Becoming the first African-American player for the Red Sox on June 21, 1959 — making the Sox the last team to integrate, 12 years after Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier – Pumpsie Green would not give up any of it. Not the segregation. Not the taunts. Not the discrimination.
Because if he changed any of it, he might have to change all of it. And all of it went into making him the player he was and the person he is today. And it gave him his place in history, a place he’s very proud of.
“I went through all the problems that all the other black players did — separation, being by yourself, eating by yourself, not being allowed in the team hotel,” Green said recently by phone from his home in California’s Bay Area. “In other words, I went through all the discrimination problems, every one of them.
“I’m very proud and I’m happy. That’s why I say if I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing. Put me right back in a Boston uniform, right back in Beantown, and I’ll be alright, because I did it once and I survived it and now I can relax. It doesn’t bother me. I can get me a cold beer and sit out and chew the fat with any of my friends.”
It was 50 years ago today that Green, who turns 76 in October, became the first African-American player to appear in a game for the Sox, entering as a pinch-runner for Vic Wertz who pinch-hit for shortstop Don Buddin in the eighth inning of the Sox’ 2-1 win over the White Sox at Comiskey Park. He made his first start the next day, going 0-for-3, playing second base and batting second. He got his first hit — a single off the Indians’ Jim Perry — July 28 in the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium. Earl Wilson, Boston’s first black pitcher, made his debut in the first game of that doubleheader.
Green made his first appearance at Fenway Park on Aug. 4 in a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics, playing second base, leading off in the first game and batting third in the nightcap, going a combined 2-for-6 with two runs scored.
In all, he played 327 games for the Red Sox over four seasons, batting .244 with 12 home runs and 69 RBIs, before being traded to the Mets prior the 1963 season, his final year in the big leagues.
But it was not his accomplishments on the field for which Green is best remembered; it was for simply getting onto the field with the Sox in the first place.
Green’s professional career began when he was 19, as he signed with the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks, near his hometown of Richmond, Calif. In 1953, he was assigned to the Oaks’ farm team in Wenatchee, Wash., moving up to Stockton, Calif., the organization’s top farm club in 1955.
In February of 1956, the Sox purchased Green from Stockton in time for spring training in Sarasota, Fla.
Three spring trainings later, despite not being allowed to stay in the team hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., Green had most observers convinced he had made the big league team after batting .400 and being named the team’s spring Rookie of the Year.
But, according to Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson in their book Red Sox Century, then-team owner Tom Yawkey told reporters, “The Red Sox will bring up a Negro when he meets our standards.”
Instead, Green was assigned to the organization’s Triple-A team in Minneapolis. According to Stout and Johnson, manager Mike “Pinky” Higgins told a reporter, “They’ll [sic] be no niggers on this ballclub as long as I have anything to say about it.”
Higgins was fired after the team’s July 2 loss to the Senators in Washington, their fifth consecutive defeat, which left the Sox in eighth place with a record of 31-42, 9 1/2 games out of the division lead.
Green, hitting .325 and by then a two-time All-Star for Minneapolis, got a phone call in the early morning hours of July 21.
“[It was] my general manager in Minneapolis, and he told me, get up and get my clothes on, get out to the park, and get my baseball equipment. Then get to the airport and get to the Red Sox who were playing the White Sox,” Green said. “It wasn’t that easy, so I was in a rush.
“I know it’s been a long time when I look back. To me, it’s almost amazing.”
“The crowd gave me a standing ovation,” he said. “It was a blessing, really. Just trying to get your thoughts together, and I could hear it. It was loud. I was just hoping that everything would be all right.”
He tripled to left field in his first Fenway plate appearance, then scored the game’s first run in the Red Sox’ 4-1 win.
Another high point for Green was that he never experienced any racial issues with his teammates. But he was subjected to other displays of racism, including not making the team out of spring training.
“I had a hell of a spring training,” Green said. “I outdid everybody on my team, including the big boys, because, number one, I played every day. Seemed like Mike Higgins was trying to see if I could play my way out of there. But I kept on going, and I had a great spring. I played something like 30 games in spring training.
“So it was a shock. But the shocking part was, people asked me a whole bunch of questions. When a guy in spring training has more hits, more home runs, more RBIs and … all the categories, I’m not sure. But I knew I had one heck of a great spring, and they knew I had a great spring.
“I was sent to the Minneapolis club, back to Triple-A, and the question they wanted me to answer was: ‘Why do I think I was cut?’ And my answer was very short: ‘Well, why do you think? You saw it as much as I did.’ And they’d come up with the real great question: ‘Do you think it was because of color?’ ‘Well, what do you think it was because of?’ After a while it got redundant.”
But Green is happy with his place in history and what he did to give other minorities more opportunities — both on the playing field and in life itself.
“I’m happy for the chances they have and I tell people who want to talk to me … what I really think,” said Green, who, along with his wife, was once denied an apartment in Berkeley, Calif., because of his skin color.
“A guy will ask me, ‘Pumpsie, you were with the Boston Red Sox, were they prejudiced?’ And my favorite thing to say is, ‘Yes, Boston, the whole town was prejudiced. But no more than any other town that I’ve been in.’
“It didn’t change me because I wouldn’t let it change me, because that experience was just another experience along the road of life. I had experienced racial prejudice. It wasn’t just Boston, [it happened] even in California where I was raised. I tell people I didn’t have to go all the way to Boston to be discriminated against. I got tremendously discriminated against right here in my home town of Richmond where I was raised up.”
Green retired from Berkeley High School, where he was a baseball coach. These days, he spends time with his family. He goes to the YMCA almost daily, where he and his friends talk about “anything and everything. Not just baseball, all sports, all politics, all the news — that way you can pick up a lot of good information.”
He follows the Red Sox, but he’s a big San Francisco Giants fan. He’s given up his Oakland Raiders season tickets. He was back in Boston earlier this season to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, recognizing his anniversary season. The Stockton Ports, the A’s Single-A affiliate in the California League, recently hosted him and his family to honor his legacy. He still can’t say how he got his nickname or the last time someone called him Elijah, his given name.
And, for all of that, he’s thankful.
“I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t change one thing if I had to,” he said. “I would go back to just the way it was. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t want to be a Dodger or anything else. I did the best I could with what I had while I was there and now I’m happy with what I have done. I’m relaxed.”