Baseball has some important lessons upon which we can draw during this time of polarizing politics. Sixty years ago today history was made. On July 21, 1959, the Boston Red Sox became the last team in major league baseball to field a team that included an African-American player. More than 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Elijah “Pumpsie” Green took the field as a pinch runner for the Red Sox in a game in Chicago against the White Sox.

In the Portland Press Herald’s AP story announcing Pumpsie’s death at the age of 85 this past week, reference was made to Pumpsie’s comments that during the time he played in Boston there were few, if any, other people of color at Fenway in any capacity: in the Red Sox offices, as employees at Fenway’s concessions, or as spectators in the stands.

It took many decades and a change of ownership for the Boston Red Sox to alter their deeply-embedded homogeneous culture to become a successful team. Had they not embraced diversity, players like David Ortiz, Martinez (Pedro and JD), Dave Roberts, “Mookie” Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr., would not have helped propel the Bosox to multiple World Series championships. While not without some missteps, Fenway Park is a place where anyone (assuming they have the funds) should feel welcome to attend a game.

Regrettably, what currently passes for political discourse in the age of Twitter is reminiscent of the sort of name-calling that characterized the early period of baseball’s great experiment: the breaking of the color barrier. In 1947, Jackie Robinson was subjected to cruel heckling and race baiting. The movie “42” about Robinson included scenes of the taunting to which Robinson was subjected, principally from Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Almost 70 years after the events depicted in the movie, the City of Philadelphia apologized for the abuse heaped on Robinson in that community – abuse that included the taunt that he “should go back to the cotton fields.”

President Trump’s July 14 tweets that four female first term congresswomen should go back to the “crime infested” countries from which they came gives rise to Ben Chapman’s claim that he was motivated less by racism than by a need to obtain a competitive advantage over a rookie. One hopes that the President’s strategy meets with the result that followed Chapman. Chapman’s opprobrium caused Jackie Robinson’s teammates to rally round him; and Chapman faced substantial backlash in the court of public opinion.

The AP story on the passing of “Pumpsie” Green contained his reflections he made in 1997. In commenting on his rendezvous with history, “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.” We would do well to take inspiration from a modern day prophet and end the incendiary taunts of one another. In so doing, we would pay tribute to Elijah Green, a reluctant historical figure. More to the point, the Great American Experiment might well depend on our collective will to demand that political discourse be, at all times, civil.


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