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In the dawning of the Age of Obama the sports pages brimmed proudly with mossy tales of the role sport played in paving the way. Ancient Don Newcombe, who arrived with the Dodgers in 1949, tearfully recalled a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King in which the Great Man told him, “You and Roy and Jackie and Larry made my job a helluva lot easier.” The 44th President, himself something of a closet jock, is known to agree.
The stomping down of racial barriers, earlier and more dramatically than was the case in many other sectors of American commerce and culture, was the proudest achievement of American sport in the 20th century. As far and away the foremost of the games over that span, the triumph in baseball was especially noteworthy, even historical.
It remains a matter of considerable embarrassment to otherwise haughty “Red Sox Nation” that no team in professional sport more conspicuously missed the boat during this vital and uplifting passage than the Boston Red Sox, then owned by Thomas Austin Yawkey.
Sure, other teams also resisted integration in mean little ways. The “Nation” likes to lump the Yankees in the indictment but it doesn’t fly. Elston Howard debuted in the Bronx in the summer of 1955. In Boston, they would have to wait four more years. The Reds, Cardinals and Phillies were also painfully slow. But Cincinnati and St. Louis, were border-turf-towns where bitter Civil War memories lingered near a century later. What excuse Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, had was harder to figure. So was the case of Detroit with its huge black labor force where the Tigers vied with the Red Sox for the curious “distinction” of being the very last team to buckle.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. Ossie Virgil desegregated the Tigers in the middle of the 1958 season, a full year before the Red Sox introduced with great hesitation bordering on embarrassment Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, a shy, wiry utility infielder of little promise and no exceptional skill.
That such a limited prospect should be chosen by the Red Sox to be their pathfinder did not surprise the game’s more informed observers. They well knew Mike Higgins, variously their manager and general manager in that era and always the Svengali who held Yawkey totally under his sway, would hardly have wanted the team’s first black player to demonstrate for the local yokels how much they had missed.
As for Yawkey, he said not a bloody word. Important though the moment was, you will nowhere find a quote from him uttered on this issue at that time. But it can be safely assumed he was in full agreement with Higgins with whom he essentially agreed about everything. Moreover, if it was a potential black star that he wanted why would he have passed on two of the greatest of all time, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays? Famously, he had the first opportunity to sign both, for both had been literally dropped in his lap and both would have signed with the Red Sox for the minimum wage plus a bowl of chowder. Yet the Red Sox passed. They also had first dibs on Hank Aaron, but again demurred. Moreover, it’s widely believed such outrages were punctuated with spiteful epithets that ring across Red Sox history like a shriek in the night forever blighting Yawkey’s long, rich and colorful ownership. It’s all fairly tragic and quite impossible to forget.
And so “Pumpsie” Green, who was ill-prepared for the task and probably wanted no part of the grief, got to be the man who integrated the Boston Red Sox, a role destiny had arranged for Jack Roosevelt Robinson 14 years earlier until destiny got sidetracked by whoever it was that yelled from the shadows deep in the grandstands behind home plate, as Robinson was finishing his infamous tryout at Fenway Park on the morning of April 16, 1945, “Get those (blankety-blank... N-word) off the field!”
Some actually believe it was Yawkey who bellowed that infamous slur. But I find that much hard to believe. While I don’t doubt the depths of his ante-bellum hang-ups on the subject of race, I don’t think Yawkey was that dumb. He was, after all, a Yale man and therefore plenty wise to all the ways he could express his displeasure and exercise his will or just plain get even without descending to such common vulgarity and risk making a fool of himself.
It’s more likely the profane utterance that still so scars Red Sox history probably came from one of the clubhouse employees, a rowdy bunch. But their antics, I firmly believe, would have been heartily approved by their employers. Furthermore, it remains especially revealing that while there’s never been agreement about exactly who committed that blasphemy there has never been any dispute about the fact that someone did. To the team’s everlasting disgrace, it did happen.
Yawkey was never able to admit he was wrong for all those years, never willing to recognize he’d been badly served by his own buddies. Chief among them was the deplorable Higgins, a hard drinking Texan and alleged “man’s man” from the old school. “Pinky”, as he was oddly nicknamed, lurks in Red Sox history like an eternally menacing Iago. His brotherly relationship with Yawkey was cemented by long, languorous cocktail hours spiced with boozy boy-talk. But Higgins hardly did all the damage. An all-star roster of Yawkey cronies contributed mightily. Even the best of them ranked as classic enablers. The crime of the Red Sox historical performance on the issue of race was indisputably a team effort.
One year in the late ’50s when Yawkey finally tired of wasting big money purchasing aging stars, he ordered his scouts to roam the Republic in search of young prospects -- then known as “Bonus Babies” -- on whom he could lavish even more money. In one summer, they signed 17 kids. Every, single, blessed one of them was a white boy. Did anyone pause to wonder ‘‘why’’? If so, there’s no record of it. It’s as if they were blind.
They also had a positive genius for convincing themselves they were blameless. When in 1945 the Boston City Council demanded an explanation for the team’s wretched minority hiring record, General Manager Eddie Collins replied innocently that he would just love to give black players a chance. But, he added, “None have ever asked.” Over the next generation it became something of a mantra for the Red Sox front office. “If only they would ask!”
The “honor” that finally fell by default to Pumpsie Green was at best a mixed blessing for all concerned. He survived four seasons as a lightly used utility player on consistently terrible teams, hitting .242 with a grand total of 12 homers. The goofy caper in which he tried to flee to Israel with the incomparable Gene Conley is well remembered. But otherwise he made no waves, which at that time was vital.
Much has been made of the fact that Ted Williams, the resident though fading demi-god, welcomed Green warmly. But it’s equally a fact that by 1959, Williams had co-existed with the Red Sox reactionary racial policies 14 years and never uttered a single public complaint nor do we have any evidence he ever once advised his dear pal, Uncle Tom, that on this issue he was on the wrong side of history. It’s too bad because Ted had genuine clout with the old boy. That Williams’ apologists continue to rave about Ted’s kindness to Pumpsie seems to me a revealing illustration of how desperately Red Sox adherents must reach to make their team’s racial history faintly palatable.
We’ve reached the point of the summer that marks the 50th anniversary of Green’s arrival in late July of ’59 and Boston debut in early August. Some find the anniversary rather muted given its importance, although the Red Sox did honor Green with an evening early this season. Others find ironic the fact that this year’s team has no African-Americans on its roster. But making a fuss over that would seem an unfair stretch. It is no longer an issue. The plantation era is over. There’s been redemption.
Yet the lasting memory stains Red Sox history. And it always will.