When Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, the first black player on the Boston Red Sox, walked to the plate at Fenway Park for the first time in 1959, the fans rose to cheer him on.
“I got my helmet and started walking up to home plate, and I got a standing ovation,” he recalled in a 1997 Globe interview. “It made me nervous as heck. The one thing I didn’t want to do was strike out and walk all the way back to the dugout.”
He need not have worried. The pitcher for Kansas City that day was someone he had faced in the minors, and Mr. Green hit a lead-off triple off the wall between the leftfield and centerfield. It was, he said, “the greatest feeling I ever had in baseball.”
Mr. Green, an infielder who made his first Major League appearance with Boston after a flurry of off-field actions that stretched from the team’s front office into state agencies, has died, the Red Sox said Wednesday night. He was 85.
Though his Red Sox career was comparatively short — he hit .244 in 327 games before being traded to the New York Mets in 1963 — his impact on team history was large.
The Boston Red Sox were the last all-white Major League team, integrating a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“Pumpsie Green occupies a special place in our history,” said Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who also owns The Boston Globe. “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.’’
Overall, Mr. Green played all or parts of five seasons in Boston and one with the Mets from 1959 to 1963, batting .246 with 13 homers and 74 RBIs.
He made Red Sox history on July 21, 1959, in Chicago, when he was inserted as a pinch runner for Vic Wertz in the eighth inning of a game against the White Sox.
His appearance on the roster had followed picketing at Fenway Park. In spring training that year, Mr. Green hit .400 and was hailed by some reporters as the “camp rookie of the year.”
But to questions about whether Mr. Green would make the team, owner Tom Yawkey said: “The Red Sox will bring up a Negro when he meets our standards.”
When the Red Sox cut the roster to 25, Mr. Green was sent to Triple A, setting off a chorus of protests.
“I was just hitting the heck out of the ball,” he recalled in 1997. “I led the team in every category you can think of, even home runs, and I was having a great time. Yeah, the job was mine. Then I was sent out.”
The Boston NAACP chapter accused the team of discrimination, and outside Fenway, fans held signs such as: “We Want a Pennant, Not a White Team.”
The team’s general manager told the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that the decision to send Mr. Green to the minors wasn’t racially motivated and promised that the Red Sox would pursue a “nondiscrimination” hiring policy for bringing in black players. Boston also promised to integrate spring training accommodations.
Partway through the 1959 season, Mike Higgins — the manager who sent Mr. Green to the minors — was fired, and Billy Jurges took over.
Upon arriving in Boston, Mr. Green was greeted at Logan Airport by TV cameras and photographers. He said his conversation with Yawkey was brief. “I just went in, sat down, and talked,” he recalled in 1997.
He also remembered clearly what it was like his first game in Fenway. “All of those behind the ropes in center field were black,” he said.
And yet, the experience of playing for the Red Sox remained fraught.
“I never relaxed in Boston,” he said in 1997, not long after he retired as baseball coach at Berkeley High School in California. “Every game to me was like Opening Day. I felt pressure all the time. Some of it might have been self-imposed.”
That had also been the case during spring training in 1959, when a car picked him up each morning at a hotel in Phoenix, some 17 miles from where the Red Sox practiced in Scottsdale.
“A long time ago, I learned how to live with myself and by myself,” he told the Globe that March. “I don’t say I like it. I just know how I do it. I’ve been through things a lot worse than here.”
He dealt with segregation early on in his career. “In the minor leagues, you’d travel mostly by bus,” he recalled in 1997. “The bus would pull up to a hotel, and all the ballplayers would get off. The black players had to take a cab to what we called ‘across the tracks,’ to the black part of town.”
He said the treatment didn’t anger him, “but sometimes it would really get to you. It would be 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and it would be hard to find anybody up and around. We often stayed in private homes, because a lot of those little towns didn’t have black hotels.”
With the Red Sox, he said, most of his teammates “were fine. Pete Runnels was one of my favorite players on the team. Frank Malzone. I used to love to talk to Ted Williams, one of the nicest guys I ever met.”
He lived in Dorchester while playing for the Red Sox, and Celtics center Bill Russell sometimes brought Mr. Green him to the basketball team’s practice. The two had known each other from Russell’s time at the University of San Francisco.
Elijah Jerry Green Jr. was born Oct. 27, 1933, in Boley, Okla., and grew up in California. His father, Elijah Sr., was a trash hauler; his mother, Gladys, was a homemaker, according to online biographies.
He was the oldest of five children, who included his brother Cornell Green – a football safety who played for the Dallas Cowboys.
Mr. Green picked up the nickname Pumpsie in childhood.
At 19, he signed with the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League. In 1955, he was named the California League’s Most Valuable Player as a shortstop and the Sox purchased his contract.
After his playing years, Mr. Green returned to California, earned a degree in physical education from San Francisco State University, and worked as a counselor and coach at Berkeley High School.
According to the Red Sox, in addition to his brother, Cornell, Mr. Green leaves his wife of 62 years, Marie; a daughter, Heidi; two other brothers, Credell, and Eddy Joe; two grandchildren; and four great grandchildren. A son, Jerry, died last year.
Funeral services will be held Aug. 2 at Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland.
In April 2009, Mr. Green was recognized at a Fenway game for the 50th anniversary of his debut. In 2018, the debut was recognized by the Red Sox Hall of Fame induction committee as a “Memorable Red Sox Moment.”
“He paved the way for the many great Sox players of color who followed,’’ Henry said. “For that, we all owe Pumpsie a debt of gratitude.”