The Red Sox Fumbled In Their Push To Rename Yawkey Way

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.red sox fumbled  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.

Book Review of Tom Yawkey: Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox

Rumors about Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey’s racism have persisted for years. Yawkey, who owned the Red Sox from 1933 until his death in 1976, owned the last team to integrate in 1959. Critics point out how the team declined to sign Jackie Robinson following a tryout at Fenway in 1945. Journalists and historians tell different stories about the tryout itself. Author Bill Nowlin explores these stories, along with all the other aspects of Yawkey’s life, in his biography Tom Yawkey: Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox.

During an August 2017 interview, Nowlin told me that “…in all my research I never foundTom Yawkey any hard evidence – no ‘smoking gun’ – to indicate that Tom Yawkey himself was personally racist.” In fact, Nowlin mentions that sportswriter Clif Keane may have fabricated the story about the racial epithet altogether. Nowlin, however, does not completely exonerate Yawkey. “…on 24 hours’ notice [Yawkey] could have ensured the Red Sox had an African American ballplayer. The facts show that the team was institutionally racist up until at least 1959.”

Dick Johnson of the Sports Museum of New England, who is quoted throughout the book, concurs. “It was stupidity and bad management…It was only years afterward when Neil Mahoney and Dick O’Connell and Ed Kenney and the really good, intelligent, colorblind (for the most part) staffers they had were allowed to have a say and to have a little bit of control over things [that things changed].”

These themes, as well as other aspects of Yawkey’s life, are meticulously detailed in Nowlin’s biography of a complex man.

Nowlin’s Biography Gives Tom Yawkey His Day In Court

While Nowlin goes into great detail about how Yawkey is remember today, he doesn’t make it the focal point. Norlin gives his readers a complete and thorough narrative about who Yawkey was as an owner and a person. Norlin describes a man who went to great lengths to take care of others, including members of the opposing team. This vivid description gives readers all the information they need to make their own judgement call about the man.

The tremendous attention to detail throughout the entire book makes it difficult to second guess Nowlin’s scholarship. Nowlin relies on previous research that he painstakingly cites, while providing a fresh and insightful story of his own. The accounts and perspectives he was able to extract through personal interviews are the highlight of the biography. Readers will also appreciate Nowlin’s exploration of what happened to the Red Sox in the years following Yawkey’s death. His detailed account of the post-Yawkey years suggest that the impact he had on the team, and the City of Boston, was so great that it’s impossible to end the book with his death.

There are only a handful of other writers who rival Nowlin’s contributions to the history of the Red Sox. His biography of Tom Yawkey solidifies that accolade, while providing baseball fans and scholars alike with a first-rate biography of a misunderstood man.

Sam Kennedy Leading Efforts To Rename Yawkey Way

The Boston Red Sox announced in August that they wanted Yawkey Way renamed. Their concern stems from a racist legacy left in the wake of Tom Yawkey’s ownership. As of today, a Boston Red Sox-themed Instagram page titled “bostonstrong_34” with a following of over 91,000 users posted that Red Sox President Sam Kennedy confirmed the team’s efforts to eventually change the street name. With Sam Kennedy leading the efforts to rename Yawkey Way, it’s clear that this change could come sooner than later.

In a book coming out on Yawkey titled Tom Yawkey: Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox,sam kennedy leading author Bill Nowlin explores the man that very few know or understand. In an article published by prosportsdaily.com, Nowlin stated that “I never once found any evidence that Yawkey was personally racist. Nor did interviews with several dozen Sox players, including Pumpsie Green and Reggie Smith, turn up any such a suggestion. I looked for a smoking gun, and couldn’t find one.” That doesn’t mean he was without flaws. In an e-mail message to me, Nowlin elaborated, “He owned 100% of the team, and on 24 hours’ notice he could have ensured the Red Sox had an African American ballplayer. The facts show that the team was institutionally racist up until at least 1959 – though it’s also only fair to note that so was every newspaper in Boston, and many other institutions as well.”

I recently discussed this topic in an earlier post. I wrote that the Yawkey Way name should stay in place. While Tom Yawkey owned the Red Sox when they became the last team to integrate, I don’t believe Yawkey himself was a true racist. Of course, this does not excuse him from any blame or responsibility for the team’s legacy under his ownership. While Tom Yawkey wasn’t exactly a Civil Rights Leader, he wasn’t a racist. So while Yawkey bears the responsibility for the team’s racist history during his tenure as owner, it’s difficult to place him at the same level as the KKK as many are insinuating. With Sam Kennedy leading the charge on this move, I am disappointed because I don’t think he thought about this idea very thoroughly at all.

Sam Kennedy Leading A Dishonest And Very Flawed Effort

Yawkey wasn’t perfect; far from it. But he was also a very generous man who didn’t collect on loans he gave to his players, both black and white. To me, this suggests that he may have evolved in his views on race for the better.

To rename Yawkey Way is to suggest that people can’t change. What’s the point of educating others about the dangers of bigotry if we don’t recognize the effect it has? Do we continue to call someone a racist even if they eventually changed their views? What do the stories about how generous Yawkey was towards players say about him? It certainly doesn’t excuse him from any responsibility regarding the team’s stance on integration before 1959. But it’s also not a good excuse to rename Yawkey Way.

Kennedy wants to rename Yawkey Way for the wrong reasons. He wants a scapegoat that he thinks will alleviate the focus on the Red Sox messy record on integration. He is also exploiting a very serious issue in America. He’s trying to make the team look like they care about combating bigotry in America. While I don’t doubt his sincerity, I feel he would have made this move years ago if he felt this way.