My given name is Elijah Jerry, but I have always been called “Pumpsie,” the nickname my mother gave me when I was a couple of years old.
I was born in 1933 and grew up in Richmond, California, where baseball was, what you might say, a natural part of life. All the kids in the area, the young and old, men and women — everybody played baseball.
I never thought of playing pro ball. To me, baseball was just a game to play and have fun with. That was all. I used to see this big picture of Stan Musial on the side of the highway in the neighborhood. That was just about the only association I had with major league baseball.
But the Pacific Coast League was really big. I listened to Bud Foster doing every Oakland Oaks game and followed a whole bunch of people on that team. It was almost a daily ritual. When I got old enough to wish, I wished I could play for the Oakland Oaks.
We were just an average family living in an apartment. I had four younger brothers, and a couple of them really excelled in athletics. Cornell was especially good in football and later became a Dallas Cowboys’ defensive back. Another brother played for the Packers for a year. I had my own crowd and was a little older, so I didn’t compete that much against my brothers. I also always played against guys a little older than me so that when I was ten, I played against guys who were thirteen, fourteen and also against grown men.
We played a team from another neighborhood that was crosstown who beat us 44–0. But we had a return engagement, and we had an idea: “Hey, let’s do everything opposite of what we normally do.”
Everybody just switched around. I was a right-handed hitter, so I turned around and batted left-handed. That moment in time is what began the switch-hitting for me. I had a heck of a day with the bat. We still lost, but we improved. The score this time was 35–10.
For a while, I didn’t have a glove of my own. I talked my mother into buying me a glove at a time when the family really couldn’t afford one. I was one of her favorites, if I must say so myself, because I was the oldest.
To get the glove I worked every day around the house, on the farm, and did whatever I was asked to do. Finally, she saved the money — seven or eight dollars — enough to buy me a brand-new glove. Boy, did I love that glove! When I could, I took a couple of baseballs and wrapped them into the pocket of the glove. I tied the whole thing up into a neat package and greased it and so forth. I used it and used it until I wore it out.
The glove was what we called Caledonia those days, a three-fingered glove. The guy who played shortstop for the Oakland Oaks, Artie Wilson, used a three-fingered glove. I played shortstop mostly out of school and wanted to be like Artie Wilson. But when I was a senior in El Cerito High School, our team didn’t have a catcher, so I switched to that position.
We had a good high school team coached by a man named Gene Corr, who went on to become the baseball coach at Contra Costa Junior College after my sophomore year.
When I was getting set to graduate from high school, I planned to go to Fresno State, which offered me an athletic scholarship. But Gene Corr promised me that I could play shortstop if I joined his team at Contra Costa, so I switched plans and went there.
In my senior year at Contra Costa, Gene Corr got a tryout for me with the Oakland Oaks. It was like a dream coming true. I got into his car, and we drove from Richmond to Oakland, which was about seven or eight miles away. I tried out with the team for a week.
As a kid I had a policeman friend who loved baseball and took me to a game every once in a while. I would watch Artie Wilson, Billy Martin, Jackie Jensen, and all the rest. Now I was there on the tryout schedule. Augie Galan was the manager. But the guy who ran the hell out of me was a coach named George "Highpockets" Kelly, who had been a major leaguer for many years. He grabbed that fungo bat and kept hitting balls to me. I ran around. I was whipped. I was tired.
My workouts would take place before the regular team did its exercises. Then when the game started, Gene Corr and I would sit in the stands and watch the games. I’d talk to the Oakland third baseman, Spider Jorgensen. My favorite player was Piper Davis, who made it to the majors.
The people in charge of the Oaks finally came to a decision about me. It was just sign and go play ball. Oakland was an independent team, so there was no draft as far as I was concerned. I got no bonus, just a regular salary of three or four hundred dollars a month.
Unfortunately I never got a chance to play with Oakland. I played in Oakland’s minor leagues with Wenatchee, Washington, the apple capital of the world, and in 1955, I was moved up to Stockton, California.
It was June. We were in first place. I was having a great year. Then one day my manager Roy Partee told me, “Hey, Pumps, the Red Sox bought your contract. You are going to their organization, to Montgomery, Alabama.”
I did not want to go. I wasn’t ready for it. One of the reasons Boston wanted me to go to Montgomery was that Earl Wilson, the only black in their organization, was there. They wanted me to be his roommate.
I managed to get permission to finish out the season with Stockton and was named the Most Valuable Player in the California State League. I hit about .300 and drove in about eighty-something runs.
In 1956, I went to spring training with the Red Sox in Florida. I was street-smart and knew I could take care of myself. But any young black in those days going to the South had some kind of feelings. California was an integrated experience. There were some problems, but there weren’t signs all over the place about where blacks and whites could go like there were in Florida.
I roomed all by myself. I knew that all the major league teams had been integrated except for the Red Sox. People made me aware. They wouldn’t let me forget it.
About a dozen years before, I was just happy to hear that Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color line. The second year after he broke in, he barnstormed with an All-Star team, and they came and played at the Oakland Oaks’ ballpark. I scraped up every nickel and dime together that I could — and I was there. I had to see this game with the Jackie Robinson All Stars. They were all black — Suitcase Simpson, Minnie Minoso, and the others. They played an Oakland team that was put together specially for that occasion.
But now I did not think of myself as another Jackie Robinson, as a pioneer with the Red Sox. I just wanted to make the team. As long as I had that chance, I was going to try and do the best I could. It got to be sort of tiring when the media kept asking me questions about being the first black on the Red Sox and what it meant to me, and what was my opinion as to why Boston had never had a black player before.
I met all the guys, including Ted Williams, at spring training, and they acted fine to me. I had the best spring training of anyone on the whole team, including Ted Williams. Yet, after such a great spring, I was sent down to Minneapolis. That caused a lot of writing in the newspaper, and that was when I got tired of it all. People were asking me too many questions about things I had no control over. I told them, “You are asking the wrong person.”
They kept me in Minneapolis until 1959. That year I was having a great year, hitting about .330 or .340. On July 21, I got a call. I headed off to meet Boston in Chicago. It was exciting. But I had a little laugh walking out this long dungeonway in Comiskey Park. Passing the White Sox dugout, I saw an old junior college and high school teammate — Jim Landis. He yelled, “Hey, El Cerito. You have a good season.”
I got to play immediately; I started my first game that first night. I will never forget my first at bat. I faced a guy who really shook me up. His name was Early Wynn. I had seen him on television pitching in the World Series. He had a big name. It was the end of his career. I know he did not throw me one strike, and yet I had two strikes called on me. I finally grounded out to second base because I stepped forward and just flicked the bat. I didn’t want to strike out or hit something to a guy named Nellie Fox at second base.
That first at bat was the worst I ever had in the major leagues, made comfortable outs the rest of the game. There was only that night for me in Chicago and then we went to Cleveland. My first night in Boston was July 24. I had never been to any of these cities before. Fenway Park just felt small because it is small. Even Minneapolis, where I played for two years, seemed bigger.
There was now more media pressure than ever. I was trying to make it as a player and as the first black man on the Red Sox. I had no roommate. It never crossed my mind to have a roommate, since I was the only black on the team. It wasn’t a rule. It wasn’t a law. But it was unwritten that blacks did not room with whites.
The Red Sox got me a room in a hotel. I didn’t even know if I had to pay for it or not. I got to meet Mr. Yawkey the second day that I was in Boston. He was a very gentle, short, round man. He told me why he called me up, said he wanted to get to know me, and wished me well. “If you run into any problems or need any advice on something, you don’t have to go to the coaches or manager. Come directly to me,” he said. I thanked him, and we shook hands.
The first night I got to Fenway there was such a crowd, the park was full. A lot of blacks wanted to come to the game. They didn’t have a seat, but they were accommodated. The Red Sox roped off a corner part of centerfield. The whole thing made me feel special, but it made my blood pressure go up, too. “I can’t fail. I can’t make a mistake.” That was how I felt.
When I first got to Boston, I got in touch with guys from the University of San Francisco — Bill Russell and KC Jones, who were stars on the Boston Celtics. Russ would take me around and talk to me. He told me where I should and shouldn’t go.
The reception in Boston was good. It was just like anyplace else. If you are doing a good job, you get the “Yea.” If you are not up to snuff, you can get the “Nay.”
Around the first of September, the Red Sox flew my wife up to Boston. That made things a lot easier for me. We had been married since 1957.
I had good friends on that team — Pete Runnels, Frank Malzone. Jackie Jensen and also Ted Williams were friends and fellow Californians. I was able to function, I really was. Some of the pressure and nervousness I put on myself. I know the people expected a lot, especially the black community, which wanted me to do good.
There were overtones of racial things. These overtones could be heard not only at Fenway but at any other ballpark. Sometimes terrible things would be yelled out, racial epithets. Some people said I must have felt like killing somebody. But I never did. I got where I could divorce it from my mind, cut it off. I told people I had enough troubles trying to hit the curveball. I wasn’t going to worry about some loudmouths.
Growing up, although I knew about the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, I did not know how much he had to endure. Funny thing, he was retired for a couple of years when I began my time in the major leagues with the Red Sox.
I didn’t have the kind of career that I would have loved to have had. Still, if I had it to do over again, I would do the same thing. I never thought about the major leagues at all. I would have been happy just to have had the chance to play for the Oakland Oaks.
From Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer.
Copyright © 2001 by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer. Excerpted with permission.