Commentary

No honor in Red Sox anniversary

Way too late, Boston made 'Pumpsie' Green the team's first African-American player

Originally Published: July 21, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

On July 21, 1959, at Comiskey Park, Vic Wertz of the Boston Red Sox singled to center off Dick Donovan in the eighth inning of a 2-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. Boston manager Billy Jurges then sent Elijah "Pumpsie" Green in to run for Wertz.

The White Sox would go on to win the pennant that year; the Red Sox finished with a mediocre 75-79 record. But in that game 50 years ago Tuesday, just before the dawn of 1960, Green became the first African-American to play for the Red Sox. Boston was the last of the 16 teams in the major leagues to field a black player, 12 years after Jackie Robinson.

In today's world of political correctness, marketing polish and media savvy, baseball has become expert at selling memories, and the game often seems untroubled if those memories don't exactly align with history. During past anniversaries -- the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947, for example -- the Red Sox have flown Green and his wife to Boston (first-class, of course), chartered them a limousine and feted them as important elements of the team's and city's history.

[+] EnlargePumpsie Green
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Red Sox have honored Green in the past, including with this ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park on April 17.

Green has been honored as a pioneer, as a critical first, and he has thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park to the cheers of a newer, younger Red Sox Nation. As the decades pile up and institutional memory fades due to death and time, the story of the integration of the Red Sox could very well be transformed into a moment of triumph, worthy of commemoration.

The truth is that the Red Sox own the milestone nobody should ever want. What is to be celebrated? That the Red Sox put off integrating for as long as possible?

To celebrate that occasion is to do something corporations -- and do not forget that baseball is a corporation -- do very well: They are experts at scrubbing history, at massaging a negative into a positive.

What happened on July 21, 1959, was not a positive, and it never will be.

Through no fault of his own, Pumpsie Green represents a moment in Red Sox and Boston history that should be acknowledged soberly and apologetically out of respect for him, but not as a celebration. Unlike Robinson, neither Green nor the Red Sox exhibited any special courage that July day in 1959. In fact, the sequence of events that led to the eighth inning that day was decidedly antiheroic.

A year earlier, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination sent a letter to club executives asking them to explain how the Red Sox did not employ a single African-American in any capacity -- centerfielder or secretary, groundskeeper or accountant, usher or janitor. It was the second time MCAD had chastised the Red Sox for their hiring policies, and the commission would soon hold public hearings regarding the team's hiring practices.

During the same year, 1958, the Detroit Tigers called up Ozzie Virgil, leaving the Red Sox as the only American League team without a black player. In 1957, the Phillies, the last National League team to integrate, called up John Kennedy.

[+] EnlargePumpsie Green & Billy Jurges
AP Photo/Ed MaloneyTwelve years after Jackie Robinson's debut in the majors, Red Sox manager Billy Jurges, right, put Green into a game.

Even Boston's hockey team, the Bruins, integrated before the Red Sox.

In the mid-1950s, before Cubs scout Ivy Griffin signed him, Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams thought he was headed for Boston. As Williams recalls it, the Red Sox were interested … until they weren't.

"Yaz and I were the two best left-handed hitters going," Williams told me this past spring. "We used to joke about it. Imagine what that Wall would've looked like with the two of us hitting one after the other."

Throughout the 1950s as the integration movement gained national momentum, organizations as disparate as the Boston Ministerial Alliance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Veterans Committee of Massachusetts, as well as MCAD, all pressured the Red Sox to integrate.

Within this framework was the sad case of Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, who in 1950 became the first black player in the history of the Boston organization. Davis was 26, played for the team's Scranton affiliate, led the team in average, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases, and then was unceremoniously cut from the team and sent home to Birmingham, Ala., without train fare.

In 1949, the Red Sox scouted Willie Mays. Mays recalled hearing that after a few days of inclement weather in Birmingham, the scout, Larry Woodall, told fellow scouts, "I'm not going to waste my time waiting on a bunch of n-----s."

"There's no telling what I would have been able to do in Boston," Willie Mays once told me. "To be honest, I really thought I was going to Boston. They had a guy come down to look at me. They had a good team with [Mel] Parnell and [Vern] Stephens, and of course, Ted. But for that [Tom] Yawkey. Everyone knew he was a racist. He didn't want me."

[+] EnlargeTom Yawkey
AP Photo/Peter J. CarrollThe Red Sox history with African-American players wasn't a happy one under the late Tom Yawkey.

And of course, there was the original sin: Jackie Robinson's humiliating 1945 tryout with Boston that ended with Robinson and the Red Sox -- manager Joe Cronin, in particular -- as lifelong enemies. The Red Sox were not serious about signing Robinson; by the time he retired following the 1956 season, the Sox still hadn't integrated.

In response to MCAD's inquiries, Red Sox GM Bucky Harris testified under oath at the public hearings that "the primary goal of the Red Sox is to give the fans of New England a winning ballclub. When capable players are available, they will be used regardless of race, color or creed."

This is the real truth about July 21, 1959. It cannot be changed.

When your organization is less interested in Willie Mays than a spell of bad weather, you get Pumpsie Green.

When you have the jump on Billy Williams and he gets away, you get Pumpsie Green.

When your top baseball man patronizes Jackie Robinson, you get Pumpsie Green.

When you're one of the richest teams in the game and fail to capitalize for more than a decade on a pool of the most talented, available and economically desirable ballplayers in the history of the game, you get Pumpsie Green.

When the state's corporate watchdog sues your organization not once but twice for discriminatory hiring practices, you get Pumpsie Green.

In short, you get trivia over what could have been triumph.

None of this, it should be stressed, has much to do with Green. He did not ask for his place in time. Over the years as he played along with the role that history had in store for him -- indeed, it is a point of personal pride for him -- Green has often said he shouldn't have been the first. He just wanted to make the big leagues.

Instead, he was placed in the context of being an accidental pioneer -- not for his abilities but for all that the Red Sox did not do before him. Not long after he arrived in Boston, none other than Jackie Robinson told Green as much. In a phone conversation days after Green joined the team, Robinson told him that Green's road would be equally -- if not more -- difficult than Robinson's, for the simple reason that the Dodgers had wanted Robinson to succeed while the Red Sox desperately avoided integration until completely surrounded by the forces of change.

[+] EnlargePumpsie Green
Rogers Photo Archive/Getty ImagesGreen's major league career lasted five seasons and ended with the Mets in 1963. His career batting average was .246.

The beauty of today is that it is does not have to be yesterday, and history provides a watchful eye. Race in Boston remains a powerful subject because it holds a mirror up to the city's collective view of itself. In the mid-20th century, when the remnants of the city's historical progressiveness remained strong, the failures of the 1950s and 1960s -- all the way up to the school integration disasters of the 1970s -- said both to blacks and whites that Boston was not living up to its famous, abolitionist pedigree.

By the time John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino bought the Red Sox in 2002, the dynamic had dramatically changed. Boston -- whether in sports or in everyday life -- could not overcome the images of its intolerance, and the result was a new frustration: Even the best-meaning people could not live down the past.

Today, the cycle moves forward once more. The black and white in Boston, whether they're at the ballpark or reading the real estate section, are now vexed by the unifying troubles of affording the city and paying the big dollars it costs to watch the home team. Race has become a much less acrimonious subject. In terms of black players, the Red Sox are far less diverse than even 10 years ago. The hostilities have calmed, but the patterns have not. Former centerfielder Coco Crisp is the only full-time, everyday African American player they have employed since 2002, but the team is more universally regarded, by all races in all the city's neighborhoods, than ever.

And it is in the cycle of history that the events of July 21, 1959, must always be regarded. Old news, all of it is, but it's no less important to the people whose lives were affected during Pumpsie Green's moment a half-century ago, its context no less important to maintain. Nor is the date something that 50 years later can or should be retrofitted for a different time -- a better time, certainly -- to satisfy a newer, softer narrative.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.