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The Significance of Changing Yawkey Way

Photo courtesy of John Tlumacki/Boston Globe.

Last week, the city of Boston unanimously decided to change the name of Yawkey way, after the longest tenured Red Sox owner from 1933 until his death in 1976. The street was named after him in 1977, but the Boston Public Improvement Commission finally changed the name of the street after public outcry, including that of current Red Sox owner John Henry. Henry does not dismiss the significant contributions Tom and Jean Yawkey made to the Red Sox, the city of Boston, and numerous people during and after their lives, but that removing his name from the street instead focuses on inclusiveness.

“The Red Sox don’t control the naming or renaming of streets, but for me, personally, the street name has always been a consistent reminder that it is our job to ensure the Red Sox are not just multicultural, but stand for as many of the right things in our community as we can – particularly in our African-American community and in the Dominican community that has embraced us so fully. The Red Sox Foundation and other organizations the Sox created such as Home Base have accomplished a lot over the last 15 years, but I am still haunted by what went on here a long time before we arrived.”

Yawkey was notoriously racist, and while he objectively did many great things for the Red Sox that cannot be discredited, his faults shined a negative light on the Red Sox organization. They were the last team to integrate, more than twelve years after Jackie Robinson made his debut in 1947.

Yawkey was no doubt a product of his cultural environment, but he went out of his way to maintain a white team for as long as possible during his time as owner. He defended himself by frequently referencing MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Landis, who himself was a notorious racist known as an “implacable foe of integration who had done more than any other to perpetuate baseball’s color line,” according to journalist Ken Burns. Landis’ death in 1945 was actually the turning point for black integration into baseball according to most historians. In 1943, however, Landis used his position as the first commissioner of baseball to point the finger at the owners, especially Yawkey, as the reason baseball has not integrated. At a conference with the owners and members of the press, he issued a statement still 4 years before Robinson broke the color barrier:

“Certain managers in organized baseball have been quoted as saying the reason Negroes are not playing in organized baseball is that the commissioner would not permit them to do so. I have come to the conclusion that it is time for me to express myself on this important issue. Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been during the 21 years I have served. There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been to my knowledge.”

The Red Sox, among other teams, had previously referenced that blacks were not allowed in the MLB up until this statement. From that point, Landis made it clear that it was on owners, even though when Bill Veeck allegedly tried to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 with the intention of signing black players, Landis as well as the president of the National League intervened and a separate buyer (who offered half as much as Veeck) was chosen instead. Still, the ball changed hands from the MLB front office to that of the owners, and under Yawkey, the Red Sox held multiple “tryouts” resulting in a decision to not hire the black players due to their skills and not their skin color. If that was true, the idea of not hiring someone due to a poor tryout is understandable, but the players the Red Sox invited to tryout between 1945 and 1947 embarrass the organization every time it’s mentioned. Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Sam Jethroe. Red Sox manager Eddie Collins worked closely under Yawkey and stated that were not any black players who were good enough to make their team. Yawkey himself confirmed this sentiment: “We scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.” Years later, Robinson recalled, “It burns me up to come fifteen hundred miles to have them give me the runaround … Not for one minute did we think the tryout was sincere.” Robinson also later called Yawkey “one of the most bigoted guys in baseball.” Although never confirmed, it’s been reported numerous times that either Yawkey, General Manager Joe Cronin, or Eddie Collins shouted from the stands during Robinson’s tryout to “get those n****rs off the field!”

The racist legacy of Yawkey is indisputable. He pranced around the idea of signing a black player, holding out as long as he possibly could. He hired Pinky Higgins as manager in 1955, and Higgins was quoted saying, “There’ll be no n****rs on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.” So while Yawkey and his wife were known for their philanthropic contributions to the city of Boston and their long term as owners (without a World Series win unfortunately), the tainted legacy of Yawkey cannot be erased.

Yawkey (middle) alongside Pinky Higgins (left) and Joe Cronin (right).

In addition to the racism behind the Yawkey name, one of the most overlooked incidents in baseball history was covered up by Yawkey and his wife Jean. Red Sox clubhouse manager Don Fitzpatrick reportedly molested more than 20 men during his tenure with the Red Sox from the 1960s until 1991. When a victim came forward in 1971, he was fired by the Red Sox organization. According to sports journalist Jeff Passan, “Even as Fitzpatrick grew older and his tendencies to gravitate toward young boys became apparent, Yawkey protected him, according to two sources with knowledge of their relationship.” Fitzpatrick later pled guilty on four counts of sexual battery in 2002 based on the original allegations. John Henry purchased the Red Sox in 2002, immediately settling with the victims for over $3 million to help rectify a situation he simply inherited.

One can only parallel the entire incident to that of Joe Paterno, who was stripped of wins and had statues taken down following an investigation into his role in covering up assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young men while with the team. As great of a man and coach Paterno was, the truth behind the incident exposed a dark history and he posthumously faced consequences for his actions and inaction. Yawkey is only serving his own posthumous sentence, even if it’s only in the form of a street sign.

The Red Sox plan to continue to show images of him and other references to him within the ballpark given his legacy with the team as owner over 6 different decades. In a public statement before the street was officially changed, the Red Sox announced:

“The petition is an effort to continue to work towards inclusion at Fenway Park, not an effort to erase the Yawkey legacy from the ballpark entirely. The name on our front door is very different from other areas of Fenway Park that showcase the history of the Yawkey era. We have no plans to remove other references or tributes to him.”

This includes plaques and images throughout the stadium, and perhaps the most unnoticed tribute to Yawkey and his wife – their initials in morse code on the Green Monster.

Tom Yawkey maintains a long legacy within the Red Sox organization, but it’s important to acknowledge both the positive and negative sides of his legacy accordingly. As a public street funded by taxpayers, Yawkey Way has officially been changed back to its original name, Jersey Street, to promote inclusion in the best sports town in America. At the end of the day, it’s no different than taking down the statues of Confederate soldiers that remind the US of its systematic endorsement of slavery and racism. The removal of Yawkey’s name was long overdue and is a step in the right direction for the Red Sox, the city of Boston, and the US’s goal of eliminating racism. The only (inconsequential) complaint I can make is that the Red Sox/city of Boston missed the opportunity of renaming the street to honor someone like Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, or David Ortiz (who already had part of the road named after him in 2016).

The City of Boston officially implemented the changing of Yawkey Way to Jersey Street on May 3rd.