There must have been a moment in July 1962 when catcher Elston Howard of the New York Yankees was at home plate with the batter Pumpsie Green of the Boston Red Sox. Together they were emblematic of breakthroughs—Howard was the first African American to play for the Yankees and Green the first for the Red Sox, which was the last of the Major League teams to integrate.
The extent to which they recognized or commented on the moment is not known; it was, nonetheless, a significant moment not only in the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox that was launched with the trade of Babe Ruth from Boston to New York, but also in breaching the color barrier.
Green’s entry in the big leagues in 1959 came 12 years after Jackie Robinson opened the gates, and there was relatively little fanfare with his arrival. He made his debut as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning and finished the game at shortstop against the Chicago White Sox at Comisky Park.
Born Elijah Jerry Green, Jr. on Oct. 27, 1933, in the all-Black town of Boley, Oklahoma, he was called Pumpsie as a child by his mother, though he never knew why. With the outbreak of World War II, the Green family moved to Richmond, California in the Bay Area, and both his parents found jobs in the defense industry.
As a shortstop, Green was a member of the Contra Costa College team in San Pablo, Calif. He would make his professional baseball debut with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, and then join the Red Sox farm system in 1956. Almost immediately he began to feel the sting of discrimination when during spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1959 he was barred from living with the other players at the team hotel and had to live alone in nearby Phoenix. This necessitated his being driven to and from workouts by the Red Sox owners.
After Robinson’s entry in 1947, when Pumpsie was 13, there had been protests in Boston for them to follow suit, and even Robinson and two other players from The Negro Leagues had brief tryouts at Fenway Park never to be called again. By the time Green was brought up from the minors, there were a number of notable Black major league players along with Robinson, including his teammates Roy Campanella, Dan Bankhead, Don Newcombe and Junior Gilliam. Even so, Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, continued to be resistant to putting a Black player in uniform, contending he was unable to find one capable of performing at major league level.
If there was not the clamor that greeted Robinson’s arrival, nevertheless, Green endured his share of indignities. On Aug. 4, Green played in his first game in Boston against the Kansas City Athletics. He received a standing ovation and the bedlam increased after he hit a triple in his first at bat.
Asked about being the first Black with the Red Sox in 1959, Green told a reporter “I’m no martyr, no flag-carrier. I’m not even interested in being the first Negro to make the Red Sox.” He said he just wanted a chance to play for Boston and, as far as pioneering went, “all the rest of it can wait.” He later observed that he didn’t have to leave California for Boston to be discriminated against.
Obviously, such comments did not endear him to the NAACP or to fans who were interested in him being representative of the Civil Rights Movement and another symbol of victory. If the reception across the nation was lukewarm, Green was congratulated by Robinson in a phone call. There were warm regards from Boston Celtic immortals K.C. Jones and Bill Russell, both of whom Green knew from their college days at the University of San Francisco.
Playing mostly as a shortstop and second baseman, Green’s numbers were not extraordinary and in his four seasons with the Red Sox he was a regular only in 1960, and this questions whether he actually stood at home plate with Howard in 1962. A year later he was with the New York Mets where he played in 17 games, and finished his career that same year. All in all, he appeared in 344 games in the majors and compiled a .246 batting average.
One incident in his life is often cited from the summer of 1962 when the Red Sox bus got stuck in traffic on its way to the George Washington Bridge and onto the Newark Airport. According to Gene Conley, a pitcher and a former professional basketball player, he and Green asked permission to leave the bus in order to use a public restroom at a bar. When they returned the bus was gone. Green, having missed the team’s plane to Washington, flew there later but missed the game. Conley, who was missing for several days, said he had gone to Idlewild airport with the intention of flying to Israel, but was refused since he had no passport. They were both admonished and fined.
After his retirement from the major leagues, he coached baseball in the school system in Berkeley, Calif.
Green, 85, died on July 17, 2019, at a hospital in San Leandro, California, after a brief illness. Before a game that evening there was a moment of silence was held in his memory.
John Henry, the Red Sox’s principal owner, said Green 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.”