Baseball has always had the best nicknames of any sport, and that long list would not be complete without Elijah “Pumpsie” Green.
Pumpsie Green. Very cool.
But that’s not why Mr. Green, who died last Wednesday at the age of 85, has a standing in baseball history that significantly exceeds his somewhat modest career statistics.
It was slightly over 60 years ago, on July 21, 1959, that the Boston Red Sox sent Green into the eighth inning of a game against the Chicago White Sox as a pinch-runner for the speed-challenged Vic Wertz, who had singled.
The move did not, alas, pay off. Pete Runnels, Marty Keogh and Dick Gernert all failed to get another hit off White Sox starter Dick Donovan, stranding Green and paving the way for the Red Sox to lose the game, 2–1.
The loss wasn’t the lead story, however. The lead story is that when Pumpsie Green touched first base, he became the first black player to appear in a regular season game for the Boston Red Sox.
Twelve years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball, the Red Sox became the last Major League team with a black player.
“The Red Sox will bring up a Negro when he meets our standards,” Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey had said earlier that season, suggesting that over the previous dozen years, as other teams signed players like Willie Mays and Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson, the Red Sox had not been able to find a single Negro who met their standards.
Ironically, the Red Sox could have been the first team to sign a black player. In April 1945, the Sox brought Robinson and two other black players to Fenway Park for a tryout.
Apparently they also did not meet Red Sox standards, which further buttresses the delicate and unavoidable conclusion that the primary component of those standards was being white.
Both in July 1959 and through the later years of his life, Pumpsie Green diplomatically deflected questions about racism in the world of baseball. He wanted to play ball and there was no percentage in coming across as angry.
Still, he couldn’t help noting that since he was the best player at Red Sox spring training camp in 1959, he was a little surprised not to have made the opening day roster.
The Boston Globe obituary noted that he also wasn’t blind to the broader impact of segregation in baseball, like not being able to eat or stay with the white players when his minor league teams traveled to segregated communities. At spring training, he had to room 17 miles away.
He rolled with it, he told the Globe, explaining that growing up he had seen and lived worse. No reason to doubt that.
Still, his obituary included two particularly telling words, both quoted from an interview he did with the Globe in 1997.
The first word was “relaxed,” which he said he never felt he could do over four seasons with the Red Sox. “I felt pressure all the time,” he said, even after he had made the team and become a regular.
The second word was “most,” which is how many of his teammates he felt welcomed him. Twelve years after Jackie Robinson, the baseball player world had gotten to “most.”
Those who did, he said, included Pete Runnels, Frank Malzone and Ted Williams — a political archconservative whose own story hearteningly suggests that he considered hitting a baseball to be a color-blind sort of occupation.
Major League Baseball, alas, did not see it that way for the first half of the 20th century, a fact that becomes geometrically more depressing when you realize much of the country was not only okay with that, but felt that’s how God wanted it.
Pumpsie Green played five years in the Majors, four with the Red Sox and the last with the expansion New York Mets, and he went on to a solid life back home in California. He worked in the Berkeley schools, coaching baseball, teaching math and counseling.
He returned to Boston several times over the years, honored as a pioneer, and when he died, current Red Sox management said the right things about his contribution to the team’s history. They did not mention that the team itself had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this history.
In that matter, and in the context of Boston’s broader track record on race relations, the Globe obituary also mentioned that Green liked to hang out with Bill Russell, center for the most dominant basketball team of all time, the late ‘50s-early ’60s Boston Celtics.
While Russell himself was the best team player in pro basketball history, he was not reluctant to say he found too much in Boston — not everything or everyone, but too much — that was unwelcoming.
We’d like to think those tensions have eased over these past decades, and it’s true that many barriers from the 1950s have fallen. Today Pumpsie Green could bunk in the same hotels as his teammates.
Still, there’s this. A few days after Pumpsie Green died, three students were suspended from a University of Mississippi fraternity for posing with guns next to a bullet-riddled sign commemorating the death of Emmett Till.
A little less than four years before Pumpsie Green ran for Vic Wertz, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured and murdered after he was accused of being fresh to a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store. The two men who killed him were arrested, charged and speedily acquitted.
Did we mention that Emmett Till was 14 years old?
There’s a marker where his body was found. We’re now on the third marker, actually, because the first two were vandalized. The third one, as noted, is riddled with bullet holes.
You’d love for that attitude to be buried back in the 1950s, except then a story like this comes along and drags it into 2019.
Equally depressing, it reminds us that Pumpsie Green’s 1950s story is linked to Emmett Till’s — much as we wish it weren’t. You don’t want Pumpsie Green, and others who broke barriers that never should have been erected in the first place, remembered only as symbols, markers on the highway to a dream.
Pumpsie Green was good enough to make the Major Leagues and play five seasons. If he wasn’t a Hall of Famer, that still makes him a very good baseball player who reached a level about which almost every other player can only fantasize.
He also seemed to have a pretty decent life outside baseball, even beyond the great nickname. He worked with kids. He was married for 62 years.
It takes nothing from what he achieved to be reminded that 60 years later too many stories still evoke the parts of the old days that were not so good.