HOUSTON Amid the avalanche of former Red Sox honored on Friday during the 100th birthday celebration of Fenway Park, Pumpsie Green, though warmly applauded, was not granted any particular distinction.
He was neither first (Jim Rice) nor last (Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky) among the 212 players who emerged from openings in the outfield and home dugout at the quaint ballpark at 4 Yawkey Way, a minor oversight that carelessly marginalized his significance in the history of baseball.
When Green made his major-league debut on July 21, 1959, he became the first black player to suit up for the Red Sox, who were the last team to integrate. That Green broke the color barrier in Boston 12 years, three months and six days after Robinson began enduring the brunt of vitriolic racial hatred only underscores the triumphant will of Robinson.
The Astros on Friday offered a reserved yet respectful celebration of Robinson in advance of their three-game series with the Dodgers, the franchise for which Robinson famously debuted on April 15, 1947. That 65 years have passed since Robinson began paving the way for those barred from the game via a gentlemen's agreement has in no way minimized the significance of his accomplishments or his sacrifices.
"We would not be here if it wasn't for him. Willie Mays will tell you, Hank Aaron will tell you, and I'm telling you personally," former Astros great Jimmy Wynn said. "I thank Jackie Robinson every day of my life."
That was a succinctly powerful statement. Wynn, whose number was retired by the Astros in 2005, remains a fixture with the organization in community outreach. He credited Robinson for that role, his career, and for being recognized nationally for his production as a player. Wynn made his debut with the Astros more than 16 years after Robinson preceded him, part of an era when blacks excelled and, as Wynn stated with eloquence, showed organizations like the Red Sox what they missed by denying Robinson and Negro League stars an opportunity for so long.
More than six decades later it's dangerously easy to question what impact, if any, Robinson's legacy has on today's game. The number of blacks in baseball continues to decline at a disturbing clip despite the continued emergence of another wave of burgeoning superstars.
The Astros witnessed firsthand the impact of one player at that forefront, as Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp added to his major-league-leading totals in home runs (eight) and runs batted in (20) with his 3-for-3 night in the Astros' 3-1 loss. There are young, black stars sprinkled throughout baseball, from Kemp to Prince Fielder (Tigers), Justin Upton (Diamondbacks) to Andrew McCutchen (Pirates). Their numbers aren't overwhelming, but they are still providing influence.
"It has a chance to really grow the game when you see guys like Prince Fielder leading SportsCenter with a 214 million contract," Astros left-handed pitcher Wesley Wright said. "That can only help the awareness in the African-American community. With guys like Kemp and Fielder, it can only bring more of a spotlight to the game."
Every April 15th, Major League Baseball shines its spotlight on Robinson with every player on every team wearing his No. 42. The Astros, who were in Miami when that annual acknowledgement took place, wanted to pay their respects with the Dodgers at Minute Maid Park. They presented Wynn and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, a contemporary of Robinson both in the Negro Leagues and in the National League when his New York Giants waged memorable metropolis wars with Brooklyn.
Even at 93 years of age, the memories haven't faded for Irvin. There was spirited debate over who could best handle the rigors of being the first to cross that imaginary line, with Irvin convinced that Roy Campanella was the better option. By that point Robinson had earned respect for his exploits between the lines, but no one could have foreseen the strength of his intestinal fortitude or the resolve of his devoted wife Rachel.
Even now, what Robinson managed leads Irvin to smile broadly. He can only recount the horror stories so many times before they lose their magnitude, but there is a depth of knowledge in his eyes, in the steadiness of his speech. So many have thrived because Robinson dared to come first, and those who remember best still celebrate passionately.
"It's great that they keep honoring him, and he deserves all the honors that he receives," Irvin said. "He was such a dynamic person: a good speaker and brilliant player on and off the field. We salute him for being so magnificent. He was great, and I hope that the youngsters coming along read about him. And we hope the message will never die."
That appears unlikely. As long as Irvin is around to discuss the legacy, Wynn stays committed to honoring the man who paved his path to the majors, and Wright remains vigilant with just how great a player Robinson was he was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, Most Valuable Player in 1949, and finished in the top 15 in MVP voting seven consecutive seasons the message of Jackie Robinson will live forever.
The Astros did their part to ensure that Robinson won't soon be forgotten. On the same day Green anonymously took his place among Red Sox legends, Robinson earned recognition as an influential figure in American history who just so happened to be a wondrous ballplayer.
"I think that's a very important part," Wright said. "If he wasn't the player that he was, I don't know if it would have had the same type of impact. At the end of the day you always have to produce, no matter what race, color or creed. This is a game based on results, and he was able to back it up when he went out on the field."
Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda