Obituary: “Pumpsie” Green (1933-2019)

R.I.P. to Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, a versatile infielder who has the distinction of being the first African-American ballplayer for the Boston Red Sox, the last MLB team to integrate. He died on July 17 at the age of 85. Green played for the Red Sox (1959-62) and New York Mets (1963).

“Pumpsie Green occupies a special place in our history,” Red Sox principal owner John Henry said in a statement. “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.”

Elijah Green was born in Boley, Okla., on October 27, 1933. His family moved to California when he was young, and he attended El Cerrito High School there. He was named a 1951 Alameda County Athletic League All-Star (2nd Team) as a catcher, a position he never played in the majors. He also played football and basketball at El Cerrito.

Pumpsie Green talks with Ted Williams before his first major-league game. Source: The Boston Globe, July 22, 1959.

Green also got a taste of organized ball when he played for the Medicine Hat Mohawks of the Western Baseball League. There are no stats available on Baseball Reference for his time there, but from what game recaps are available, the switch-hitting teenager knocked a few home runs. He went back to Canada in 1952 to play for the Indian Head Rockets. He also played a couple of seasons at Contra Costa Junior College in Richmond batting over .350 each season.

Green signed with the Oakland Oaks in 1953 (just a few weeks before they signed the recently deceased Ernie Broglio) and was assigned to the Wenatchee Chiefs in Washington State. He hit in the .240s in his first year but, working with coach Cookie Lavagetto, he brought his average up to .297 with 6 home runs. Veteran player Mike McCormick raved about Green’s fielding abilities, particularly at third base or shortstop.

“I can’t remember when I’ve ever seen a kid with a better pair of hands,” he commented.

The Oaks promoted Green to the Stockton Ports in 1955, and he responded with an All-Star selection at shortstop and the California League MVP Award. He hit .319 with 12 homers, 11 triples and 30 stolen bases. He was acquired by the Red Sox and hit wherever he played, whether it was Albany, N.Y., or Minneapolis with the Millers. Frequently he was the only African-American on the team and ended up staying on his own, segregated from the rest of the team.

“A long time ago I learned how to live with myself and by myself. I don’t say I like it. I just know how I do it,” he said.

Green was invited to Spring Training by the Red Sox in 1959. The white players stayed at the Safari Motel in Scottsdale. Green stayed at the Frontier Motel in Phoenix. Every day, a car would pick him up, drive him 17 miles to camp, and take him back to the hotel at the end of the day. Eventually he moved into the same hotel with the Giants’ black ballplayers so he could talk with Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Willie Kirkland or Leon Wagner. Green, when asked about his circumstances, simply said, “I’m here trying to make a ball club. I’m not hurt in any way. I’ve been through things a lot worse than here.”

“As long as people meet me halfway and are good to me I don’t want any trouble with anybody,” he told Milton Gross of the Boston Globe.

Boston writers voted Green “Rookie of the Spring,” for his performance, hitting .327 with 4 homers. Manager Mike Higgins preferred infielder Don Buddin, and Green was sent to Minneapolis. They blamed it on a slump at the end of Spring Training, and the Boston Globe said that Green’s struggles were related to the fact that he was the only African-American on the team. “The Red Sox should know by now that a team cannot have one Negro… there must be at least two.” That is a direct quote from Boston’s largest newspaper in 1959, by the way.

This isn’t the place for a deep dive into the history of Red Sox racism, but it’s worth noting that the Sox were the last team to integrate by design, not happenstance. Owner Tom Yawkey said that the team wouldn’t sign a ballplayer just because he was a minority; in other words, the team would sign an African-American ballplayer, but they just couldn’t locate one good enough to play on the team. Somehow this wasn’t a problem for every other MLB team in existence. The Red Sox, by the way, had the chance to sign both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and passed on them. A 1945 tryout for Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams ended with someone in the grandstand shouting “Get those [n-word] off the field!” Though never proven conclusively, a reporter on the scene believed Yawkey said it.

All that history left Green in a lousy spot. In spite of damning circumstantial evidence, he couldn’t prove that racism kept him off the team, and he sure couldn’t say anything about it to the press. All he could was return to Minneapolis, hit .320, steal 11 bases, hit 7 homers and play such good defense that the Red Sox had no choice but to bring him to the majors. And they did, inserting him as a pinch runner in a game against the White Sox on July 21, 1959. It’s worth noting that Green got the call to the majors only after manager Higgins was fired and replaced by Billy Jurges.

Green made his first MLB start the next day, his first major-league hit on July 28 and hit .292 in his first 9 games, all on the road. He made his Boston debut in Game One of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics on August 4. He walked to the plate in front of 21,000 cheering fans and slammed a triple off the Green Monster in his first at-bat. He scored on a Pete Runnels grounder for Boston’s first run, and he played a flawless second base too.

Green slides into third base after hitting a triple in his first at-bat at Fenway Park. Source: The Boston Globe, August 5, 1959.

Green batted .233 in 50 games in 1959. He appeared in 133 games in 1960, splitting time pretty evenly at second base and shortstop. He hit .242. His best season came in 1961, when he had career highs in home runs (6), RBIs (27) and batting average (.260). He would have played more, but an emergency appendectomy knocked him out of action for a couple of weeks. It was a sign of changing times when Green was named the Red Sox Opening Day shortstop by Mike Higgins, who had reclaimed his job as Red Sox manager.

“Maybe he doesn’t have the best throwing arm in the league, but that doesn’t matter if you get the ball away fast enough,” Higgins said. “It’s Pumpsie’s job as long as he can do it.”

Green slumped in 1962 and was traded to the New York Mets for Felix Mantilla in December. He appeared in 17 games for New York and hit .278 with a home run, but he spent most of the year in the minor leagues. He stayed in the minors until 1965. Green, who was 30 years old by then, suffered a hip injury in the Mets Spring Training camp and hardly played. He had a brief stint with the Tigers AAA team in Syracuse before ending his pro career.

In his 5 years in the majors, Green slashed .246/.357/.364, with 196 hits in 344 games. He homered 13 times and stole 10 bases. He also had a .284 batting average in the minor leagues.

After his playing career, Green earned a degree in physical education from San Francisco State University, and he worked as a counselor and a coach at Berkley High School. One of those players he coached, former major-leaguer Ruppert Jones, posted a special remembrance on Twitter:

Obituary: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/obituaries/2019/07/17/pumpsie-green-black-player-red-sox-dies/s7L4dEAIq14aThFN7mnu0N/story.html?p1=HP_TrendingBar

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