As It Happens

'His only focus was to play,' says daughter of 1st black Red Sox player Pumpsie Green

"People call him the reluctant first African-American to play. He wasn't reluctant to hold that title. He just wanted to play," says Keisha Green

Green, a former infielder for the last major league team to break the colour barrier, died Wednesday at 85

Boston Red Sox's Elijah (Pumpsie) Green — pictured here in April 1959 — has died. (Harold Filan/Associated Press)
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Elijah (Pumpsie) Green was more interested in playing baseball than he was in making history, says his daughter.

The former Boston Red Sox infielder — who was the first black player on the last major league team to field one — died Wednesday. He was 85. 

Green brought baseball's segregation era to an end of sorts when he entered a game against the Chicago White Sox July 21, 1959 — more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's colour barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

The Red Sox were the last team in the major leagues to integrate non-white players, and it didn't happen without a lot of outside pressure. 

But Keisha Green says her father was focused on the game, not the ugly racial politics around it. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan. 

How did your dad feel about being Boston's first black player when he did finally get to play mid-season in 1959?

He was excited to play, and he wasn't focused on, "I'm the first African-American." He was focused on, "I love this game. I have a talent and a passion. And so this is what I want to do."

So people call him the reluctant first African-American to play. And I think he wasn't reluctant to hold that title. He just wanted to play. He wasn't looking for the title.

And he knew — and everyone around him knew — that he was good enough to make it in the Major Leagues. And so when he got his opportunity he wanted to show people, and show himself, that he could do it.

In this July 22, 1959, Green is pictured making his first major league start for Red Sox. (Harry L. Hall/Associated Press)

How did he talk to you about that growing up? When people, maybe they stopped him on the street and said, "Sir, you really were a pioneer, you were a legend." How would he respond? 

My father is extremely humble and very graceful and, you know, he would just thank people.

He knew it and he respected how other people saw him. And so with the grace that he had, he would say, "Thank you and I appreciate the fact that you know who I am and recognize that I played." 

He wouldn't say, "Oh, look at me. I was the first black player."

Green walks his daughter, Keisha Green, down the aisle at her wedding. (Submitted by Keisha Green)

You mentioned some of the reasons why he was denied some of these opportunities as pure racism. And, in fact, the late team owner, Tom Yawkey — there was a street outside of Fenway Park called Yawkey Way, and last year it was renamed because of his legacy of racism. I wonder what your dad thought about that and the Red Sox's other efforts to make up for its racist past many years later?

I talked to my dad about it, and his thinking was, if that's what they want to do, that's what they want to do. He can't change history.

And changing the name of the street — and this is my thinking along with my dad's — changing the name of the street isn't going to change the past and the actions and the behaviours.

So changing the name of the street, that's fine. The hope is that these practices have changed, and this thinking has changed and the actions have changed.

Keisha and Elijah (Pumpsie) Green. (Submitted by Keisha Green)

You know all of the obituaries have been focusing on him as a pioneer, him as a baseball player. But having you on the line, what was he like as a dad?

He was a great dad. We did a lot together when I was a kid. He just let me be who I was to be. He encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. He listened, and I'm a talker, and so he listened all the time.

I played softball. And I wasn't like my dad. I mean, I was decent. But he would bring his team .... to watch me and support me.

He was extremely supportive to myself and my brother and, you know, just encouraged us to be the best we could be.

What was one of the greatest lessons he taught you about life?

Just to do good, to do right by people, to help people — and also to be the best that I could be.

What are you going to miss most about him?

I'm going to miss talking to him. He and my cousin are the only people that call me Kiki.

Whenever I walked in the house or whenever I called on the phone, the first thing he would say is, "Hey Kiki," and, you know, we just laughed a lot. 

I'm going to miss hearing my dad call me Kiki and I'm going to miss laughing with my dad. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Sarah-Joyce Battersby with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Katie Geleff. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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