Monday, July 25, 2011

The Integration of Fenway Park

On July 21, the day was marked, as it is most years, with stories describing the anniversary of the 1959 debut of the Red Sox first black player, Elijah Jerry "Pumpsie" Green.  That event is remembered yearly because it happened an astounding twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in April, 1947. Many writers took this opportunity to vilify the ghosts of Red Sox past for being at the lead of discrimination in a racist institution. Others allowed the shame to be passed on to the citizens of Boston at the time for not demanding a rapid change.  Regardless of where the blame belongs, the sad truth is that instead of Green’s place in history being celebrated as an accomplishment, his belated promotion in 1959 marks the end of the segregation era for Major League Baseball, and leaves the Red Sox with the appalling distinction of being the last team to field a black player. That fact should not be seen as an indictment of Sox fans or the city in general.  Many Bostonians were eager to see equality finally come to baseball, and were actively campaigning to achieve it. When the first black Major Leaguer came to the plate at Fenway Park on this day in 1947, he was greeted as no visiting player was before. He was applauded every inning.

Hall of Famer, Willard “Home Run” Brown was 32-years-old and had a reputation as a slugging outfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League, when he was chosen to be one of four black players signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1947. St. Louis was desperate for homeruns and home fans, and they thought that Brown could help them with both.  He made his Major League debut against the Red Sox in St. Louis, on July 19, but it wasn’t until July 25 that he integrated Fenway Park by being the first black Major Leaguer to play there.  When he came to bat in the second inning, 34,059 fans stood to applaud him.  Brown responded with a line-drive double off of the center field wall. When he trotted out to right field at the end of the inning, they applauded again. And again, when he batted for the second time, they applauded. Brown smashed his second double of the night (the second of his career). With each plate appearance, and each time he took his position in right field, the Fenway faithful greeted Willard Brown with cheers which grew as the game progressed. 

According to Jack Barry of the Boston Evening Globe, "[Brown] received a fine ovation from the crowd as he trotted to his right field position at the close of each round." 

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, "Willard Brown, the cat-walking Negro rightfielder of the Browns, who runs like a hurried panther, last night earned some of the loudest cheering Boston has given to a visiting ball player here in years."

Jack Malaney of the Boston Post was equally impressed: "The crowd received him almost as they would Doerr or DiMaggio so far as applause was concerned, and credit for something done." 

The overwhelming turnout and warm welcome given to Willard Brown at Fenway could have been interpreted by Red Sox ownership as a clear sign that integrating the home team would not result in low attendance.

In fact, Dave Egan, the firebrand of Boston sportswriters, writing in the July 28 Boston Record, seized on the fanfare and prodded the baseball owners of the town to integrate the sport locally.  He dared them to not allow Boston to be “traitors to our heritage.” He even noticed how perfect a fit Brown’s right-handed swing would have been for Fenway’s wall, and wondered if Sox owner Tom Yawkey heard the applause.  Perhaps, he hadn’t.

Although the Boston Braves were among the first teams to integrate, the Red Sox languished nearly twelve years after Willard Brown’s historic debut at Fenway.  When Pumpsie Green made his own debut in Boston on August 4, 1959, the fans were true to form that day, receiving him as they had Willard “Home Run” Brown, with loud applause and appreciation. He too answered the standing ovation with a base hit.

...If You Ain't Got That Ring.