It’s Not Black and White: A Look at Tom Yawkey’s Legacy

You remember the first and the last. The middle is where it gets murky. Such is the case with the proposed name change for Fenway Park’s Yawkey Way, so named for its owner from 1933 to 1976, Thomas A. Yawkey. After decades and much discussion, the Red Sox have officially asked the city of Boston to rename Yawkey Way. Or rather, un-name it, restoring the location’s original name, Jersey Street. Boston’s Public Improvement Commission will consider the proposal when they convene today.

In a statement made earlier this month, the team announced their intent:

“Restoring the Jersey Street name is intended to reinforce that Fenway Park is inclusive and welcoming to all.”

This active push for inclusion showcases Boston’s most prominent sports team’s transition into a new era. The Red Sox bear the unfortunate distinction of being the last franchise in MLB to sign a black player. Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947; Pumpsie Green made his debut for the Boston Red Sox in 1959. Yawkey infamously passed on signing Willie Mays for a mere $4,500 in 1949. Robinson himself once called Yawkey “one of the most bigoted guys in baseball,”ª while John Henry said last August that Yawkey’s racist legacy still “haunted” him.

Tom Yawkey’s name has been synonymous with the Red Sox since he bought the franchise in 1933, four days after he inherited a fortune on his 30th birthday. The team had been a disaster ever since Harry Frazee had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees thirteen years earlier. In 1926, a fire had destroyed part of the ballpark and the owners could not afford to repair it, so the team played in a half-burned out Fenway Park. In 1932, the Red Sox lost a still-franchise record 111 games.

After a second devastating fire destroyed much of Fenway Park in 1934, Yawkey used his personal fortune to rebuild the ballpark he’d just repaired, making it the beautiful edifice we still enjoy today. The famous Green Monster (not yet green) was updated to include the classic scoreboard, and Duffy’s Cliff was leveled. Bostonians will tell you that he created jobs for their ancestors, feeding families barely staying alive during the Great Depression. And 1934 was the Red Sox’s first non-losing season since 1918.

Yawkey’s commitment to winning included investing in signing future Red Sox icons Joe Cronin, Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and the beloved Johnny Pesky, to name a few. His Red Sox won the pennant in 1946, and came within one game of doing so again both in 1948 and 1949. But as competitive as Yawkey was, his determination to return to the winning days of the early 1900s Red Sox seemingly did not extend as far as signing black players. They finally returned to the World Series in 1967, and 1975, though they lost both in seven games. Yawkey died decades before his team finally broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. Yawkey owned the Red Sox until his death in 1976, with his wife Jean becoming president of the club upon his passing. He became only the fourth MLB team owner to be inducted into Cooperstown, though the honor came posthumously in 1980. Jersey Street had been renamed Yawkey Way in his honor in 1977.

Though many have taken issue with the street’s name in the past, the conversation really ignited last summer following the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. Of course, statues of men like Confederate army leaders Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were erected with racist intent. No one would make the same argument about Yawkey Way; the issue here is not about intent, but about the emotions his name continues to evoke. Yawkey’s alleged racism adversely affected the team, and the fans paid the price, most directly those in communities of color who felt unwelcome and unwanted at Fenway Park as well as those who watched the team struggle and fail season after season.

It’s difficult, in 2018, to step back to 1959, when the Red Sox became the last team in the Major Leagues to add a black player to their roster. It apparently does not matter that their fellow Boston team, the Braves, had already signed Sam Jethroe in 1950. Or that their rival New York Yankees had also passed on Willie Mays years before and were supposedly forced to integrate, signing Elston Howard in 1955. Or that the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers waited until 1957 and 1958, respectively, to sign black players of their own. Because what matters is that the Red Sox were the last, even if it was only by a year. They were the caboose of a slow-moving train.

Being last matters to a city that loves a good soundbite and has an inexplicable need to place blame, whether it’s on the opposing team that’s just beaten us, or on our own players, who we hold to almost high-heavenly standards. What apparently does not matter is that players like Jim Rice and Reggie Smith adored Yawkey, as did Ted Williams, who used his own Hall Of Fame induction speech to advocate for the induction of Negro Leagues players. Or that Tom Yawkey paid the down payment on Pumpsie Green’s home and offered to do the same for other African American players on his payroll. Or that his biographer Bill Nowlin interviewed dozens of former players and employees and “never once found any evidence that Yawkey was personally racist.”

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the Red Sox were not alone in being hesitant, even against integration. After Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ passing in 1944, executives of all sixteen MLB teams took a vote regarding the idea of adding African American players to their teams, with a 15-1 verdict against integration. The sole supporter, Branch Rickey, defied his fellow owners and quickly signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league deal in 1945.

After World War II, sports played an increasingly important role in exposing and eventually tearing down color lines. It is wrong and shameful that the Red Sox made little to no contribution to those efforts, but they were far from the only ones.

One issue with renaming Yawkey Way is that it can be seen as an attempt to expunge rather than work to correct Boston’s overall problematic record with racism. In retrospect, we may view Tom Yawkey’s actions and inactions as racist, but so were those of many people in his time. A little over a century before, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had been slave-owners, but in a time when hundreds of people owned slaves. Their actions were terrible, but accepted and legal in their time.

Tom Yawkey deserves to be seen and remembered as any of us would wish to be: as a real person with strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. Was Tom Yawkey racist, or was he a product of his times and upbringing? Regardless, we cannot ignore the enormous contributions he made to the city of Boston, both as a philanthropist and as owner of the Red Sox. He purchased the team during the Great Depression and saved them from probable extinction. It is seriously debated whether or not the team that had lost every season since the sale of  Babe Ruth in 1920 would’ve even survived had Yawkey not intervened. We owe him Fenway Park and the continued existence of the Boston Red Sox, whether or not we keep his name on the doors.

There’s no doubt Boston should attempt to make amends, but erasing Tom Yawkey’s legacy isn’t the way to do it. We also can’t hide from our history. It’s uncomfortable and unfortunate, but it is a part of how we got here. Pretending it never happened and not teaching our children to be better will only lead to repetition in the future.

And who does this name change help, really? Does it make African Americans feel more welcome or does it just assuage the guilt of white men who upheld racist standards? The name change is about the past rather than the future. It’s about whitewashing the franchise’s less-than-perfect history rather than focusing on a brighter tomorrow. A new name is not a time machine that can take us back to sign Willie Mays, nor is it an eraser of our worst moments; all we can do is learn from our mistakes and decide not to repeat them. We have to decide: do we want to be a city that tries to change the past, impossible, or are we going to work towards a better future? It’s easy to take down a sign and pretend that fixes everything; it’s harder to create real change.

For generations of us who grew up walking down Yawkey Way, it’ll be hard to think of it by any other name. Selfishly, I’m sad. For me, the name Yawkey recalls fond childhood memories of happy summer nights, though I know the same can’t be said for many fellow members of Red Sox Nation. Baseball should be for everyone, and if this change makes more people want to come and enjoy the beauty of Fenway Park and feel at home there, then I support it.

Sometimes, there’s no right answer to a question. At the very least, this is an opportunity for people to know and appreciate the relationship between sports and larger social issues.

We should exercise caution when assigning blame, and more importantly, actively construct a future where everyone feels welcome.


Photo: Boston Globe

ª Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston

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