The Boston Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to sign a Black player. On July 21, 1959, Elijah “Pumpsie” Green became the first African-American to wear a Red Sox uniform.
Nothing spectacular happened on the field that day for Green. He just pinch ran for Boston’s Vic Wertz and played shortstop in the eighth inning of a 2-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. His career was short-lived, playing four years in Boston, and then finishing out his career at the tender age of 29 with the New York Mets.
It was a long time coming for Boston. Fourteen years earlier, the team decided to pass up on many of baseball’s all-time greats, including Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and many other Negro Leagues stars after Robinson became MLB’s first Black player with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It’s 57 years since Boston decided to sign Green, and baseball, by the numbers, is dealing with a crisis. A sport that saw 27 percent of its rosters consist of Black players in the 1970s has seen their number drop to a disheartening 8 percent at the beginning of this season. But a bright spot for African-Americans to relish, ironically, is shining in Boston.
The Red Sox’s Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogerts have emerged as three of the game’s rising stars. They helped lead the Red Sox to the American League East division title for the second time in four years. One doesn’t have to be a Red Sox fan to root for the trio.
When the team begins their AL Division Series against the Cleveland Indians tonight (Thursday) on the road, those who long to see an increase in the number of Black players in the major leagues will appreciate a Red Sox lineup that features outfielders Bradley and Betts and shortstop Bogaerts. All three experienced breakout All-Star seasons this year and are central figures in the team’s playoff hopes.
In just his second full season, Betts, from Nashville, Tenn., and likely AL MVP, hit .318 with 31 home runs. The 23-year-old, who attended the University of Tennessee, finished the regular season in the top five in runs scored, hits and RBIs, and was first in total bases.
Bradley also had a highly productive season, tying former Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon for the fourth-longest hitting streak in franchise history at 29 games. The 26-year-old from Richmond, Va., who helped lead the University of South Carolina to the 2010 NCAA baseball championship, in which he was named the series’ most outstanding player, hit a career high 26 homers while playing an impeccable centerfield.
The 24-year-old Bogerts, from the Island of Aruba, who has played parts of four seasons with the Red Sox after breaking into the majors with the club in 2013 at the age of 20, took his shortstop position in 157 out of 162 games this season, batting .294 with 21 home runs and 89 RBI.
Betts, Bradley and Bogerts, under the guidance of David Ortiz, perhaps the greatest designated hitter of all-time, also bring swagger and flavor to a sport in much need of appealing to young, Black aspiring athletes. Dancing, dabbing and showing unbridled enthusiasm after each win, they offer a glimpse into an aspect of baseball that isn’t always seen.
Baseball players, in most cases, aren’t supposed to show much emotion. That’s against what many consider the “tradition” of the game. But the Red Sox’s youngsters go against that notion, displaying sheer joy for a sport that was once filled with charismatic Black icons.
This moment isn’t a tribute to the Red Sox, whose past is littered with racial discrimination and exclusion. It is a moment to celebrate Betts, Bradley and Bogaerts, three of the more dynamic players to descend from a lineage of players who have broken a systemic wall of prejudice.