It’s a shame Pumpsie Green won’t get to celebrate the 60th anniversary. Not of his marriage; he and his wife, Marie, reached that milestone two years ago. The other anniversary.
The day he made history.
It was on July 21, 1959 that Green broke baseball’s last clubhouse color line, becoming the first black man to wear the uniform of the Boston Red Sox. That moment was not at all diminished by the fact that it came 12 years, two months and six days after Jackie Robinson’s seminal debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The American League Red Sox, you see, had spent those years assiduously ignoring or rejecting hundreds of black prospects. The National League Boston Braves, with a home ballpark a five-minute drive from famed Fenway, opened their door in 1950, signing Sam Jethroe. One year earlier, in 1949, a naïve young Red Sox scout, George Digby, was rebuffed in his attempts to persuade owner Tom Yawkey to sign a 17-year-old kid named Willie Mays for $4,500.
The honor, as it was, fell to Green. Ten years after the Sox found reason to disqualify Mays.
With a list of valid reasons to be bitter, Pumpsie stayed humble, kept it professional and graciously accepted the support of teammate and Red Sox legend Ted Williams.
As his groundbreaking moment gave way to a shortlist of accomplishments, Green remained true to himself, his family and his task. As the eldest of five athletic brothers – one of whom, Cornell, was a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the NFL Dallas Cowboys – growing up in the Richmond-El Cerrito area, Pumpsie understood the concept of responsibility and setting an example.
He was hired to play ball, and he took the job seriously. He was no superstar. Nor was he an All-Star. He was not a token, either, as one week after Green’s first at-bat, Earl Wilson made his pitching debut with the Red Sox.
Green played 344 games over parts of five seasons, a career too short to qualify for a pension. He batted .246, with 13 home runs and 74 RBI in 796 at-bats. He was, to be accurate, an otherwise unremarkable player whose sheer talent fell well short of his character.
That much I’d gleaned from years of talking to people acquainted with him. He was, by all accounts, a gentleman. I reached the same conclusion nearly 15 years ago when he invited me to his El Cerrito home.
I went because I was curious, not so much about Pumpsie himself but about his reaction to an event many believed might never happen. Two weeks earlier, the Red Sox, after 86 years without winning a World Series, ended the drought. The “Curse of the Bambino” had lifted.
Green had watched the World Series, most of it, but he neither led nor followed cheers. It was at his convenience that he would settle into his favorite chair for some Sox-Cardinals baseball.
There was no animosity. Pumpsie Green emotionally was unattached to the Red Sox. He watched, when he chose to, mostly because he likes baseball.
He did express that most of the happiness he felt was for the fans of New England, who had rooted so hard, for so long, only to go sledding, year after year, into winter unfulfilled. The victory was not his but theirs, and for that he was pleased.
Green explained that he recently had strengthened his relationship with the franchise. A group led by commodities trader and hedge fund manager John Henry purchased the Red Sox from the Yawkey family trust in 2002. The new owners cast a net of outreach wide enough to include Pumpsie.
Green was satisfied by that, felt the new group had “remembered” him. They invited him back to Boston several times, including in 2009 when he threw a ceremonial first pitch at Fenway. He was inducted 14 months ago into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
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Elijah “Pumpsie” Green passed away Wednesday, three days before the 60th anniversary of his big-league debut. He was 85.
“Pumpsie Green occupies a special place in our history,” Henry said in a statement released by the Red Sox. “He was, by his own admission, a reluctant pioneer, but we will always remember him for his grace and perseverance in becoming our first African-American player. He paved the way for the many great Sox players of color who followed. For that, we all owe Pumpsie a debt of gratitude.”
In the breathless race to regurgitate what happened five minutes ago -- a treadmill without end -- there often is no time for context or reflection. The value of history can get lost because, well, it happened generations earlier. Men like Pumpsie Green deserve better.