblazer or a revolutionary. All he wanted to do was play ball. That was true even when he was a youngster, like on that April afternoon in 1947 when the first to be first, Jackie Robinson, took his position at first base on the Ebbets Field diamond in Brooklyn, a continent away from the Oakland suburb of Richmond, California, where Green was growing up. The Great Game changed that day, entirely for the better, though it’s long been clear that Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox, would have disagreed with anyone espousing that opinion at the time.

Robinson ran onto that infield in Flatbush for the top of the 1st inning, tearing down baseball’s color barrier in the space of just a few strides. As he did so a 13-year-old Green was dividing his time between the hardcourt and the diamond, and as he later told it enjoying basketball more. But personal preference yielded to pragmatism when during his senior year in high school he was offered a baseball scholarship to Fresno State University. Green made yet another practical decision when he chose to turn down that offer and instead enroll at Contra Costa College after his high school coach was put in charge of the small school’s baseball program.

St. Louis was then the westernmost outpost of the major leagues, so Green’s favorite team was the local Oakland Oaks, one of six charter members of the Pacific Coast League. Founded in the twentieth century’s first decade, by the post-World War II years the Oaks had a distinguished history, but a steadily declining attendance at Oaks Park, the team’s dilapidated stadium. A local high school senior named Billy Martin spent the first years of his professional career in Oakland’s system, until the New York Yankees came calling. In addition to Martin the list of Oaks’ alumni includes five Hall of Famers – Casey Stengel, Mel Ott, Ernie Lombardi, Billy Herman, and Joe Gordon.

During his final year of college Green tried out for the Oaks and did well enough to earn a contract not with Oakland, but the team’s entry-level affiliate in Wenatchee, Washington. After two years there he was promoted to the Oaks’ top affiliate in Stockton, where he came to the notice of the Boston Red Sox. By the time Green’s contract was purchased by Boston during the 1955 season, the Red Sox were one of just three major league teams still refusing to add a black player to the roster.

From Albany to Oklahoma City, and on to San Francisco and Minneapolis, Green steadily made his way up Boston’s minor league affiliate ladder, even as the Phillies and Tigers brought to fifteen the number of franchises that had abandoned baseball’s venerable if always unwritten ban on African-American players, leaving Yawkey’s Red Sox as the last holdout. The Boston owner remained resolute, having already passed on the likes of Robinson and Willie Mays in prior years.

Green did well during Spring Training in 1959, but despite the predictable attention paid to him by the press, he was dispatched back to Minneapolis to start the season. That brought protests from the Boston chapter of the NAACP and a state investigation by the Commission Against Discrimination. That pressure, combined with Green’s .320 average with the Minneapolis Millers, finally forced Yawkey to accede to the inevitable. In July 1959 Pumpsie Green got the news every minor leaguer hopes to hear – he was going to the Show.

The Red Sox were on the road when Green joined the team, starting his career in the visitors’ dugout at Comiskey Park. On July 21st, more than twelve years after Robinson’s first game in a Dodgers uniform, Green entered the game against the White Sox as a pinch-runner in the top of the 8th inning, staying on to play shortstop for what little remained of that contest. The next day he was in the lineup as the starting shortstop. One week and four games after his debut, Green recorded his first big league hit, a single off Cleveland’s Jim Perry. Boston’s starting pitcher that day was Earl Wilson, the second black player to wear a Red Sox uniform. Finally back at Fenway Park in early August, Green strode to the plate for the first time in front of home fans, who responded with a standing ovation. Feeding off the energy of the fans, the 25-year-old belted a triple off Fenway’s famous left field wall.

Green’s major league career was relatively brief and, statistically speaking, of little note. Just four seasons with Boston, sometimes in a utility role, followed by what amounted to a brief cameo with the Mets in 1963. At the plate his best year was 1961, when he hit .260 with a very credible OPS of .801. But that same year was his worst in the field, where Green made sixteen errors, one third of the total miscues on his big league resume.

But as with all the other players who, team by team, tore down baseball’s wall of ignorance and prejudice, Green’s career is about more than the usual statistics. Decades later he professed to not fully grasping the significance of his role at the time. It didn’t immediately occur to him why the crowd at Fenway rose to greet him in that first home at-bat. But by that one act those fans proved they understood the significance of Green being in the Red Sox lineup. That August afternoon, six decades ago next month, surely did not mark the end of the long twilight struggle against the legacy of our country’s original sin. Not in baseball, and certainly not in American society at large. But for the Great Game, it was at least the end of the beginning.

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