Karl Lindholm: Jackie, then Larry: Pumpsie was first. Who was second?

MOST RED SOX fans know that Elijah “Pumpsie” Green (above left) was the first African American player for the Boston Red Sox, the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate.

Do you know who the second Black Red Sox player was?

Latest in a series of reflections inspired by the 2020 centennial of Baseball’s Negro Leagues.

Larry Doby was the second Black player in the major leagues, first appearing for the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, just 10 weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Dodgers. Every year on April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. There’s no Larry Doby Day. 

Unlike Robinson, 28, who had a terrific year for Brooklyn, Larry Doby, just 23, struggled in his first season, playing in only 21 games and batting just .156. The next year, however, along with the ageless Satchel Paige, he led Cleveland to the American League pennant and victory in World Series over the Cardinals.

Signed in the fall of 1945, Robinson had a season in the minor leagues in Montreal the following summer to acclimate to his role. Doby was virtually playing one day for the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League and the Indians the next. 

(Relevant digression No. 1: Jackie Robinson was the first Black player to play in the major leagues in the 20th century, in the “modern” era. Jackie actually re-integrated the game. The first Black major leaguer was Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker, who played in 1884 for Toledo of the American Association, then a major league.)

Not only was Doby the second Black man to play in Major League Baseball, he was the second African American manager in the Majors, behind another Robinson. Doby was hired by Bill Veeck to take over the White Sox in 1978. Frank Robinson was the first, assuming the helm of the Indians in 1975.

(Relevant digression No. 2: I was a secondary school teacher and baseball coach in Cleveland in 1975. On April 8, I threw a dozen of my players in a school van and went to Opening Day in cavernous Municipal Stadium, along with 56,000 other fans on a sunny cold day, to see 45-year-old Frank Robinson’s first game as Indians’ manager. He put himself in the lineup as the DH, batting second. In the bottom of the first inning, he lined a homer to left field — and the place went wild!)

In vivid contrast to the Dodgers and the Indians, the Boston Red Sox, my team, were the last team to insert a Black player in their line-up. This is the team’s unfortunate legacy. On July 21, 1959, 12 years after Robinson’s and Doby’s breakthrough season, 25-year-old infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green entered a Red Sox game as a pinch runner. 

Many of the other MLB teams’ first Black players were terrific players — Hall of Famers Robinson, Doby, Monte Irvin (Giants ’49), Ernie Banks (Cubs ’53) or veteran Negro League stars Sam “the Jet” Jethroe (Braves ’50) and Orestes “Minnie” Minoso (White Sox ’51 ). Pumpsie Green, however, was a player whose talents were as modest as his name was unforgettable. 

It is natural perhaps to celebrate the first in any notable enterprise, and to neglect the second. So you Sox diehards who know Pumpsie was the first, do you who was second? His first game for the Red Sox was on July 28, 1959, just one week after Green broke the Red Sox color barrier. 

I’ll give you a hint: he was a pitcher. 

More hints: 

He pitched a no-hitter for Boston in 1962, the first African American to do so in the major leagues. 

He won 22 games in 1967 (the “Impossible Dream” season) — alas, not for the Red Sox. 

The next season he won a World Series ring with his team, the Tigers, and finished with 13 wins and a 2.85 ERA. His lifetime won-loss record was 121-109 and his lifetime ERA was 3.85.

He was, as Curt Gowdy used to say, a gooood-hitting pitcher. In 11 big league seasons, he had 35 home runs and was often used as a pinch-hitter for the Tigers. 

The name of that formidable fellow is Earl Wilson. 

Wilson was actually signed by the Red Sox in 1953, three years before Pumpsie. He was 6-foot-3 and weighed 215 pounds and was fearless. He finished his career with nearly 1,500 strikeouts, averaging over six per nine innings pitched.

(Relevant digression No. 3: The pressure on the first Black pitchers during baseball’s integration was enormous, given the nature of the position. Dan Bankhead was an outstanding young pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Red Sox and was considered a surefire major leaguer. He played for the Dodgers alongside Jackie Robinson in four games in the breakthrough year of 1947, the Majors’ first Black pitcher. Bankhead had a 9-5 record 6.52 ERA, for the Dodgers in three years, before being released. Buck O’Neil told Joe Posnanski in “The Soul of Baseball”: “Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch. He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it. Dan was from Alabama ... He’d seen black men get lynched.”)

Pumpsie Green has been called a “reluctant pioneer.” He was not a great player but is not deserving of being the punch line of jokes about the Red Sox and race. He was a legitimate prospect. He was called up to the Red Sox in July of ’59 after being named to the American Association All-Star team, batting .320 for the Minneapolis Millers in the first half of the season. 

He played 13 years of professional baseball, just five in the Major Leagues. He said near the end of his life (he died in 2018 at 86), “I take a lot of pride in having played for the Red Sox. I would like to be remembered in Red Sox history as just another ballplayer.”

(Relevant and final digression No. 4: The first African American for the Red Sox should not have been either Pumpsie Green or Earl Wilson, but rather Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, a legendary Negro League player, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the winter months. He was the teammate and mentor of the teenage wunderkind Willie Mays for the Birmingham Black Barons and the first Black player the Red Sox signed, in 1950 — a strange signing as he was 32 at the time and major-league ready. He was batting .333 (21 hits in 63 at bats) in May for the Red Sox A level team in Scranton, Penn., when he was released, ostensibly “for economic reasons.”)  

Both Pumpsie Green and Earl Wilson lived successful lives after their baseball days as respected figures in their communities: Pumpsie as a teacher and coach in Berkeley, Calif., and Wilson as a businessman in the auto supply industry in Detroit. Wilson became very involved in BAT (Baseball Assistance Team), an organization that helped former players down on their luck, serving as its president for four years. He died at age 70 in 2005.

Here ends today’s lesson in the tangled history of race and the Ol’ Towne Team. 

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