Pumpsie Green has died at the age of 85. He was famous as the first black baseball player hired by the last major league baseball team to integrate its roster. That team was the Boston Red Sox, and its delay may explain why it suffered an 86-year drought without winning a World Series.
But Pumpsie Green deserves remembrance for a different reason: his name.
In ancient times, the names of gods and heroes revealed some quality of their divinity. For children, to whom professional baseball players rank with gods and heroes, athletes’ names perform a similar task.
From 1959 to 1966, the Red Sox never had a winning season. Pumpsie Green was signed during that drought, and before one saw him play at Fenway Park, his talents were predictable. He would be loose-limbed and agile. He would prowl the infield and nothing would get by him. A man named Pumpsie would not be a power hitter. But he would be fast on the bases. And so he was. On his first time up in the majors, he tripled.
Pumpsie Green was not unique. Other gods of that age also bore names befitting their personae.
Frank Malzone played third base. His name told you that he was all business. One pictured him playing with a cigar clenched in his mouth, never smiling. A man named Malzone was not to be trifled with. If you hit to third, you had no chance to reach first.
There was their Bill Monbouquette, a four-time all-star. On hearing his name, one imagined him dancing on the mound, befuddling hitters with his variegated rhythm. His teammate Dick Radatz was another, more frightening story. He stood 6’6” and simply obliterated hitters. His name evoked a creature from science fiction, emitting deadly gamma rays.
In 1967, the world changed. Dick Williams took over a team that had finished next to last, with a dismal 72 – 90 win/loss record, a team that ranked 8th out of 10 in League attendance. Under Williams, that same team would win the American League Pennant and boast the highest paid attendance despite playing in the smallest stadium.
There were legends like Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, and Jim Lonborg. But the more ordinary players with the resonant names deserve to be remembered.
Jerry Adair. Of course, anyone named Adair would play with agility and grace. And you could count on his audacity at the plate. Yastrzemski called him the coolest clutch hitter in the game.
Joe Foy. An infielder with that name would be a happy warrior, playing with flair and joy.
Billy Rohr. The name was meant to startle. And so he did. In his debut game against the Yankees, he was one strike away from an unprecedented no-hitter when Elston Howard blooped a single to right. He retired the next batter for a one-hitter. He won one more game, and then his growl faded and he vanished from the game.
Speaking of Elston Howard. The same player who spoiled Rohr’s debut, joined the Red Sox in August 1967. He was 38 years old – ancient by professional baseball standards – and his career already spanned 19 years in the Negro Leagues and major league baseball, where he became the first black player hired by the New York Yankees. He was, in other words, an elder statesman whose very name evoked the stature and dignity of a British nobleman. And the veteran catcher lived up to it. In one storied night in Chicago, Boston held a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, and the speedy Ken Berry at third, pinch hitter Duane Josephson hit a fly ball to short right. Jose Tartabull, a man not known for his arm, caught it. As Berry tagged, Tartabull sent an arcing throw to the plate. There stood Elston Howard, solid and imperturbable, the very embodiment of his lordly name. Sir Elston leapt high to catch the throw, blocked Berry, and swept the tag to complete a game-ending double play.
Chicago Manager Eddie Stanky rushed from the dugout to protest, in vain. Eddie Stanky. Of course, legendary villains bore revealing names too.
Another villain was Harmon Killebrew, one of the most feared sluggers in the majors. His name oozed mayhem and murder. Of course he was nicknamed “The Killer.” In the final weekend of the 1967 season, Killebrew’s Minnesota Twins led the Red Sox by a single game. The teams were slated to play two games, so Boston had to win each one. Killebrew homered in the first game, and got two hits in both games. But Boston, powered by Yastrzemski (7 for 8) prevailed, winning both games, and the Pennant.
Were the baseball legends of the 50s and 60s actually graced with names more revealing of their talents than modern athletes are? It seems so, but perhaps it was just a matter of being less visible. Since fewer games were televised, many youngsters “watched ” night games by smuggling transistor radios beneath their pillows. Baseball players were not as much seen as they were imagined. And their names lent guidance to their young fans’ imaginations.
Farewell Pumpsie Green. Your name will be forever remembered and honored. Farewell to all the legends whose names evoke their stories.