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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Ordinary day at the ballpark

by Philip Martin | September 11, 2022 at 1:52 a.m.

At two minutes after 2 p.m. on Sept. 6, 1960, Eli Grba, the 26-year-old son of a Serbian immigrant who raised her son alone on Chicago's South Side, threw the first Major League pitch I ever witnessed.

Grba was pitching for the New York Yankees, who were in the midst of cruising to their fifth straight pennant, which they would win by eight games over the Baltimore Orioles. At that point in the season they had won 77 games and lost 5. Back in June, they'd played the Kansas City A's to an anomalous 7-7 tie, when the game was called because of rain after 12 innings.

The day before, the Yankees had won both ends of a double-header against the struggling Boston Red Sox, who would finish 16 games under .500. That they were not in those days perceived as rivals to the dominant Yankees might account for there having been only about 17,000 fans at the game.

Despite it being the day after a double-header, all the Yankee stars played. Roger Maris, acquired in the off-season, batted lead-off and played right field. Mickey Mantle was the clean-up hitter in center. Tony Kubek was at short, Clete Boyer at third, Bobby Richardson at second and Moose Skowron at first. Yogi Berra was the starting catcher that day, though Elston Howard would come in after seven innings.

In those days, the regulars were the regulars.

Though Grba was just a spot starter, he was a highly regarded prospect. At the end of the season, the Yankees would leave him unprotected and the California Angels would select him with their first pick in the expansion draft.

It's said Yankee manager Casey Stengel urged the Angels to take Grba, because the young man's chance of cracking a rotation led by Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Art Ditmar and Ralph Terry were poor. Grba went on to throw the first pitch in Angels' history, though his career was eventually derailed by alcoholism.

On the second or third pitch of the game, Boston lead-off hitter Elijah "Pumpsie" Green, a switch-hitter batting left-handed against the right-throwing Grba, sliced a soft liner to left field, just beyond the reach of a leaping Kubek. It bounced into foul territory and Yankee left fielder Hector Lopez overran it as it trickled into the corner.

Green, who ran track for El Cerrito High School (and whose younger brother Cornell would play safety for the Dallas Cowboys for 13 seasons) took advantage of the misplay and circled the bases, sliding in ahead of the throw from cut-off man Kubek.

It remains one of two times a Red Sox player had led off a game with an inside-the-park home run. (The other is Hall of Famer Harry Hooper, who played for the Red Sox from 1909 to 1920.)

Green is best remembered as the first Black player for the Red Sox, which was the last organization in baseball to put a Black man on the field, 12 years after Jackie Robinson had made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

These days people may not think much of this, but in 1957, when Green was playing in the Texas League, he was not allowed to play when his team, the Oklahoma City Indians, visited the Shreveport Sports.

"I never played in Shreveport," Pumpsie told me in the 1980s. "They had a law against Blacks playing in Louisiana. So I got a three- or four-day vacation."

For whatever reason, Boston was slow to include Black players on their roster. They passed on Willie Mays, calling off a scheduled tryout when rain started to fall. They also passed on Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente.

Maybe they just had a bad front office, but in his 1973 book "What's the Matter with the Red Sox?" sportswriter Al Hirshberg quoted Pinky Higgins, Boston's on-field manager from 1955 to 1962 as saying "there will be no n-----s on this team as long as I have anything to say about it."

When Green did get to the majors, he said most of his white teammates wouldn't socialize with him, though Ted Williams made a point of playing catch with him to warm up before each game. Boston Celtics center Bill Russell publicly welcomed him to Boston.

There's a bizarre story about how in 1962, Pumpsie and Gene Conley, a Red Sox pitcher who also played center on the Celtics behind Russell, were left behind after they got off a team bus to find a rest-room. They checked into a hotel and Pumpsie rejoined the team the next day while Conley decided to fly to Israel. The airline wouldn't sell him a ticket because he didn't have his passport. Conley also rejoined the team but only after being fined $1,500, which the team refunded when he completed the season with no further unauthorized absences. (Someone should make a movie about Gene Conley.)

Pumpsie's home run gave Boston a lead they'd never relinquish; they'd go on to win 7-1, as the Red Sox's Billy Muffett pitched a complete game three-hitter, a gem only slightly marred by a solo Mickey Mantle home run that came with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It was Mantle's 32nd of the year, on his way to a league-leading 40.

(A lot of people consider 1960 an off-year for Mantle, because he hit "only" .276, his lowest batting average since he was a rookie. But through the prism of advanced metrics, we now can see that Mantle had a really good year; statistically he was the second-best offensive player in the league, behind only his teammate Maris, who was voted the league's Most Valuable Player.)

It was arguably the best pitched game of Muffett's career; one month earlier he'd beat the Detroit Tigers 1-0 (the only shutout of his Major League career) on a four-hitter, but the Tigers weren't the defending World Champion Yankees (though they did have Al Kaline and Norm Cash).

Muffett would go on to a long career as a Major League pitching coach; he was pitching coach on the 1967 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Years later, I talked to him after he'd retired to Monroe, La. He told me his biggest problem as a player was that he "lost too many one-run games--10 to 9, 8 to 7."

The most notable thing is that Ted Williams hit his last home run in Yankee Stadium, his 26th of the year. Robert Redford, a young actor whose career in theater and on television was beginning to gain some traction, was in the right field stands. Williams had been his baseball idol while growing up in Santa Monica; he did a good job of mimicking his sweet left-handed swing in "The Natural." (Redford played high school baseball with Don Drysdale; he earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado but, like Eli Grba, alcohol ruined his baseball career. He dropped out and went to Europe.) When I talked to Redford in 2002, he told me he nearly caught Williams' home-run ball.

Research suggests our earliest memories date from around 30 months of age. I was 22 months old in September 1960, so I don't remember this game, and know it from family legend. Which holds that Mantle, who my father knew from his playing days, had left us tickets along the first base line. I don't know whether I believe that, but when my father died we received a condolence card from the Mantle family.

It was a forgettable contest, just one of what were then 154 regular season games. An inconsequential Indian summer afternoon in the Bronx. I might write a book about it.

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