Pumpsie Green Leaves Lasting Legacy

 Elijah “Pumpsie” Green’s Baseball-reference page won’t garner any special attention. He won’t ever have his number on the right field facade at Fenway Park or a plaque in Cooperstown. After his death on Wednesday, however, there is something Green will always have. Pumpsie Green leaves a lasting legacy with the Boston Red Sox. 

This Sunday, July 21, will mark the 60th anniversary of Green’s major league debut. Likepumpsie green leaves the rest of his career, it was nothing special on the field. He came in to run for Vic Wertz in the eighth inning and finished the game at shortstop in a 2-1 loss to the eventual American League champion White Sox. Green had made his mark, however, as the first black player ever to play for the Red Sox.

Now often the answer to a trivia question Red Sox fans might like to forget, Green helped the Red Sox become the final MLB team to integrate. The Red Sox obviously didn’t have the most polished past when it comes to race relations. They did, in fact, pass up on Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson over a decade earlier. I don’t think it’s because they weren’t good enough. While Green’s debut came 18 months after Willie O’Ree broke the NHL color barrier for the Bruins, two other MLB teams integrated over 10 years after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. 

Green’s contributions to the sports landscape of Boston could not have come at a better time. The aforementioned O’Ree was a pioneer with the Bruins and the Celtics were beginning to spark a dynasty with notable black stars Sam Jones and Bill Russell. With the “old town team” being the last in the city to have a black player, it represented a crucial point for Boston to move forward in race relations, although it would take some time. Suddenly, pictures in the paper of the young shortstop talking with the great Ted Williams were easing the minds of Boston baseball fans.

Pumpsie Green After Baseball

After his brief career, he served as a baseball coach and teacher in Berkeley, California for 20 years. The Red Sox honored him by having him throwing out a first pitch in 2009 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of breaking the team’s color barrier. He threw out another first pitch on Jackie Robinson Day in 2012. To commemorate his achievement, the Red Sox enshrined him in their Hall of Fame last May. He was also honored in his adopted home of El Cerrito, California, for “distinguished stature in baseball history.”

Considering the love and adoration black sports stars in the city get today, it seems odd that a player such as Green would be the trailblazer. He played just four years in his major league career and hit a mere .246. In fact, his baseball-reference similarity score is akin to that of Blake Swihart’s. There would have still been a Jim Rice, a Pedro Martinez and a David Ortiz in a Red Sox uniform, but someone had to be the first.

What Green did was forage a relationship between black Bostonians and the city’s favorite team. Was he the greatest Red Sock of all time? No. Was he one of the most important? Yes. Even now that he is gone, the Green family and the Red Sox family can forever look back on that July afternoon at Comiskey Park and be proud. He was 85.

Does Bigotry Plague Baseball?

I didn’t intend on thinking about the question “Does bigotry plague baseball?” this week. After all, it’s not an easy topic to discuss. But a question at a ballgame last weekend made me reflect. I was watching the Red Sox play the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway last Monday when a novice fan tapped me on the shoulder. “Can you tell me who the good players are?” Toronto was batting, and Jose Bautista was warming up in the on deckBigotry Plague Baseball circle. “He’s pretty good,” I said. “He’s the one who got a lot of flack for flipping his bat after hitting a home run last year.” The guy’s face lit up and pointed Bautista out to a friend while repeating what I said before turning back to me, “Who cares if he flipped his bat? He can’t get excited?”

What does a flipped bat have to do with bigotry? Purists of the game flipped (pun intended) after seeing Bautista’s enthusiastic gesture, which made many ask: Does bigotry plague baseball? After hearing what New York Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage said on ESPN, some say yes: “He’s embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him.” Many wondered why Gossage had to mention Bautista’s Latin heritage at all. Why is that important? Bautista isn’t the first to flip his bat. So for many, it’s not so much the enthusiasm that players show when they hit a home run, as much as how the color of their skin can sometimes influence the way opposing players and fans react. This issue has plagued baseball since the days of segregation, particularly the Red Sox, who were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate when Pumpsie Green joined the team in 1959.

Baseball has made enormous strides towards combating bigotry. Jackie Robinson Day has become an annual celebration where all baseball players wear the number 42 to commemorate the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. But comedian Chris Rock recently made comments that made me think further about the problems with bigotry that remain in baseball. Rock said being a black baseball fan makes him an endangered specie while criticizing the game’s unofficial codes, “When you score in baseball,” Rock said on an episode of HBO’s Real Sports, “the code says: ‘You better not look too happy about it.'” Since then, Chris Rock has said that because of its conservative attributes, baseball is still living in the past and isn’t keeping up with what makes other sports so exciting. So when Bautista flipped his bat, many of those who love the history and tradition of the game found themselves at a crossroads. Many didn’t know how to defend their love for baseball’s honor without looking like they were also defending its flawed past. How do you defend the game’s longstanding traditions without acknowledging that past?

No One Wants to See Bigotry Plague Baseball

Of course, no rational person wants to see baseball return to the days of segregation.  However, it is important for baseball to continue with the strides it has made since Jackie Robinson integrated the majors. So if bat flipping signifies that baseball is progressing, then its purists should keep in mind that it’s not a departure from the honor in baseball, as much as it is a departure from the bigotry that plagued baseball in the first place. Issues like Bautista’s bat flip don’t always have to be about race and ethnicity, but it’s an effort that all parties have to keep in mind if the game is going to continue making strides towards equality.