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. Nowlin 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.

Keep Yawkey Way So We Don’t Forget His Mistakes

Calls to tear down Confederate monuments are making headlines throughout the United States. Violence in Charlottesville has brought attention to our nation’s history that leave many divided. Personally, I think most of them should come down and be placed in museums. Racists erected them to intimidate African Americans, and they represent nothing but treason and oppression. Calls to rename other parks and streets that bare the names of ambiguous persons of history echo those same demands. One of those demands includes renaming Yawkey Way. While I think Confederate monuments should come down, I think they should keep Yawkey Way the way it is.

Yawkey Way was named after Tom Yawkey, the owner of the Boston Red Sox from 1933keep yawkey way to 1976. Many remember Yawkey as a racist. During his reign, the Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate when Pumpsie Green took the field in 1959. Before then, the Red Sox had chances to sign players like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Sam Jethroe, all Rookies of the Year. Additionally, he employed Mike “Pinky” Higgins, a manager who made no effort to keep his distain for African Americans a secret. Higgins is the primary reason why the Red Sox didn’t integrate for years. Yawkey not only kept Higgins around, but he even promoted him through the years. Unlike owners like Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, Yawkey chose to play along with the rest of the owners in baseball and drag their feet before integrating their teams. That will always be a part of his reputation and deservedly so.

Keep Yawkey Way So We Don’t Forget, and Repeat, The Past

Going back to my introduction, Confederate monuments need to come down because they represent a time in our nation’s history when traitors tried to tear this country apart. For many years after the war ended, its sympathizers tried to retain the honor of the south by erecting monuments, partly so they could continue terrorizing and intimidating African Americans who they’d oppressed for years. Many of these Confederate monuments were built specifically and deliberately to push back against integration and Civil Rights. That’s why they now need to come down. In fact, Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces, discouraged monuments. He thought they “keep open the sores of war” (Boy was he right).

Was Yawkey Way given its name for the same reasons? Of course not. Yawkey Way was named to honor Tom Yawkey, not to intimidate African Americans from coming to Fenway Park.

Keep Yawkey Way To Hold Yawkey’s Legacy Responsible

Yawkey Way bares the name of an owner responsible for modernizing Fenway Park. He played an important role in the history of the Red Sox and in baseball. Many ballplayers, black and white, remember him as being a very generous and approachable man. Deep down, he probably didn’t harbor racist sentiments as intense as Higgins’. However, he’s still responsible for that racist legacy. He could have done what Rickey and Veeck did and integrate the Red Sox before any other team. But he didn’t.

So instead of letting Yawkey and the Red Sox off the hook, the team needs to keep Yawkey Way. Of course, the current ownership doesn’t hold the same views Yawkey did, but they chose to buy the team and its dark legacy comes with that. They don’t get to “erase” that. It would also enable people to forget about the terrible mistakes Tom Yawkey made. Instead of erasing that history, the Red Sox should use this opportunity not only to remember a dark past, but take efforts to ensure they don’t go down similar paths.

Keep Yawkey Way To Ensure We Don’t Forget

There is no easy solution here. People will remain angry no matter what’s done. But let’s keep things in perspective here. This publication, which also bears the Yawkey name, looks to a future that includes equality and opportunity for everyone. To rename the street would jeopardize those efforts to craft a better future. Personally, I write for Yawkey Way Report because I want to help create a future with more equal opportunities so that everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc. have a chance to thrive, whether it’s in baseball or in other aspects of life. Renaming Yawkey Way would indirectly disrupt those efforts because those involved would have to start from scratch to associate itself with a new title. That takes time, and frankly, I don’t see how that’s a better approach. That’s like tearing down an entire house just because the kitchen is unstable.

So instead of looking at Yawkey Way as a symbol of racism, look to it as a symbol of change. Tom Yawkey, while he could have done much more, tried to change his views for the better. Does that excuse his behavior? No. But renaming a street isn’t a zero sum solution and it never will be. We need to take the good with the bad. We can remember Tom Yawkey as an innovative owner while also holding his legacy responsible for its reprehensible actions. To change the name of Yawkey Way would be to erase and rewrite a history that, despite its darkness, is important to remember so we do not repeat it.