Race and Sports in Boston

July 21, 2009 - 10:49 am

Today, July 21, is a notable day in American, as well as local sports, history.

In 1925, high school biology teacher John T. Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution in class and was subsequently fined a hefty $100 after a heated trial that pitted science against religion.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin '€œBuzz'€ Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, representing not only the United States but all of mankind in an inspirational and unprecedented journey into the depths of space.

And in 1959, Elijah '€œPumpsie'€ Green saw his first-ever major league action as he pinch ran and played shortstop for the Red Sox in a game against Chicago.

There was nothing special about the way Green played baseball. He only lasted five seasons in the majors in which he batted a paltry .246 with only 13 homers and 74 RBI in 344 games with the Red Sox and Mets. But it'€™s not Green'€™s unimpressive statistics that make him the focus of today'€™s LEEInks entry '€“ it'€™s the fact that he was the first black player to play for the Red Sox who, in turn, became the last major league team to integrate.

Boston has always been a city marred by racial turmoil. From the busing riots in the 1970s to the Charles Stuart murder case in 1989, the race issue has dogged a city that prides itself on its forward-thinking, progressive liberalism.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in one of the city'€™s most beloved pastimes, baseball. There'€™s the famous story of the 1945 tryout the Sox held for the then-relatively unknown Jackie Robinson. According to a reporter who was there that day, someone yelled '€œGet those (racial epithet deleted) off the field.'€ Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers two years later and became a baseball legend and a Hall of Famer.

In 1949, the Sox gave up the chance to sport an outfield that included Willie Mays and Ted Williams because Mays wasn'€™t their type of player, according to team management.

Barry Bonds called Boston '€œtoo racist for me'€ in a 2004 interview and said he '€œcouldn'€™t play there'€ just based on what he'€™s heard about the city.

While there'€™s no denying the racial issues of the city'€™s past -- both in baseball and beyond -- not all of Boston'€™s major league teams were considered hotbeds of intolerance. The National League Boston Braves were the fifth MLB team to field a black player when they played Sam Jethroe in 1950. Willie O'€™Ree became known as the '€œJackie Robinson of Hockey'€ when he debuted as the first black NHL player with the Bruins in 1958. And the Celtics under Red Auerbach became not just the first NBA team to sport an all-black starting lineup, but also the first NBA team with an African-American head coach in Bill Russell.

In recent years it seems apparent that, despite what Barry Bonds says, race does not play a factor in Boston sports these days '€“ including baseball. A 2002 NPR article highlighted the Red Sox' new ownership group as taking aggressive steps to combat the negative reputation their team has been given over the years, including '€œreaching out to black churches'€ and '€œstarting a scholarship program for city kids.'€

Recent statistics even show that 2009 was the first season in 14 years in which there was an increase of African-American players since the last season (2 percent). The study also showed that '€œpeople of color accounted for 39.6 percent of MLB rosters.'€

Earlier this year, Green visited Fenway to throw out the first pitch on the 50th anniversary of his signing with the Sox. Today, on the anniversary of his major-league debut amidst incredibly challenging circumstances, it is worth taking stock of his important place in franchise history.

"The legacy of players like Pumpsie Green and Jackie Robinson is evidenced by the presence of the diversity of players like Jim Rice, Mo Vaughn, Dave Roberts and David Ortiz as part of the Red Sox's more recent history," Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino told mlb.com earlier this year. "As fans and as an organization, we owe both Pumpsie Green and Jackie Robinson a debt of gratitude for their courageous contributions to the game and to society."