Pumpsie Green never asked for a place in baseball history. He never wanted to be a pioneer. He just wanted to play ball.
Truth be told, the Bay Area native aspired to play in the Pacific Coast League, where greats like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams started out. Little did he know he would take a long and winding path through the Minor Leagues, both independent and affiliated, en route to becoming the first African-American to play for the Boston Red Sox, 12 years after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball.
"I never thought of playing pro ball," Green said in Harvey Frommer's book, Where Have All our Red Sox Gone? "To me, baseball was just a game to play and have fun with. That was all. I used to see this big picture of Stan Musial on the side of the highway in the neighborhood. That was just about the only association I had with Major League Baseball.
"But the Pacific Coast League was really big. I listened to Bud Foster doing every Oakland Oaks game and followed a whole bunch of people on that team. It was almost a daily ritual. When I got old enough to wish, I wished I could play for the Oakland Oaks."
"Perhaps more than anything else, Pumpsie Green owned an ability -- very important for black people in the 1940s and 1950s -- to accommodate his aspirations to conform to the social limitations of the day," wrote Howard Bryant in Shut out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. "He was content to play ball with the West Coast teams familiar to his youth, such as the Seals, the Missions and the Oakland Oaks, in a league that was once segregated but had opened its doors to blacks in 1948 without the hostility that peppered the Major Leagues. That was fine, for Pumpsie Green was not by nature a trailblazer."
Nature or not, his trailblazing path began when Green was 19 years old. He signed with the Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, which had integrated quietly in 1948, but he never actually saw any time in Oakland. He spent the 1953 season with the Oaks' farm team in Wenatchee, Washington. After two seasons there, he moved up to Stockton, the Oaks' top farm club in the California League.
The call to play in Oakland never came. During the 1955 season, Green was having a terrific year when he was called into the manager's office. The news was a bit of a surprise -- The Boston Red Sox had purchased Green's contract and wanted him to finish the season in their farm system.
There was only one catch. Boston wanted him to head to their club in Montgomery, Alabama. It doesn't take a history professor to know that heading to Alabama in 1955, eight years after Robinson joined the Dodgers and just one after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case forced the integration of schools, was not a move most African-Americans wanted to make.
"I don't think there was a black man in America who wanted to go to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955," Green said in Herbert F. Crehan's Red Sox Heroes of Yesteryear.
While the Red Sox wanted Green to room with Earl Wilson, the only other black player in the organization at the time, Green didn't feel he was ready for such a move and convinced the organization to let him finish the year in Stockton. He won the league MVP, ending with a .319 average 12 homers and 83 RBIs.
In 1956, he was ready to join the Red Sox organization and headed to Spring Training in Sarasota, Florida. While things weren't perfect in Northern California, Green certainly encountered more problems with segregation and racism in Florida than he had faced there. He survived his first spring and began making the climb up Boston's Minor League ladder.
The first stop was Albany in the Eastern League. Following Spring Training, Green spent the season playing shortstop for the Senators. He hit .274 with three homers and 44 RBIs for the year. From there, it was on to Oklahoma City in the Texas League to start the 1957 season. After hitting .258 with three homers and 38 RBIs, he earned a promotion at the end of the season. He got to return home and play for the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .333 and helped them win their last pennant that season. The Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, forcing the Seals to move to Phoenix, Arizona, where they became an affiliate of the Giants.
Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey purchased the Minneapolis Millers and made them the team's top Minor League affiliate in the American Association. The Millers had seen their fair share of good players come through, including Willie Mays and Ted Williams. Carl Yastrzemski would follow Green in 1960, the last year the Millers served as a Red Sox affiliate.
Green's first year in Minneapolis was steady, if unspectacular. He hit .253 with six homers and 43 RBIs. Still, he headed to Spring Training in 1959, now in the highly segregated town of Scottsdale, Arizona, with a chance to be Boston's starting shortstop.
It wasn't an easy spring for Green. He wasn't allowed to stay in the team hotel and had to be shuttled back and forth to Phoenix, by himself, every day. The manager at the time, Pinky Higgins, was virulently racist and had made it clear that no black player would play for the Red Sox as long as he managed the team. During all of this, Green was constantly asked and reminded that the Red Sox were the only team in all of baseball (the Tigers integrated in June 1958) that was still segregated.
"People made me aware, Green said in Where Have All Our Red Sox Gone? They wouldn't let me forget it. I did not think of myself as another Jackie Robinson, as a pioneer with the Red Sox. I just wanted to make the team. As long as I had that chance, I was going to try and do the best I could. It got to be sort of tiring when the media kept asking me questions about being the first black on the Red Sox and what it meant to me, and what was my opinion as to why Boston had never had a black player before."
Despite all of this, Green had a tremendous spring. He was as good as anyone in camp, even though the pressure may have caused him to fade a little bit at the end. It seemed certain he was going to make the team, even heading north with the Red Sox to play for some exhibition games.
But then, at the very last minute, Higgins sent Green back to Minneapolis, which caused an uproar throughout Boston and baseball. Amazingly, Green wasn't fazed and had arguably his best season in the Minors. He was hitting .320 when he got the call on July 21, 1959 to get to Chicago as fast as he could. By that time, Higgins was gone and Billy Jurges was managing the Red Sox. The day he joined the team, he got in as a pinch-runner and made his first start against Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn.
Some of the pressure was alleviated in a couple of ways. First, Earl Wilson, who had since become a good friend of Green's, joined the club soon after Green was called up. Second, when Green got to Boston, he looked up fellow San Franciscan Bill Russell. The Celtics star helped Green get acclimated to the city. The 25-year-old got into 50 games in 1959, hitting .233 over 172 at-bats, mostly at second base.
His big-league career, save for the very big pioneering moment, was largely nondescript. He spent three more seasons with Boston before getting into 17 games with the lowly New York Mets in 1963. Overall, the infielder hit .246 over 344 games and 796 career big-league at-bats.
But his playing career was not over once he left the Mets. He spent much of the 1963 season with the Buffalo Bisons, the Mets' affiliate in the International League, where he hit .308 with 17 homers and 67 RBIs. In 1964, he was back with the Bisons and hit .281 with eight home runs and 61 RBIs.
Finally, in 1965, Green spent his last season in organized baseball. At the age of 31, he played a total of 33 games, 26 with Buffalo and seven with Syracuse, an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers at the time. He hit .247 combined that year, then decided to hang it up and head home to California. There, he became a teacher and baseball coach. He still lives in the Bay Area and will turn 74 on his next birthday.