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A century later, Red Sox celebrates diversity

Bijan C. Bayne | 4/4/2012, 7:34 a.m.
Pumpsie Green (R) was the first African American to play for the Red Sox. He is shown here...

As Fenway Park celebrates the grandeur and endurance of its 100th birthday, its most famous inhabitants, the Boston Red Sox, remain the team whose noble saga also has an ignoble history — it was the last MLB team to have a black athlete on its roster.

That honor goes to Pumpsie Green in 1959. But, in a move as equally significant as trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, Red Sox management could have signed Jackie Robinson two years before the future Hall of Famer signed in 1947 to become the first black to play in ther major leagues.

The blame for that decision rests squarely on the hands of Tom Yawkey, a wealthy man who purchased the Red Sox in 1933. Yawkey presided over the team for 44 years, longer than any owner in big league history, and his racial beliefs were more aligned with those in the Deep South than here in the more enlightened Boston.

By way of comparison, the Red Sox’ previous owners, the Quinn family, would go on to integrate the Boston Braves in 1950.

It took a while before the Red Sox got the message.

In April 1945, Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick and black newspaperman Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, joined forces to press the Red Sox to sign a colored player. Isadore Harry Yaver Muchnick was born on January 11, 1908, in Boston’s West End, which no longer exists. He was the first boy to receive a double promotion at Boston Latin since Ben Franklin. In sports, he was a Harvard letterman in both ice hockey and lacrosse.

As a young activist, he and his wife Ann were members of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrants in America Society, and Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, and other Jewish organizations in Boston. On City Council, he represented Mattapan, then 99 percent white.

Muchnick threatened to revoke the Sox’ city permit to play Sunday baseball, lest the team integrate. At the time, the permit required a unanimous Council vote for approval, and Muchnick told Collins he would vote against Sunday play.

Black Boston sports journalist Mabray “Doc” Kountze called Muchnick a “white modern abolitionist.”

In addition, the Globe’s sportswriter Dave Egan pressured both the Braves and Red Sox to sign colored players.

General Manager Eddie Collins responded by writing Muchnick:

“As I wrote to one of your fellow councilors last April, I have been connected with the Red Sox for twelve years and during that time we have never had a single request for a tryout by a colored applicant.

 It is beyond my understanding how anyone could insinuate or believe that all ball players, regardless of race, color or creed have not been treated in the American way so far as having an equal opportunity to play for the Red Sox.”

Tryouts    

Collins invited three Negro Leaguers to try out:  speedsters Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes, and Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars.

Any of the three, at the time, would have been the fastest player in the American League. The ’45 Red Sox were shorthanded and underperforming because of World War II. Their star player, Ted Williams, was not with the team in April, but flying fighter planes. Nondescript and forgettable players such as Ben Steiner, Catfish Metkovich, and Skeeter Newsome dotted the roster.