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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...

Jackie Robinson — early in his first season as a Negro Leaguer, a Southern Californian, known better as a college football star — was skeptical about his prospects to make the ball club. He felt the tryouts were just a big league team going through the motions.

The workout was postponed two days in recognition of the national mourning of President Franklin Roosevelt. It took place on April 16. All three players fielded balls, swung at pitches from home plate and threw for Sox player-manager Joe Cronin.

According to reports, Cronin scarcely paid attention to what was happening on the field. Joe Cashman of the Boston Record, who sat with Cronin, said the manager was impressed with Robinson’s efforts. When it was over, Collins assured the players they would hear from the team soon. Later that day, Robinson had dinner at the Muchnicks’ on 9 Powelton Rd. (near Columbia Road).

The Red Sox never contacted Williams, Jethroe or Robinson. The 1945 team won 71 games and lost 83, finishing in second-to-last place in the American League. By comparison, the 1946 team, with star players back from WWII won 104 games and only lost 50, winning the A.L. pennant by 12 games over Detroit, and featured Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Rudy York, Ted Williams, and pitchers Boo Ferriss and Jim Bagby. They outpaced the Yankees by 17 games.

Jackie Robinson played with Montreal in the AAA level International League, in the Brooklyn Dodgers system in 1946, and integrated the majors the following season. When the Red Sox began to ostensibly consider black talent, they consulted legendary local pitcher Will “Cannonball” Jackman, about the brightest prospects of color. Jackman, a barnstorming fireballer with the Boston Royal Giants and other black teams — and a highly paid ringer for strong white indepedent teams — was a respected baseball figure throughout New England. He was still, at age 48, a standout pitcher the day of the Red Sox tryout.

 Jackie Robinson was a regular guest at the Muchnick’s whenever the Dodgers visited the Hub to face the Braves. Jethroe became the first black Brave in 1950, and won Rookie of the Year honors at age 33. Williams never played in the majors. In 1953, the Braves signed another fleet colored outfielder, Bill Bruton.

It was Bruton who, when the team soon moved to Milwaukee, took a callow young Alabamian outfielder named Henry Aaron under his wing. Aaron went on to break the all-time major league home run record set by former Red Sox pitcher and slugger Babe Ruth.

A new day

The Red Sox were baseball’s last team to sign a black ball player, inking the mediocre Pumpsie Green in 1959. The team’s first black star was mid 1960’s pitcher Earl Wilson.

In an explanation in 1979, Joe Cronin, who became president of the American League, recalled:

“I remember the tryout very well. But after it, we told them our only farm club available was in Louisville, Ky., and we didn’t think they’d be interested in going there because of the racial feelings at the time.