Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, the first black player in Boston Red Sox history, died Wednesday near his home in northern California, the team said in a press release. He was 85.
The switch-hitting infielder made history on July 21, 1959, when he entered Boston’s game against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning.
His presence marked the first time a black athlete had ever played for the Red Sox, making them the very last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, 12 years after Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Green went on to play 327 games over four seasons with the Red Sox before he was traded to the New York Mets in 1962. After playing 17 games for the Mets, Green retired, moving back to his native California and working as a high school baseball coach.
“Sometimes it was difficult, sometimes it was hard, sometimes it was impossible,” Green said last year in an interview with the Red Sox. “But I stuck with it. [Pitcher Earl Wilson and I] said to ourselves, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, all those guys did it. We can do it.”
Weeks after making his debut, Green played his very first game at Fenway Park, and despite feeling immense pressure, hit a triple off the Green Monster in his first at-bat.
“I’ll never forget because there was more pressure on me that night than I don’t know what. I couldn’t relax, I was nervous … I didn’t want to disappoint,” he said, noting that he got a standing ovation as he stepped into the batter’s box.
Though he had a successful first at-bat, Green, who was 25 at the time, said he was never fully able to embrace his role on the team.
“I never did get comfortable,” he said. “Never. The time I was there, I was never comfortable because to me, it was almost like opening night every game. That’s the way it was to me.”
His journey into the majors came amid a longstanding refusal by the Red Sox to call up a black player, despite it having been more than a decade since baseball’s color barrier was broken.
Green was eventually called up from the team’s Minneapolis farm team only after the Red Sox were investigated by Walter Carrington of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination for violating the state’s Fair Employment Law.
Carrington, as outlined in an article he wrote for WBUR, said that during his investigation, he found that the Sox had never once hired a black employee, save for one brief exception, and that general manager Pinky Higgins was once quoted as saying he’d never have a black person play for him.
Team owner Tom Yawkey was also found to have given financial support to white segregationists in his home state of South Carolina.
The team eventually relented and signed a formal agreement to bring on Green, though he reportedly endured “humiliation” during spring training, and was forced to secure his own lodging away from the hotels his teammates stayed in (other clubs typically demanded their black players be allowed to say in the same place as the rest of the team).
Despite the rocky start, Green was inducted into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2018 and returned to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on several occasions, including Jackie Robinson Day in 2012.
“Pumpsie Green occupies a special place in our history,” Red Sox principal owner John Henry said in a statement. “He 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. He paved the way for the many great Sox players of color who followed. For that, we all owe Pumpsie a debt of gratitude.”
Green is survived by Marie, his wife of 62 years, daughter Heidi, two granddaughters, four great-grandsons, and a host of other relatives.
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