PUMPSIE GREEN. TODAY that name is unknown to, conservatively, 99.99% of Liverpool FC’s players, coaches and fans.
They would have done well to have known it before the Suarez/Evra racism affair reached its nadir with yesterday’s non-handshake at Old Trafford.
For Elijah “Pumpsie” Green is the reason that Liverpool football club, with Kenny Dalglish as its managerial and spiritual figurehead, could not continue their isolationist course in defending Luis Suarez.
On Sunday Liverpool FC released a statement containing an apology by Luis Suarez for his pre-game actions at Old Trafford.
I should have shaken Patrice Evra’s hand before the game and I want to apologise for my actions. I would like to put this whole issue behind me and concentrate on playing football.
(Luis Suarez, 12 Feb, 2012)
In order to understand why Dalglish, Liverpool and Suarez were always going to be forced to back down from their stance, one must first journey back to Brooklyn in 1947.
Baseball had been a white man’s game for over 50 years. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb, giants of the game, never played against a player with skin much darker than his own. It was a game run by white men, played by white men in front of (mostly) white men.
The infamous and shameful “Color Line” had been drawn as an unwritten rule by Major League Baseball in the late 19th century; after that point no player “of color” would wear a major league uniform until the great Jackie Robinson was given his chance by the Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1947.
Rickey was no Rosa Parks; he was a canny businessman and one of the shrewdest minds in baseball history. Where some saw an opportunity to integrate the Great American Pastime as being a grand act of civil rights, Branch Rickey saw a market inefficiency that could be exploited.
The canny Dodgers GM saw players like pitcher Satchel Paige, speedster Cool Papa Bell (a man so fast he’d turn off the light switch and be in bed before it got dark), slugging catcher Josh Gibson, all prevented from playing in MLB. They were stars of the Negro Leagues; parallel leagues set up by non-white owners for non-white teams to play in front of non-white crowds.
In particular, Paige and Gibson were known by all in baseball to be two of the greatest players to have ever played the game, whatever the colour of their skin. Rickey saw huge opportunity here, the age old advantage of being first to the well.
The choice of player to break the MLB ‘color line’ was important. He would have to be extremely talented, for even some of his own teammates would not accept a black player of even equal talent to a white man. On top of that he would have to already have had some existing public credibility, perhaps in another sport. Finally, and most importantly, he would have to be a man of outstanding personal confidence, dignity and inner strength because it was guaranteed that he would be the focal point of abuse from fans, opposing teams, umpires and even some of his own teammates.
The man chosen by Branch Rickey was Jackie Robinson, former collegiate football and track star at UCLA who had spent time in the US Army before joining the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. He made his debut on April 15th, 1947, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn where it was estimated that over half the crowd were black. Robinson’s success on the field and his dignity off it broke open the door for black players to follow and his number, 42, was retired from all of Major League Baseball* in 1997.
Pumpsie Green: Red Sox player in his pomp. Image: AP
Not everyone was happy with Rickey, Robinson and the Dodgers, and it was fully 12 years until every MLB team had a black player on their roster. The date? July 21st, 1959. The player was Pumpsie Green, and that team was the Boston Red Sox, now owned by John Henry, owner of Liverpool FC.
The 12 year gap between Jackie Robinson and Pumpsie Green is considered to be a stain on the long and storied history of the Boston Red Sox. Pumpsie didn’t have it easy, even though Robinson’s breakthrough had been over a decade past, as told to Harvey Frommer for his 2006 book “Where Have All Our Red Sox Gone?”. At Spring Training, he roomed alone. Even after his debut he didn’t have a roommate until Earl Wilson, another black player, joined him.
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.
(Pumpsie Green, 2006)
Echoes of this delay in fully integrating the team and the sport were felt for decades in Boston. As recently as last season the Red Sox asked representatives of the National Urban League, whose convention was in Boston, to throw out the first pitch and serve as bat boys/girls in an effort to provide further evidence of their break with that racism-tinged past.
Liverpool’s owner John W Henry and Linda Pizzuti. Image: PA
John Henry is an extremely smart businessman, one of the shrewder owners in the game. He brought two World Series to Boston after a famous 90 year drought via a devotion to analysis, statistics and giving opportunity to brilliant minds like Theo Epstein (hired as GM at age 29) and Bill James (“underground” Kansas baseball analyst and one of the greatest analytical minds there has been in the game).
His money helped bring those titles, of course, but one of the flagship franchises in the sport had shown that there was room for them to exploit market inefficiency too. Henry was unafraid to take the right business decisions when others in the game might laugh at him.
Likewise this business acumen would come to play in the sorry Liverpool saga of racism followed by an unswerving backing afforded to a player already suspended for eight games who when refused to shake the hand of the man whom he was found guilty of racially abusing.
“Would you shake the hand of a man who had falsely accused you?”, the Liverpool fans screamed in their online fury. But what they, Suarez and Dalglish failed to grasp is that the truth of the initial accusation did not matter. That point was long since passed.
On Saturday the New York Times website published a piece attacking Liverpool for their stance on this issue. It was then printed in the Sunday New York edition.
The final two lines are most interesting.
It is time for John Henry and Tom Werner, leaders of the Fenway Group that controls Liverpool, to state clearly the direction the team will take on this issue.
(New York Times, 11 Feb, 2012)
Why is this interesting, apart from it being printed by the Old Lady? Well, the New York Times is a part owner of the Boston Red Sox. This was a crossing of the rubicon. And ultimately this came down to a business decision, made by business minds.
John Henry, owner of a team with a long-remembered racial stain on its history, could not afford to have a team under his control being seen to be defending acts borne of racism.
Suarez’s apology was coming. He just didn’t know it.
* existing players already wearing the number 42 were permitted to continue wearing it; the most famous and last of these is future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees.