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'Pumpsie' reflects on breaking BoSox color line

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BOSTON – This was an accident of history, not history repeating itself, that when Elijah "Pumpsie" Green, the man who integrated the Red Sox, returned to Fenway Park on Friday night, there were no Red Sox players that shared his African-American ancestry.

Fifty years ago, the Boston Red Sox were unique in their whiteness. They'd given a sham tryout to Jackie Robinson in 1945, later turned down the chance to purchase a young outfielder named Willie Mays from the Birmingham Black Barons, and by 1959, a dozen years after Robinson had broken baseball's color line and three years after he'd retired from the Brooklyn Dodgers, they stood alone as the only team without an African-American player.

That legacy would haunt the Red Sox. Never mind the widely circulated Curse of the Bambino, which ascribed the team's 86 years without winning a World Series to the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, an entertaining but fanciful myth.

Robinson himself came much closer to the truth, baseball historian Glenn Stout noted, when he told the Chicago Defender, the respected black newspaper, that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey had only himself to blame by stubbornly keeping his Sox a whites-only enterprise.

"Maybe he would have won another pennant or two,'' Robinson said of Yawkey, who in 1958, the year before Green arrived, did not have a single African-American employed in any capacity in the major league organization – groundskeeper, usher, ticket-taker, player.

The perception of the Red Sox as racist persisted for years afterward.

"My first couple of years in the Red Sox organization, I didn't know any of this, and never gave it any thought,'' Green said Friday night while sitting in the Red Sox dugout, an hour before he would throw out the ceremonial first pitch as part of the team's salute to Jackie Robinson Day.

"It wasn't until I was in San Antonio playing Double-A ball that a sportswriter wrote something about maybe me one day becoming the first to wear a Red Sox uniform. That got my attention.

"But I never really gave it much thought, even in spring training in 1959. I didn't know I was even going to get invited to spring training, but when I showed up, I went wild. I really did. I went wild. Everything fell into place.''

Not at first. The Red Sox that season trained in Scottsdale, Ariz., a town that had no intention of allowing Green to stay at the same hotel as his white teammates. Green commuted from a hotel in Phoenix.

"Every day,'' he said, "I had a driver, a groundskeeper, who used to take me to the park and then back to the hotel.

"I stayed at the same hotel with some of the black players on the Giants. That's how I got to meet Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Sam Jones. Sam Jones – pool games, poker games – Sam Jones could do anything.''

Green, an infielder, thought he'd made the big club out of spring training. When he did not break camp with the team, howls of protest were heard in Boston from the NAACP and other groups that appealed to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Mike Higgins was Boston's manager, and he once blatantly told a reporter that as long as he had any say, there would be no black players on his club, making his point with a hateful epithet.

Later that season Higgins was fired, and on July 21, 1959, Green made his major league debut as a pinch-runner against the White Sox in a game in Comiskey Park. His teammates, he said, were supportive, including Ted Williams, then nearing the end of his Hall-of-Fame career.

"Ted Williams was one of the nicest guys I've ever met around baseball or any other time,'' Green said. "When I first got here, Ted Williams would say, 'Hey, Pumps, let's go warm up.' Me warming up with Ted Williams. I loved it.''

On Aug. 4, the 25-year-old Green made his Fenway Park debut, batting leadoff and playing second base in the first game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics. Thousands of black fans came to the game, many standing in a roped-off section of center field.

"My first at-bat,'' he said, "I hit a triple off the wall. I'll never forget it. The standing ovation I got, I'll never forget it. The first ground ball, there was a runner on first, and the ball was hit to [Frank] Malzone. He gave me a low throw to second, but I completed the double play.

"I remember it almost like yesterday. Then there were some days I'd like to forget, but I loved that night.''

One of those more forgettable nights occurred the following season. Del Baker was the Red Sox manager, and one day in the Boston clubhouse he repeatedly used a racial epithet within earshot of Green.

"He wasn't talking to me,'' Green said, "but I think he was using words to describe Minnie Minoso on the White Sox, racial things. Unless he was retarded, he forgot I was there. I didn't say anything, but [Bill] Monbouquette got up, went down and shut him up.''

Monbouquette, a Red Sox pitcher who'd grown up in the black section of the working-class Boston suburb of Medford, was here Friday night with Green, along with two other former teammates, third baseman Malzone and infielder Ted Lepcio.

"Del Baker was the manager,'' Monbouquette said, "and he was using the N-word. I told him, 'Don't let me hear you say that or I'll knock you right on your ass.' I meant it and he knew I meant it.''

Green's tenure with the Red Sox was short. Later in his first summer with the team, he fractured his hand tagging out Mickey Mantle. Three years later, after batting .231 in 56 games, he was traded to the New York Mets.

Now 75, retired with his wife, Marie, a long-time educator, and living in the northern California area where he grew up, Green remains "Pumpsie." The nickname was given to him by his mother, Gladys, for reasons lost to time.

"For whatever reason,'' he said, "it stuck. If someone called me Elijah, I probably wouldn't even turn around.''

This was his first trip to Fenway since 1997, when the Red Sox invited him for the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color line. Earlier this week, a study was released showing that the number of African-American players in MLB had risen to 10.2 percent last year, the highest percentage since 1995 and moderately higher than the all-time low of 8.2 percent in 2007.

The Red Sox have no African-American players on their roster this season, but have 10 foreign-born players, one of the highest numbers in the majors. Former general manager Dan Duquette aggressively began scouting the Caribbean in the '90s, and the John W. Henry/Tom Werner/Larry Lucchino ownership group has made diversity a priority throughout the organization. It's no coincidence that winning has followed.

Friday night, Pumpsie Green talked about how baseball has been losing the best African-American athletes to football and basketball, but that the game still offers the promise of unimaginable rewards.

"I've never forgotten the memories,'' he said, "doing something you love and getting paid for it. What they make now, I'd just like to see one of those checks. I wouldn't want one, but I'd like to see one.

"I tell you what – if I got one, I'd take it.''

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