Tom Yawkey was the last team owner of his era to field a black player. And now his legacy is being debated once again as Boston change the name of Yawkey Way
Last week, the Boston Red Sox confirmed they would change the name of Yawkey Way, the street just outside Fenway Park where fans gather before the game. The Sox were direct about the reason for the decision: “[Changing Yawkey Way’s name to] Jersey Street … is intended to reinforce that Fenway Park is inclusive and welcoming to all.” But why would a street’s name fall short of those stated goals? It all goes back to its namesake in a city where racism has too often spilled over into sports.
Tom Yawkey was the owner of the Boston Red Sox from 1933 until his death in 1976. It was under his watch that the Red Sox became the last MLB team of the pre-expansion era to field a black player: infielder Pumpsie Green made his debut in 1959, a good 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. In fact, Robinson’s historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers may never have happened if Yawkey had had any say in the matter. He was one of several owners who made up the Major League Steering Committee which, in 1946, recommended that the league remain segregated.
Not that Yawkey’s Red Sox didn’t occasionally feign interest in African American players. Most notoriously, in 1945 they held a tryout for Robinson that was, by all accounts, a farce. The team had no intention of actually signing him. Robinson would later go on to call Yawkey “the most bigoted man in baseball”. Robinson wasn’t the only legendary black player that the Red Sox skipped over, they also failed to offer Willie Mays, one of greatest players of all time, a contract.
While Yawkey’s resistance to integrating his ballclub was primarily a moral failure, the policies that were in place during his tenure actively hurt his team’s chances of winning. It’s no coincidence that it was during this period, when other teams were integrating some of the most talented players from the Negro Leagues and elsewhere, that the Red Sox started to lag behind in the standings. Boston never won the World Series under Yawkey, and it’s impossible not to wonder if their history would have been different had they signed Robinson or Mays or any of the other talented ballplayers passed over because of the color of their skin. Maybe we could have all been spared all that non-stop “curse” talk.
Over the last few decades, Yawkey has come to represent an era that the current ownership has been trying to distance itself from. It’s no secret that the history of Boston sports, and the history of Boston in general, is filled with racial tension, and this past continues to affect people’s perception of the city. When racist incidents occur, for example at Fenway last year a fan shouted slurs at an African American player, it’s pretty much impossible to say “this is not who we are” while simultaneously honoring a literal segregationist.
While the case against unreservedly honoring Yawkey is fairly overwhelming, the Red Sox’s decision to rename Yawkey Way has provoked some rather strong backlash. The least surprising criticism came from the Yawkey Foundation, the organization Yawkey and his wife Jean established to ensure that their philanthropic efforts would continue after their deaths. The foundation swiftly responded to the Red Sox’s announcement with a statement defending Yawkey, painting him as the victim of “a false narrative,” and emphasizing his charity work (which the Sox acknowledged and praised in their announcement).
Let’s just assume that Yawkey’s defenders are right and that much of what we think we know about him comes from apocryphal mud-slinging, would that really affect his legacy as an owner? The integration of the major leagues was the most important moment in baseball history, maybe even US sports history, and Yawkey’s Red Sox were on the wrong side. Whether or not Yawkey was a bigot himself is ultimately irrelevant in light of the fact that his team was the last remaining hold-out, a hold-out that inexcusably lasted over a decade. We are judged primarily by our actions as well as our failures to act. Whether or not Yawkey was the primary person responsible for the Red Sox’s all-white rosters, it still happened under his watch. If it’s Yawkey’s fate to be remembered mostly as a symbol of bigotry and exclusion in sports, it’s one that he’s earned.
Beyond those without direct ties to Yawkey himself, the proposed move has also come under fire from the expected corners. There are those who accuse the Red Sox of surrendering to political correctness. You may remember this argument, in as much as it is one, from fans upset that the Cleveland Indians were phasing out the grotesquely racist Chief Wahoo logo just a little while ago.
Then there are those who believe the Red Sox are somehow erasing history by removing Yawkey’s name, as if deciding to stop paying tribute to him is somehow the equivalent of a Stalinist purge. But owner John Henry and the rest of the Sox organization aren’t cropping Yawkey out of photos and, as Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley points out, it’s not like his plaque in the Baseball Hall Of Fame is going anywhere any time soon. For better or worse, Yawkey’s place in baseball history is assured.
There is however, at least one criticism you could lay on the Red Sox organization: why are they doing this now? Henry claims that he wanted to change the name of Yawkey Way as early as 2002 and that he has been “haunted” by the idea. If so, then why has he waited until now, after three World Series wins and in the midst of a favorable political climate, to actually go through the renaming process. Was the Red Sox organization that afraid of a fan backlash? There’s a certain level of moral cowardice at work here: they knew that renaming Yawkey Way would be the right thing to do, yet they waited well over a decade before finally following through.
That course of inaction sounds very familiar for the Red Sox, doesn’t it?
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