The City of Boston announced last Thursday that Yawkey Way will revert back to its original name, Jersey Street. Debate over renaming Yawkey Way has raged for years over allegations that former owner Tom Yawkey was a racist. Despite successfully petitioning the city to rename the street, the Red Sox fumbled in their push to rename Yawkey Way
From a public relations perspective, I can understand current team owner John Henry’s concerns. We’re living in a time where Confederate statues are coming down throughout the south because of the ideas they symbolize. Fearing a similar backlash, Henry likely worried about what might happen if he didn’t take an official position on Yawkey. But Yawkey Way is different from a Confederate statue. The Confederate soldiers memorialized in statues throughout the south openly rebelled against the United States. Most of them supported slavery. In most cases it makes sense to take them down (unless they’re in a cemetery, that’s a different context). Failing to recognize the difference between a statue and a street sign though clearly reflects how the Red Sox fumbled this issue.
The Red Sox Relied on Falsities
The Red Sox fumbled their reasoning on this issue for a few reasons. They relied on ambiguous perceptions about Yawkey’s alleged racism, much of which has since been debunked. For example, one of the many stories about Yawkey stems from Jackie Robinson’s tryout at Fenway Park in 1945. Clif Keane, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, claimed that either Yawkey, Joe Cronin, or Eddie Collins yelled “Get those niggers off the field!” during the tryout. Red Sox historian Glenn Stout disputes that story. “A lot of people don’t give that [story] the greatest credibility,” Stout’s quoted as saying in Bill Nowlin’s biography of Tom Yawkey. In fact, Boston Globe writer John Powers stated in 2014 that Keane might have made it up.
This isn’t to say that Yawkey was an angel. Yawkey presided over the Red Sox when they became the last team to integrate in 1959. Pinky Higgins, the Red Sox manager from 1955-1959, and 1960-1962, was vocal about his views on African Americans. In his book, What’s the Matter with the Red Sox? Boston baseball writer Al Hirshberg quoted Higgins as saying, “There’ll be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.” Higgins certainly played a role in the Red Sox reluctance to integrate. As the team owner, Yawkey was responsible for retaining Higgins as an employee for as long as he did. John Henry should have cited that idea in pushing for the name change. In fact, I’m going to take the liberty of drafting the press release they should have written.
This Statement Should Have Been the Red Sox’s Official Press Release
Tom Yawkey presided over the Boston Red Sox during a time of tremendous growth. The personal and financial contributions he made helped transform the team into one of the best in baseball history. His kindness, generosity, and devotion to the Red Sox and the City of Boston will always be remembered and respected. However, Yawkey also presided over the Red Sox during a time when Major League Baseball was working towards becoming more inclusive and diverse. The lack of progress the Red Sox made towards equal rights during Yawkey’s tenure weighs heavily on John Henry and other members of the Red Sox community. While Yawkey’s role in the history of the City of Boston and the Red Sox will always be held in high esteem, his reluctance to be more proactive on matters of race contradict the Red Sox’s current mission to promote diversity and inclusion. As a result, the Red Sox formally request that the City of Boston change the name of Yawkey Way back to its original designation of Jersey Street. This gesture should show the City of Boston that the Red Sox are dedicated to making Fenway Park a welcoming environment for all.
This statement acknowledges Yawkey’s contributions to the team and the city while also recognizing his faults. Yawkey didn’t recognize the cancerous effect Pinky Higgins had on the Red Sox. That’s his fault. But simply put, the crime doesn’t fit the punishment.
The Red Sox Fumbled a Chance to Preserve Relations with the Yawkey Foundations
In response to the name change, The Yawkey Foundations stated that, “The drastic step of renaming the street, now officially sanctioned by the city of Boston (and contradicting the honor the city bestowed upon Tom Yawkey over 40 years ago), will unfortunately give lasting credence to that narrative and unfairly tarnish his name.” It’s difficult to imagine that the Red Sox didn’t consider what effect their push to rename Yawkey Way would have on the Yawkey Foundations. The Red Sox’s decision to push for the name change effectively makes the Yawkey Foundations guilty by association.
The Red Sox fumbled the entire Yawkey Way controversy. They relied on a false narrative that many historians wouldn’t give much credibility to (and don’t). What makes their error particularly egregious is how undiplomatic their efforts to rename Yawkey Way were. The Red Sox embarrassed themselves by using unreliable information about Yawkey. More importantly though, their failure to recognize Yawkey’s contributions and failures turned this controversy into a binary issue. There’s already too much divide in America. The way the Red Sox fumbled this issue only adds to that divide.