Ekev – Lessons in the Life of a Pioneer

Sometimes worlds converge in interesting ways.  My wife, who I always root for, and the Boston Red Sox, who I sometimes root for, and the […]

Sometimes worlds converge in interesting ways.  My wife, who I always root for, and the Boston Red Sox, who I sometimes root for, and the Torah which I love – recently converged in reading about the recent death of Elijah “Pumpsie” Green at age 85.

While my wife did know him personally, Mr. Green was a baseball coach and counselor at Berkeley High School, which she attended.  Many of her classmates reflected on the positive impact he had on their lives in posts on Facebook and following his death.  He was soft spoken, yet strong, and his impact on the lives of his students was profound.  And while his work as a coach and counselor may top my list of significant things he achieved in his life, most people know him because he was the first African American to play for the Boston Red Sox.

When I lived in Boston right after rabbinical school, it was fun rooting for the Red Sox.  They had a policy where clergy and a guest could attend any game free of charge.  I heard that the origin of the clergy pass policy was following a cheating scandal about having men with collars in the stands in order to restore credibility.  The made sitting in the stands with a yarmulke feel like a sweet irony! Any of you who have been to Fenway Park know that there is a passion to Red Sox fans, which in those years coupled with the suffering of not winning the World Series since 1918. The games were fun and I enjoyed bringing kids from the synagogue to the ballpark.

Sadly, the history of the Red Sox is not one to be celebrated.  Pumpsie Green made his major league debut in 1959 – 12 years after Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Red Sox did not want an African American player and integrated only due to pressure from Major League Baseball. Pumpsie Green was treated poorly.  The book “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston” by Howard Bryant quotes New York Post columnist Milton Gross’ report from the first spring training in Arizona that Pumpsie Green reported to: “From night to morning, the first Negro player to be brought to spring training by the Boston Red Sox ceases to be a member of the team he hopes to make as a shortstop…But segregation doesn’t just come in buildings such as the Safari hotel in Scottsdale where the Red Sox stay or the Frontier Motel where the Red Sox deposited…him when he arrived…It comes when a man wakes alone, eats alone, goes to the movies every night alone because there’s nothing more for him to do and then in Pumpsie Green’s words, ‘I get a sandwich and a glass of milk and a book and I read myself to sleep.’” He was so lonely! Unlike other teams which demanded that their African American players be allowed to stay in the same hotels as the rest of his teammates – Pumpsie often had to secure his own lodging, often miles away. He would end up talking to the walls of his baseball mitt.  At the end of his first spring training, the Red Sox sent Green back to the minor leagues, despite performing well.   By all accounts, at best, his teammates ignored him; at worst, his teammates and other players hurled racial hatred in his direction.

The behavior Pumpsie Green experienced is so contrary to the ethic of our faith!  In this week’s portion Ekev, we are called upon to “Love God, walking in God’s ways and hold fast to God.”  The Midrash teaches that to walk in God’s ways is to do as God does: As God is compassionate, we are called to be compassionate. As God is just, we are called to be just. As God creates each human with divinity, we are called to see the divinity in others. We are taught to befriend the stranger because we too were once strangers in Egypt.  This is certainly not the behavior that Pumpsie Green received.

One of the deepest concerns of parshat Ekev is how quick and easily we forget how we are supposed to behave.  In the portion, following the ways of others, wealth – which causes us to forget source of wealth, the pull of idolatry distances us from the ways of God.  We stop seeing what we need to see, and stop behaving how we need to behave. That is sadly part of our humanity.  In exploring Pumpsie Green’s story, too many let their own situation cause them to overlook what Pumpsie was experiencing.  One of his teammates, Ted Lepcio reflected: “We were observant enough.  Little did we know that some of the black players didn’t stay at the same hotel.  We were totally oblivious. We were all with the same group, all white players.” It is easy to point fingers at the Boston Red Sox of 1959 – but we too overlook how we have strayed from God’s ways as we overlook, ignore and tolerate injustice.

Awareness of how far we need to go is one of Pumpsie Green’s legacies.  He did not want to be a pioneer – he just wanted to play baseball.  He always declined to be drawn into the race issue.  In 1959, he said, “So far as I’m concerned, I’m no martyr. No flag carrier.  I’m just trying to make the ball club, that’s all.  I’m not trying to prove anything else but that.  I’m not even interested in being known as the first Negro to make the Red Sox. I just want to make the Red Sox and all the rest of it can wait.”  But in retrospect, Pumpsie Green knew his experience had much to teach.  In 2000 he told Howard Bryant: “Sometimes when I think of the things people like me had to go through, it just sounds so unnecessary.  When you think about it, it’s almost silly, how much time and energy was wasted hating.”

Our society and culture wastes too much time hating.  In the face of persistent turning away from the path of God, parshat Ekev makes a bold demand: “Circumcise your heart and be stiff-necked no more.”  Our hearts can be thick – and we are called to let God’s words penetrate our hearts. We are called on to reject ongoing hatred and injustice – to “to uphold the cause of the widow and orphan”.

Pumpsie Green’s story is not simple or singular – few stories are.  There were ballplayers who extended kindness to him.  The great player Ted Williams welcomed him. He made a point of warming up with Green prior to games to help him feel like part of the team. Moments like that catalyze change. When he made his major league debut, he received a standing ovation as he approached the plate. Most of the people embraced the changes that were occurring in America – and it is that behavior from the bottom up that changes society.  After many decades and a change of ownership, the Red Sox embraced diversity and players like David Ortiz, Pedro and JD Martinez, Dave Roberts and Mookie Betts lead them to multiple championships.

But let’s be honest – racism is still alive and well in America.  In a 1997 interview, Pumpsie said, “Baseball still has its problems, and so does society.  I don’t believe things are that much better in baseball or society.  Hopefully, it will be shortly.”  Sadly – what Pumpsie Green said 22 years ago is still true today.  Things still need to improve.  This year, I am asking our synagogue community to read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson writes in compelling clarity about the systemic flaws in our justice system, often connected to race and economic disparities.  He documents how fear, anger and indifference have turned us into a harsh and punitive nation with mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. We’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms.  For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole.  We have abolished parole in many states, and have documented examples of innocent people sentenced to death to have been exonerated. In Pumpsie’s words: “We still have our problems.”  We can do better.

Pumpsie Green’s statistics are not distinguished.  In 344 games he batted .246 with 13 home runs and 74 runs batted in.  It may be that all of the racial issues he had to deal were too much to handle.  Later in life, Pumpsie said that he “never did get comfortable, never…To me it was almost like opening night every game.”  In 1962, Green was traded to the Mets, where he played 17 games before retiring as a player, returning to California where he worked at Berkeley High coaching baseball and counseling students.  He not only helped hundreds of students develop baseball skills, he also touched thousands of others – helping them navigate through high school and prepare for adulthood. Society changes when we know people and care for them.  Perhaps Pumpsie Green’s most powerful impact was the lives he touched because he knew the stories and lives of his students and he cared so deeply.

Pumpsie Green left a legacy of resilience, historical awareness, ongoing societal challenges, and caring for others.  It was a life well lived – walking in God’s ways.  May he inspire us to continue to work to make things better.  May he rest in peace.