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Pumpsie Green

By Harvey Frommer

April 18 , 2006

He was the last of the first. The first black player on the last team to integrate the 1959 Boston Red Sox. Below is a good chunk of his story, in an excerpt from Frommer’s new book, “ Where Have All Our Red Sox Gone?”

He was born Elijah Jerry Green October 27, 1933 in Oakland, California, and grew up in Richmond, California, where baseball was a natural part of life. All the kids in his area, the young and old, men and women, everybody played baseball. “Pumpsie” was the nickname his mother gave him when he was a couple of years old.

In 1948, Jackie Robinson barnstorming with an all-star team, played a ball game at the Oakland Oaks’ ballpark.

PUMPSIE GREEN: I scraped up every nickel and dime together that I could, and I was there. I had to see this game with the Jackie Robinson All Stars. They were all black — Suitcase Simpson, Minnie Minoso, and the others. They played an Oakland team that was put together specially for that occasion.

I never thought of playing pro ball. To me, baseball was just a game to play and have fun with. That was all. I used to see this big picture of Stan Musial on the side of the highway in the neighborhood. That was just about the only association I had with major league baseball. But the Pacific Coast League was really big. I listened to Bud Foster doing every Oakland Oaks game and followed a whole bunch of people on that team. It was almost a daily ritual. When I got old enough to wish, I wished I could play for the Oakland Oaks.

We had a good high school team, coached by a man named Gene Corr, who went on to become the baseball coach at Contra Costa Junior College after my sophomore year. When I was getting set to graduate from high school, I planned to go to Fresno State, which offered me an athletic scholarship. But Gene Corr promised me that I could play shortstop if I joined his team at Contra Costa, so I switched plans and went there. In my senior year at Contra Costa, I was given a tryout by the Oakland Oaks. I tried out with the team for a week. The workouts were staged before the regular team did its exercises. Then, when the game started, Gene Corr and I would sit in the stands and watch the games.

The people in charge of the Oaks finally came to a decision about me. It was just sign and play ball. Oakland was an independent team, so there was no draft as far as I was concerned. I got no bonus, just a regular salary of three or four hundred dollars a month. But unfortunately, I never got a chance to play with Oakland. There was a stop in Oakland’s minor leagues with Wenatchee, Washington. In 1955, I was moved up to Stockton, California.

It was June. We were in first place. I was having a great year. Then one day my manager Roy Partee said: “Hey, Pumps, the Red Sox bought your contract. You are going to their organization, to Montgomery, Alabama.”

I did not want to go. I wasn’t ready for it. One of the reasons Boston wanted me to go to Montgomery was that Earl Wilson, the only black in their organization, was there. They wanted me to be his roommate. I managed to get permission to finish out the season with Stockton and was named the Most Valuable Player in the California State League. I hit about .300, and drove in about eighty-something runs.

In 1956, I went to spring training with the Red Sox in Florida. I was street-smart and knew I could take care of myself. But any young black in those days going to the South had some kind of feelings. California was an integrated experience. There were some problems, but there weren’t signs all over the place about where blacks and whites could go, like there were in Florida.

I roomed all by myself. I knew that all the major league teams had been integrated except for the Red Sox. People made me aware. They wouldn’t let me forget it. I did not think of myself as another Jackie Robinson, as a pioneer with the Red Sox. I just wanted to make the team. As long as I had that chance, I was going to try and do the best I could. It got to be sort of tiring when the media kept asking me questions about being the first black on the Red Sox and what it meant to me, and what was my opinion as to why Boston had never had a black player before.

I met all the guys, including Ted Williams, at Spring Training, and they acted fine to me. I had the best spring training of anyone on the whole team, including Ted Williams. Yet, after such a great spring, I was sent down to Minneapolis. That caused a lot of writing in the newspaper, and that was when I got tired of it all. People were asking me too many questions about things I had no control over. I told them: “You are asking the wrong person.”

They kept me in Minneapolis until 1959. That year I was having a great year, hitting about .330 or .340. On July 21, I got a call. The Red Sox wanted me to report to Chicago. I suddenly became weak. I had to sit down quick. I just couldn't believe the news. My legs felt as if they'd collapsed. I packed in a hurry…and was landing in Chicago two hours after I received the phone call.

I had a little laugh walking out this long dungeonway in Comiskey Park. Passing the White Sox dugout, I saw an old junior college and high school baseball teammate, Jim Landis. He yelled, “Hey, El Cerrito. You have a good season.”

My major league debut for Boston was on July 21, 1959. I came in as a pinch-runner and remained in the game to play shortstop. We lost the game 2-1 to the White Sox. I will never forget my first at bat. I faced a guy who really shook me up. His name was Early Wynn. I had seen him on television pitching in the World Series. He had a big name. It was near the end of his career and the start of mine.

There was more media pressure than ever. I was trying to make it as a player and as the first black man on the Red Sox. I had no roommate. It never crossed my mind to have a roommate, since I was the only black on the team. It wasn’t a rule. It wasn’t a law. But it was unwritten that blacks did not room with whites.

The Red Sox got me a room in a hotel. I didn’t even know if I had to pay for it or not. I got to meet Mr. Yawkey the second day that I was in Boston. He was a very gentle, short, round man. He told me why he called me up, said he wanted to get to know me, and wished me well. “If you run into any problems or need any advice on something, you don’t have to go to the coaches or manager. Come directly to me,” he said. I thanked him, and we shook hands.

My first night in Boston was July 24. Fenway Park just felt small because it is small. Even Minneapolis, where I played for two years, seemed bigger. There was now more media pressure than ever. The first night I got to Fenway there was such a crowd, the park was full. A lot of blacks wanted to come to the game. They didn’t have a seat, but they were accommodated. The Red Sox roped off a corner part of centerfield. The whole thing made me feel special, but it made my blood pressure go up, too. “I can’t fail. I can’t make a mistake.” That was how I felt.

When I first got to Boston, I got in touch with guys from the University of San Francisco — Bill Russell and K.C. Jones — who were stars on the Boston Celtics. Russ would take me around and talk to me. He told me where I should and shouldn’t go.

Around the first of September, the Red Sox flew my wife up to Boston. That made things a lot easier for me. We had been married since 1957. I had good friends on that team — Pete Runnels, Frank Malzone. Jackie Jensen and also Ted Williams were friends and fellow Californians. Williams warmed up with me b efore every game. Some people said he was making a statement. But it wasn’t just he who befriended me; it was he and a bunch of the guys. I had some good friends on the Red Sox when I was there. It was just that after the ball diamond, they went their way and I went my way.

I was able to function, I really was. Some of the pressure and nervousness I put on myself. I know the people expected a lot, especially the black community, which wanted me to do good.

I roomed with no one until Earl Wilson came along. There was an unwritten rule, and that was the way it was. You get used to certain things; rooming by yourself, being by yourself. It was a way of life back then.

There were overtones of racial things. These overtones could be heard not only at Fenway but at any other ballpark. Sometimes terrible things would be yelled out, racial epithets. Some people said I must have felt like killing somebody. However, I never did. I got where I could divorce it from my mind, cut it off. I told people I had enough troubles trying to hit the curveball. I wasn’t going to worry about some loudmouths.

Truly, I didn’t have the kind of career that I would have loved to have had. I was used as a pinch runner or day-off replacement for infielders mostly. I played four seasons, 1959-62, for the Red Sox. My last game was September 26, 1963. I was 29 years old and had moved on to play a bit for the New York Mets. I didn’t know Boston was going to trade me. You go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning with somebody else.

Still, if I had it to do all over again, I would do the same thing. I never thought about the major leagues at all. I would have been happy just to have had the chance to play for the Oakland Oaks.

I have gotten cards and letters, people wanting autographs, phone calls and people bothering me through the years wanting to talk. It has been a bother and a thrill; a combination of both.

After I finished playing major league baseball, I went back to California, went back to being a regular working man. I worked for the school district in Berkeley. I coached the baseball team for about 25 years, taught math for awhile. And then I did a lot of nothing.

I have done card shows, talks to youth groups, lots and lots of interviews. People have not forgotten me. Every February is “Black History Month,” and that means I am onstage; one of the people there to talk to the kids.

I have grown children. For my children growing up, they really did not realize that I had broken the color bar with the Red Sox.

For my contemporaries, what I did was a big deal. But a lot of young kids never heard of me. Just like a lot of young kids never heard of Willie Mays. But when there are people who know what I did and their eyes are bright and they want to talk to me, it makes me feel good.

I have seen some players from my Red Sox time because I have been back to Boston more than once. I have seen Frank Malzone, Bill Monboquette, and the late Dick Radatz. I never got around to exchanging Christmas cards. My roommate, Earl Wilson, who passed in 2005, I used to exchange cards with him.

I keep up with baseball; the Red Sox, the Giants. Those are two I root for. Since I am near the Giants, I watch them more. I like New England but I am really a California guy.

There’s really nothing that interesting about me. I am just an everyday person happy with what I did. Now I am in the twilight of what was a sometimes wonderful career. A lot of people ask me if I am “that guy.” Of course, I say “yes.” But fame is fleeting.

I have been married to the same wife all these years. Almost 50 years. She was there with me in Boston a couple of summers. Every once in awhile the two of us talk about those times.

It has made me feel good when I have returned to Boston. Just that I have been there before and that I accomplished what I had set out to do. I did what I wanted to do and I don’t see anything bad about anything.

I would like to be remembered in Red Sox history as just another ball player. Aside from being the last of the first, just another ball player.

Nowadays, I am retired from baseball coaching. I am retired from my job. I am retired from everything except chauffeuring my granddaughter, s pending time with my granddaughter Brittany. There are a whole bunch of good things that we do.

I spend time now at the YMCA where I have heck of a lot of workouts with a bunch of guys. We meet there every morning. I take a lot of pride in having played for the Red Sox. I will always keep an eye on the Red Sox.

Harvey Frommer is the author of 38 sports books, including " New York City Baseball," "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," "Rickey and Robinson," "A Yankee Century," and “Red Sox vs. Yankees: The Great Rivalry" (with Frederic J. Frommer).

”Where Have All Our Red Sox Gone?” will be published in March, 2006.

Frommer sports books are available direct from the author - discounted and autographed. Contact: Harvey.Frommer@Dartmouth.EDU.


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