Pumpsie Green, RIP: The modest pioneer

2017-07-19 PumpsieGreen
Pumpsie Green poses with three Red Sox who helped make his integrating the team that much more bearable. From left: third baseman Frank Malzone, shortstop Don Buddin, and first baseman Pete Runnels.

For those whose hobbies include forging off the wall trivia questions, here’s a beauty.  What does Pumpsie Green have in common with Jackie Robinson and Lou Brock? The answer is two parts: 1) Green, too, was the first black man to play on a particular major league baseball team. 2) He was also a teammate of the now-late Ernie Broglio, traded most notoriously for Hall of Famer Brock in 1964.

Part two is the far less problematic, of course: Green and Broglio were teammates for El Cerrito High School in California. Part one, alas, is the more so: Green was the first black man admitted to the ranks of the Red Sox, who were, alas, the final team in major league baseball to admit a black player and one of the first, alas far further, to reject Robinson, Willie Mays, and others over a decade earlier.

A catcher/first baseman in high school, Elijah Jerry Green, Jr., who died at 85 Wednesday morning, two years older and the morning after cancer claimed Broglio, became a middle infielder who wasn’t as well endowed with baseball gifts as Robinson and wasn’t built to blow the walls down. Pioneers—reluctant (a word so often used to describe Green) and otherwise—are quiet as often as they are vibrant. And Green, a handsome young man with a smile that said “Hello, my friend,” was as quiet as the season was long.

He was the son of an Oklahoma transplant who’d farmed in the Sooner State before moving his family to California. The old man became a sanitation worker and mother worked on the Oakland docks as a welder during World War II before becoming a convalescent nurse. It was Mom who gave Green his nickname, calling him Pumpsie from when he was a toddler. He had no idea what inspired it.

But loving baseball as he did, he had a fine idea what inspired him to set his sights on a possible major league life. The tough old Pacific Coast League integrated in 1948, and when the Oakland Oaks hosted a barnstorming team of all-stars led by Jackie Robinson himself, the teenage Green—who attended as many Oaks games as he could—wasn’t going to miss the game.

“I scraped up every nickel and dime together I could find,” Green told Herb Crehan for Red Sox Heroes of Yesteryear. “And I was there. I had to see that game . . . I still remember how exciting it was.” Green’s ambition then was to play for the Oaks, whose shortstop Artie Wilson was their first black player, and Green modeled his own playing style on Wilson, who once led the PCL in batting average and stolen bases.

The Oaks did sign Green but assigned him to an A-level affiliate in Washington state. By 1955, he was Red Sox property, but when they wanted to send him to their affiliate in Montgomery, Alabama, Green was only too understandably reluctant. Young black men were about as anxious to go to Alabama then as a cobra might be to go on a dinner date with a mongoose.

By spring 1957 Green impressed the Red Sox’s farm system administrators, including then-system director Johnny Murphy, the former Yankee relief pitcher and future Mets general manager. He was assigned to the Oklahoma City Indians in the AA-level Texas League, where he discovered he was good for a break whenever the Indians had to play the Shreveport (Louisiana) Sports.

“When the team went to Shreveport,” Green recalled, “I didn’t go, because they didn’t allow blacks to play in Louisiana. So I had a three- or four-day vacation.” Some vacation. But he played well enough with the Indians to earn a promotion to the Minneapolis Millers, whom the Red Sox made their AAA affiliate after the New York Giants moved to San Francisco and surrendered their rights to Minneapolis, where they first planned to move.

Every major league team except the Red Sox had integrated by the time Green became a Miller in 1958. Green didn’t play particularly well on the regular season but, in the American Association postseason, he went 5-for-12 with four runs scored and three batted into help the Millers win it.

The good news is that Green was finally invited to spring training with the Red Sox themselves in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1959. The bad news is that spring training was the only place the Red Sox broke the colour line at first. They refused to do as some of the other integrated teams did, forcing Green to stay at a hotel seventeen miles from camp because the team’s regular spring hotel near camp refused to admit black guests.

Green finally found spring training lodging at the hotel where the Giants trained in Phoenix, the Giants having been integrated since 1949 and compelled the hotel to accept the entire team long since. And despite being considered the best rookie in camp, the Red Sox officially seemed ambivalent about him. Their manager at the time was Pinky Higgins, a former infielder known as a close buddy of owner Tom Yawkey but also known to be rather a bigot.

Even in Howard Bryant’s magnificent study of the Red Sox’s and Boston’s racial growing pains, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, it’s not entirely clear whether it was Yawkey or Higgins who declared, a decade earlier, “There’ll be no niggers on this ballclub as long as I have anything to say about it.”

Most notoriously in the mid-1940s, the Red Sox worked out Robinson, Mays, and other black players in sessions long since shown to have been shams for show after enough in the Boston press (particularly Boston Record columnist and Ted Williams nemesis Dave Egan) and the increasingly influential black press (such as the Pittsburgh Courier) pressured the team to do it.

While the rest of the Show caught on, little by little, to the good the black talent pool could do their teams, the Red Sox remained clueless. And, futile. The black talent pool didn’t suddenly make winners of all the teams, of course (we mean you, Cubs, for one example), but choosing to remain in the paleozoic era did the Red Sox no favours, either.

Higgins left room for further ambivalence when he sent Green back to Minneapolis to begin the 1959 season. “The Red Sox won no prizes this spring for the way they treated Pumpsie Green,” fumed Boston Globe baseball columnist Harold Kaese. “From a strict baseball point of view they may have been doing the wise thing when they optioned their first Negro player to the Minneapolis farm club yesterday. From every other point of view, they undoubtedly have pulled a colossal boner.”

All this blew around the head of a soft-spoken 25-year-old middle infielder who had no intention of fomenting revolution and who could never grok—even four decades after the fact—why such men as Higgins and other Boston racists had to be as they were. “Sometimes,” he told Bryant for Shut Out, “when I think of the things people like me had to go through, it just sounds so unnecessary. When you think about it, it is almost silly, how much time and energy was wasted hating.”

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Pumpsie Green finished his major league career with the early Mets, though he missed the insanity of the original edition of the team.

“His,” Bryant wrote, “is the outsider’s story of life in a very insular city.” Today it seems somewhat difficult to remind yourself that the Jim Crow South wasn’t the only part of the country that couldn’t decide whether, as Malcolm X once phrased it, it should be, “Let’s keep the niggers in their place” or “Let’s keep the Knee-grows in their place.”

“I want to be judged like any other ballplayer,” Green said after his return to Minneapolis. “I don’t want to be a crusader. I just want to play ball.” He finally got his chance with the Red Sox after Higgins—whose alcoholism was almost as notorious around baseball as his racism—was canned in favour of Billy Jurges.

Jurges welcomed Green with open arms, as did such teammates as Hall of Famer Ted Williams plus Pete Runnels and Frank Malzone, the splendid third baseman who had Hall of Fame talent but had been buried in the minors a little too long before he finally made the Red Sox in 1955.

“I used to love to talk to Ted Williams, once of the nicest guys I ever met,” Green once told the Globe. Williams took enough of a liking to Green personally, too, that the Splinter made Green his regular for playing catch to exercise both their throwing arms during spring training and later.

As things turned out, Williams proved far more. His 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech jolted the Hall:

The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘Go get ’em, Willie.’ Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the nature of the game. I hope that some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.

Pumpsie Green was the reluctant Red Sox pioneer, but his pal Williams instigated the moves that finally brought the best of the Negro Leaguers, including Paige and Gibson, into the Hall of Fame.

Green had other allies among his Red Sox teammates, including pitcher Bill Monbouquette. When coach Del Baker and then Higgins both dropped the N bomb, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, Monbouquette told coach and skipper alike he didn’t want to hear that. “[T]hen [Baker] started to give me a bunch of crap, and I said, ‘I’m going to tell you something. I’ll knock you right on your ass. I don’t care if you’re the coach or not.’ I said, ‘You don’t do things like that!’”

It would be wonderful to say that, when Green was finally brought to the Red Sox, he knocked the team’s and the leagues’ record books for the proverbial loop. He wasn’t that talented, unfortunately. He was good enough for the Show but it wasn’t going to make him a baseball star, never mind a Hall of Famer, on purely baseball grounds.

He has a respectable .357 lifetime on-base percentage and walked a little more often than he struck out, but he was used preponderantly as a pinch swinger and defensive replacement. And by his own admission he probably pressured himself far more than need be to produce in his unique circumstances.

In 1962, Green hit the headlines in one of the most peculiar ways imaginable, when he joined pitcher Gene Conley and walked off the team bus on a hot New York day, after a tough set with the Yankees, looking for refreshment. And, while moseying in and out of assorted watering holes, Conley invited Green to join in heading for Bethlehem in Israel “to be nearer to God.”

The astonished Green elected instead to return to the Red Sox immediately. Conley made his way as far as Idlewild Airport in Queens (not yet renamed for the assassinated President John F. Kennedy) before rejoining the team two days later. “We were just crying in our beer,” Green once remembered.

After that season Green was traded to the embryonic Mets, along with Tracy Stallard, the pitcher known best as the one who served Roger Maris his 61st home run at the end of the 1961 season. The Mets sent the Red Sox third baseman Felix Mantilla, once a comer with the Braves, who’d devolved into a player whose most amazing gift was for going the wrong way when batted balls came his way.

Green needed to knock himself back into shape in spring 1963. The Mets sent him to AAA Buffalo and recalled him in September. He had only 66 plate appearances as a Met but showed a very respectable .278/.409/.426 slash line, even hitting the last of his thirteen lifetime major league home runs off Philadelphia’s Ray Culp on 17 September. He began suffering hip issues, played two more seasons in Buffalo, was released in July 1965, then gave it one more try with the Syracuse Chiefs and retired.

The quiet man called Pumpsie had a fine life after his playing days. He went to college and earned a degree in physical education from San Francisco State, then ran baseball programs in the Berkeley Unified School District and coached the game for a quarter century. Some of his charges eventually made the major leagues, including Glenn Burke, Ruppert Jones, and Claudell Washington.

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Pumpsie Green, serene and happy, throwing out a ceremonial first pitch in Fenway Park.

Green also taught mathematics and helped oversee school security while he was there. When not doing all that, he and his wife, Marie, raised two children, one of whom became a high school teacher and principal herself. And despite his quiet struggle for acceptance with the Red Sox, the years passing by made Green appreciative of just what he achieved there.

“There’s really nothing that interesting about me,” he once told Danny Peary. “I am just an everyday person happy with what I did. I take a lot of pride in having played for the Red Sox. I would like to be remembered in Red Sox history as just another ballplayer.”

One then remembers reading often enough that the Robinsons and Mayses and Larry Dobys and Frank Robinsons were one thing, but the real test would be whether and when black men could be accepted when they were as ordinary as the most ordinary white player, too. Green, however, was ordinary only as a baseball player. As a man, he wasn’t as ordinary as he liked to describe himself. Not even close.

“He laughs bitterly that the Red Sox humiliated Jackie Robinson, that it slept when it could have acquired Willie Mays, and that these twists of fate left it to unassuming Pumpsie Green to integrate the Red Sox,” Bryant wrote.

It is a fact that he is proud of, even if during those days he wanted little to do with the attention that came with being at the epicenter of a moral drama within a franchise and a city. He harbours no bitterness toward the Red Sox or the city of Boston for any reason. He wanted an opportunity to play baseball and they gave him that chance. If he does not rage at being set apart from the Red Sox in those early Scottsdale days, it is this personality that allows him not to be devoured by the past, and that makes him healthier today. It is, he says evenly, what healing is all about.

Green followed the Red Sox for the rest of his life. You may rest very assured that he was among those pumping his fists and cheering at home when the Red Sox—long past their 1950s shame, long enough removed from the Yawkey era, in which the real curse on the team was boneheaded administration, and as well integrated as the day was long—returned at last to the Promised Land, for the first of four such returns after the turn of this century.

“In 1997, they asked me to come back for opening day and throw out the first pitch,” Green told Bryant. “[Then-general manager] Lou Gorman was very friendly. They brought a limousine for me and my wife. We had a hell of a time.” A very different hell of a time than the one he had to make the Red Sox in the first place.

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