Yankee fans may remember Elijah "Pumpsie" Green as the doughty soul who became the first black ballplayer for the Boston Red Sox. On July 21, 1959, Green took the field with the floundering Red
Nex Sox in Chicago to play an inning at shortstop, finally breaking the "color line" in major league baseball. This was a welcome surprise to many who had been picketing Fenway Park with signs like "We Want a Pennant, Not a White Team". And possibly an unwelcome surprise to others, like AL President (and former Red Sox manager) Joe Cronin who had once defended Boston owner Tom Yawkey's character by noting that Yawkey "has colored help on his plantation in South Carolina, takes excellent care of them, pays good salaries, and they are all very happy"(1). Or still-manager Pinky Higgins, who in 1955 said "There'll be no [epithet] on this ballclub as long as I have anything to say about it."(2)
Green tripled off the Green Monster in his first plate appearance in Beantown the next week. He went on to an otherwise unremarkable career, ending with a 17-game
sentence stint with the 57-111 1963 Mets. Not much reward for being the first black man to wear a Red Sox uniform, and sadly his name is usually forgotten in baseball's busy self-congratulatory events commemorating the breaking of a barrier its owners erected themselves.
But like so many of us, he only found true greatness and
immorality immortality when he came to New York.
On July 26, 1962, Green and his 8th place (of 10 teams) teammates visited the Bronx. The pride of New England stood only 14 games behind the AL-leading Yankees with a chance to narrow the gap. They rose to the occasion by losing 13-3, as Jim "Bulldog" Bouton (yes, that one) held them to 3 runs over 6 1/3 while the Yanks pounded 12 hits for those 13 runs including doubles from Hector Lopez, Elston Howard, and big Dale Long, and homers from (wait for it) Tom Tresh and Clete Boyer. Boston's Gene Conley managed to surrender 8 runs in 2 2/3, all of which came in the 3rd inning with two outs. He walked Roger Maris to load the bases and followed with walks to Mickey Mantle and Lopez. Howard and Long cleared the bases with consecutive doubles, and Boyer followed with his two-run shot, finally convincing Higgins to send Conley to the showers, taking the loss when his teammates came up just ten runs short.
But Conley would not surrender to New York even if the game was lost. History does not tell us what Conley did to entertain himself for the rest of the afternoon, but later events suggest beer was served in the Boston clubhouse. The team's bus became stuck in postgame traffic, which apparently even then was much the same in the South Bronx and perhaps should have made them reconsider choosing Newark Airport. Accounts become, understandably, fuzzy at this point but apparently the Red Sox bus did not have a restroom and Conley needed one. Badly.
He also apparently needed a guide, and Pumpsie Green was up to this task, almost as thankless as the other for which Boston had chosen him. Hopelessly disoriented by New York streets, they ran low on provisions and stopped in a local tavern. Again, details are sketchy, but the Bronx' famous hospitality must have made time pass slowly, for the stoplight had turned green by the time they resumed their journey and the team bus was long gone.
But Conley and Green were not about to let this setback stain the great history of Red Sox integration. They soldiered on in brotherly fashion, two men of diversity against the harsh wilderness of the five boroughs. Here again, the details of this plan for greatness have been lost to history but one report (3)claims they "went on a Manhattan spending spree". Other accounts reconstruct events differently:
Conley got himself a hotel room and spent the next few days really dedicating himself to his drinking. Despite being a 6-foot-8 professional athlete, Conley somehow managed to hide in plain sight in New York City. He wasn't discovered until three days later, at Idlewild Airport, attempting, without passport, ticket or luggage, to board a plane to Israel.
Conley would later claim he had no idea why he did it, but one book does note that he was discovered in "what in all candor must be described as a markedly inebriated condition." Conley returned to the Red Sox and was fined $2,000 for his lost weekend.
Pumpsie, however, refused to let his teammates and the proud legacy of Boston interracial harmony down. He soldiered on somehow to meet his teammates in Washington where they managed to beat the odds and win one game of four against the dead-last Senators. They lost three heartbreakers, dropping both ends of a Friday doubleheader by scores of 11-2 and 14-1, and being edged in the Saturday matinee by a 9-1 margin (with Pumpsie popping out to 1B in the 8th, $2,000 poorer for fines from his brave exploratory work). But their cunning strategy to wear down Washington batters bore fruit and the Red Sox' well-rested bats exploded to power a 4-2 victory.
For his part, Green believed the reports were, like exaggerations of Boston racism, overblown.
"We went into a restaurant, hung around for a while in New York, had a few beers... For the record, it was really no big deal. Afterwards I heard things that were amazing to me. The guys asked me, 'Were you and Conley going to Israel?' I said, 'I don't know', and I didn't know. I still don't know."(4)
Strong words indeed, but one would expect no less from the man chosen by the storied Boston franchise to finally drag them into the 20th Century. Good luck, current Boston ballplayers, and plot your route to the airport carefully.
(1) Moffi, Larry, and Kronstadt, Jonathan, Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-59.
(2) Tygiel, Jules, Baseball's Great Experiment.
(3) Moffi and Kronstadt, p. 212.