In the winter of 1950, more than nine years before Pumpsie Green made his debut, the Sox agreed to a deal with Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, the popular player/manager of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro league.
When the late Pumpsie Green died last week, just four days short of the 60th anniversary (June 21, 1959) of his becoming the first player of color ever to play for the Boston Red Sox, it rekindled interest in a dark -- and dumb -- period in the team's history. By resisting signing a black player for more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's shameful whites-only practice, the Red Sox sunk from being one of baseball's elite franchises to being a perennial bottom-feeder. As Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up.
But wait a minute. Pumpsie was not the first black player to sign with the Red Sox. Not by a long shot. In the winter of 1950, more than nine years before Pumpsie Green made his debut, the Sox agreed to a deal with Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, the popular player/manager of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro league. At the time of his signing only four major league teams had integrated: the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians, the New York Giants, and the St. Louis Browns. The Red Sox were in a position to be in the vanguard of forward-looking teams with an integrated roster.
So what went wrong? Just about everything.
To get Davis, the Red Sox had agreed to pay the Black Barons $7500 up front with another $7500 due on May 15 if Davis were still with the club. He was assigned to Scranton, the Sox's Class A affiliate, where, in the season's first month, he led the team in batting, home runs, and runs batted in. He clearly should have been at a higher level. But here's where the problems began; Boston's Class AA affiliate was the Birmingham white Barons, who played in the most segregated state in the country. The Sox could not put Davis there, and their Class AAA affiliate was the Louisville Colonels, also in a segregated market.
With the May 15 deadline approaching, when they'd have to pay the Black Barons the other $7500 if they still owned Davis, the Sox had to decide what to do with him. There was no room on the major league team, which had 1950 Rookie of the Year Walt Dropo (.322 ave., 34 home runs, 144 RBI) at first base, Hall of Famer-in-waiting Bobby Doerr at second, fan favorite and perennial .300 hitter Johnny Pesky at third, RBI champion Vern Stephens as shortstop, the inimitable Ted Williams in left, Dom DiMaggio (.328 in 1950) in center, and right field, Al Zarilla, who hit .325 that year. There wasn't even any room for Piper Davis on the Boston bench; the Red Sox had a super-sub, Billy Goodman, who that year would take over in leftfield when Williams broke his elbow in the All-Star game, and hit .354 to win the American League batting title.
In addition, Piper Davis, at age 32, was older than every one of those players, with exception of DiMaggio, who was only five months his senior.
Thus, the Red Sox, rather than pay the Black Barons the additional $7500 if they still owned Davis on May 15, released him. So ended the team's brief flirtation with racial equality.
Why the team had even signed Davis remains a mystery. At his age he was not a prospect, and they didn't need position players; they needed pitching. Mel Parnell (18-11, 3.61) was the only pitcher on the staff whose earned run average was under 4.18 that year, which explains why a team with all the offensive fire-power that it had, managed to finish third in the American League in 1950.
One would think that the team would learn an obvious lesson from the Piper Davis affair and move one of their high minor league affiliations to a non-segregated market so it could at least have the option of developing players of color, but the Red Sox delayed even doing that, and paid a high price for the sin, both in the standings and at the gate. In 1958, they finally signed an agreement with the Minneapolis Millers to be their AAA affiliate.
As for Piper Davis, once he was released by the Red Sox, he returned to the Black Barons where he batted .383 for the rest of the 1950 season. In 1951, he signed with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, which was, like the major leagues, just in the process of desegregating. Over the next five seasons he became a fan favorite in Oakland, and was especially admired by a teenager from nearby Richmond who had aspirations of his own to be a professional ballplayer. His name was Elijah Green but everyone called him by his childhood nickname, Pumpsie.
Like his role model, Pumpsie Green signed with the Red Sox, but he still had racial barriers to overcome, he was blocked by Red Sox manager Mike Higgins, an outspoken bigot. In spring training of 1959, Pumpsie was a sensation, batting .400. That didn't make any difference to Higgins, who was quoted as saying, "No [n-word] is going to play for this team as long as I have anything to say about it," and had Greeen shipped back to Minneapolis.
Luckily, the Red Sox that season got off to another putrid start, Higgins got fired, Pumpsie Green got promoted, and the rest is history.
Pumpsie was not a great player: in five major league seasons his lifetime batting average was only .246, he had only 13 home runs, and only 76 runs batted in. But he was an inspiration to others, just as Piper Davis, who could have been a great player given a better set of circumstances, served as an inspiration to Pumpsie Green.
All of that happened a long, long time ago, and the Red Sox have long since seen the errors of their ways. But you can't erase the past.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.