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Tom Yawkey, Red Sox owner, dies at 73

Was cornerstone to franchise and Fenway Park for more than four decades

Late Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, shown on May 29, 1970.

Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff

Late Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, shown on May 29, 1970.

Thomas Austin Yawkey, 73, owner of the Boston Red Sox and its home plate -- Fenway Park - for 42 years, died in his sleep at 4:20 yesterday afternoon in New England Baptist Hospital. Leukemia was the cause, the club announced.

No services are planned said General Manager Dick O’Connell. There will be a private cremation.

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Mr. Yawkey had been hospitalized off and on for the past several months, and the Red Sox repeatedly denied rumors of his illness. The nature of Mr. Yawkey’s sickness was not officially disclosed until O’Connell’s announcement yesterday.

No man in the history of baseball had a team longer or poured more money into it, During his four decades as the ball club’s proud owner, Mr. Yawkey repeatedly spent millions of dollars in quest of American League pennants and World Series championships.

Although he failed to achieve the latter, he never complained, never begrudged a nickel of the fortune he disbursed. He could have walked out many times and no one would have blamed him. He never did.

“I love baseball. For me there’s always the challenge to build the best team in the game.”

Tom Yawkey 
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Nor, despite the mistakes and disappointments in the Fens, did his loyalty to the team and his enthusiasm for the game ever wane. “I never look back,” he once said. “I love baseball, For me there’s always the challenge to build the best team in the game . . . In baseball just like hunting, you have to be patient and take the good with the bad. There’s a lot of luck involved. After all, it’s only a game.”

Mr. Yawkey was the last of a baseball breed that could be identified by the obsolete term of Sportsman, with a capital S. And he certainly was one of the big spenders in professional baseball. Two years ago he estimated that the overall ownership of the team had cost him more than $10 million. During that time the Sox won only three pennants (1946, 1967 and 1975) and had an average finish of fourth or fifth place.

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Yet, for Mr. Yawkey’s beloved team, Lefty Grove won his 300th game; Jimmy Foxx hit 50 home runs; Ted Williams batted .406; and Williams and Carl Yastrzemski - two of his idols — won the Triple Crowns. And, from 1968-1975, his team led the American League in attendance. This is not to mention the 1975 World Series, the sixth and tying game of which has been called the greatest game of all time. The Sox may have lost the seventh and final game to the Cincinnati Reds in the bottom of the ninth, but their moral victory was assured.

Described by one admirer as “a man who could tell you to go to hell and almost be looking forward to the trip,” the Sox owner was a very private person. He divided his time between a suite at the Ritz Carlton and Fenway Park during part of the baseball season and two plantations on South Island and Mt. Pleasant in Georgetown County, S.C., where he spent eight months of the year. His southern habitats, totaling 21,465 acres, are considered a model for soil conservation and Wildlife preservation. ‘He also maintained beautiful year-round apartment at the Hotel Pierre in New York City.

To many Sox fans, Mr. Yawkey was an autocrat but benevolent despot who spoiled his ball players by catering to their every complaint, who regarded his ball club as a hobby and who ran the show by whims and fancies. They also consider him an enigma -- remote and inaccessible.

To others he was undoubtedly the owner to play for in all of baseball.

“If trying to treat the players as human beings is spoiling them, then I spoil them,” he said in reply to his critics. “But I was brought up to treat a human being as a human being until the proves unworthy of it.”

As for being enigmatic, he said: “I have never tried to be a mysterious type of character. I just like to do things my own way and keep to myself. And I don’t like to ask favors. In my position, if someone does you a favor, they’ll be looking for 12 in return.”

Nor did he. He spent more money maintaining his small, old-fashioned ball park as an immaculate and safe oasis for baseball than cities spend keeping up their large stadiums. He did not ask favors from the local or state government. The only public request he made all the time he was here was for municipal parking facilities in the Jersey street area. It was turned down.

Known to his friends as “T.A.,” Mr. Yawkey was a multi-millionaire with vast stock holdings, lumber, mining and paper-mill interests and extremely valuable real estate in this country and Canada. Some of this was inherited wealth. The rest was said to be the result of shrewd investments.

Being a private person, which some attributed to his basic shyness, Mr. Yawkey never went to spring training, baseball gatherings or social soirees. Yet he liked to talk and had a marvelous memory for facts and figures, names and places.

As owner of the team, what was his business was his and nobody else’s business. Yet he was always more the fan than the No. 1 executive of an important enterprise in a highly competitive field. He displayed the temper of a rhinoceros when he felt the team had been unduly criticized. Disloyalty was one thing he couldn’t tolerate.

Once, rapping what he called vicious and negative reporting in the Boston press, he declared: “So help going to flatten a couple of writers around here before I get out of this business.” Luckily for them, he never tried. Because he probably could have.

A stocky, broad shouldered man with close cropped hair, he loved the outdoors and was a crack-shot hunter and fisherman. When in Boston he liked to work out in full with the help at Fenway Park-, batting and fielding grounders. He always used new balls, and if he managed to hit one off the left field wall, he would let out a whoop heard ’round the park. His workouts lasted about an hour and he demanded that no pictures ever be taken of his batting sessions.

When the players arrived at the park, Tom Yawkey was in his glory. “He’s always there to talk to you, to try and help you out with your problems, on or off the field. He’s sort of a father,” Rico Petrocelli said last summer.

While he could be autocratic, he was a compassionate and generous man who took a deep interest in his players encouraging the younger ones when they played well and giving any slumping player a boost. Injured players always were invited to sit in his private box atop Fenway Park.

To be sure, there were those who thought he meddled too much. But there were very few instances when he could be accused of butting into the work of the manager.

He said in 1973: “I have never interfered with my managers or general managers. I may not always agree with what they do, but I’ve never stopped them from doing it. Why should I pay these people good salaries, and then do their jobs for them? If they can’t do the job I fire them and get someone else.“

Take the 1974 season for example.-”I‘he Sox had a 71/2-game lead but proceeded to lose the pennant by eight games to the Baltimore Orioles.

The owner was there every day while the team was collapsing. Yet he never went into manager Darrell Johnson’s office to complain and he never singled out a player as having let him down.

Disappointed? “Well to say that I’m not disappointed would make me a damn liar,” he said at season’s end. ‘I should have said something. But I didn’t and it was a hard thing to take. But I’m a fatalist, I guess.” It was the fourth time (’48, ‘49, ‘72 and ‘74) that his team lost the pennant in the waning days of the season. Disappointed? Yes. Angry? Never.

Mr. Yawkey’s long association with baseball began in his childhood in Detroit, where he was born on Feb. 2, 1903, the son of Thomas J. Austin and Augusta L. (Yawkey) Austin. When he was young, his father died and he was taken into the home of his mother’s brother, William Hoover Yawkey. After his mother died in 1917 his uncle and aunt adopted him and he was given the last name Yawkey. He always referred to his uncle as “Dad.”

The boy’s grandfather, William Clyman Yawkey, founder of a huge timber and iron ore empire, was about to buy the Detroit Tigers when he died. So his son bought it instead and the boy was raised in the “company of such baseball immortals as Ty Cobb, Hughie Fennings, Sam Crawford, Bobby Veach and Don Bush.

Mr. Yawkey prepared for Yale University at the Irving School in Tarrytown, N.Y., where another legendary baseball figure had made his presence felt. He was Edward Trawbridge Collins, one of the school's most illustrious alumni and one of the game’s greatest second basemen.

Each year the school awarded an Eddie Collins medal to the student achieving the highest standards in scholarship and athletics. Ironically -- and perhaps symbolically — young Yawkey was edged out for the award in both his junior and senior years. He finished second just as he was to be second so many times in the big leagues.

Mr. Yawkey was graduated from the Irving School in 1920 and in 1925 from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School with a B.S. degree. After graduation he assumed management and control of the vast holdings in mines, mineral interests, timberlands, lumber, and paper mills he had inherited from his mother and foster parents.

Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle, he had entertained the idea of owning a ball club more than once. But it was actually Ty Cobb who got him to back the dream with cold cash. “You’ve got a lot of money, Tom. You’re the kind of man baseball needs,” Cobb told him.

So, four days after his 30th birthday in the midst of the Depression, the rich young man from the Midwest took over the financially troubled Boston American League Baseball Club with one of his heroes - Eddie Collins as his general manager, confidant and adviser. He paid $1.2 million for the franchise to J. A. (Bob) Quinn & Associates, and spent another $1.5 million on repairs to Fenway Park, which went with the deal as well as the land under it.

Once he had taken over, Mr. Yawkey moved quickly to earn himself a pennant. He bought Joe Cronin from Washington for $250,000 and the canceled check hung in his office on Jersey street for years. Then he raided the Philadelphia Athletics for such stars as Lefty Grove ($125,000 for the pitcher), Jimmy Foxx, Eric McNair and Max Bishop. In fact he bought practically the whole team. He also bought heavily from Washington and St. Louis.

During this early period of his ownership, the Red Sex were often referred to as the “Gold Sox” and “The Millionaires.” But Mr. Yawkey eventually decided you can’t buy a winning team and adopted the farm system to raise his own.

“We’re going about this business of having a team the wrong way,” he told Collins. “We aren’t going to buy any more players. We’re going to raise them.”

Mr. Yawkey was in the clubhouse from the time he bought the until he hired Joe McCarthy as manager in 1948. Then a friend in New York told him McCarthy believed a club owner should not mingle with his players. So, for the next 19 years — until the day his team won the pennant in 1967 — he did not visit the clubhouse.

He considered McCarthy, Connie Mack of the Athletics and John McGraw of the Giants to be the greatest managers of all time. In all, 7 managers and 12 field manager were hired and fired during Mr. Yawkey’s years with the team.

Of all the players that came and went during his long ownership, Mr. Yawkey thought Carl Yastrzemski the best all around player he ever had. “Yes, I would say so. Certainly he is,” he told a sportswriter when the Sox won the pennant in “75.

That took in a lot of territory - Ted Williams, Jimmy Foxx, Dom DiMaggio. Vern Stephens, Jackie Jensen, Johnny Pesky and more. “But Carl does more than the rest ever did. I’m sure of that.”

Of the 1975 pennant-winning Sox he also said: “This is the most exciting team I’ve ever had. I’ve had some great teams that have provided me with many thrills but this is definitely the most exciting. We have a blend of youth and experience. It’s got more balance than the other pennant winners.”

Ted Williams was another of Mr. Yawkey’s favorites both as a player and as a person. The slugger was also the team’s most fiery athlete. Almost without fail, when Ted got into trouble with the press, T.A. defended his lanky outfielder and rapped the scribes. He even went so far at a dinner one night to single ‘out a sportswriter to tell him: “Listen, you wise guy, I am going to buy your paper just to fire you.”

As Williams got older, Mr. Yawkey tried to quiet him some. Finally, one afternoon in a game against the Yankees at Fenway Park, he had to lower the boom. Williams had taken all the jeering he could from the stands and turned and spat in all directions.

The club owner was in New York, listening to the game. When he heard Mel Allen’s description of Ted’s doings, he called Cronin - then the general manager — and ordered him to fine Ted $5000. But Williams, years afterwards, wanted to bet anyone on the face of the earth any price that he never paid the fine; Yawkey never wanted to take the bet. Neither did anyone else.

For many years T.A. was stigmatized for being a racist. It stemmed from an afternoon in 1946 when Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe were trying out at Fenway Park.

The story went that Mr. Yawkey and Eddie Collins were standing in the back of the park and the club owner allegedly said: “all right, get those [expletives] out of the ball park.” Robinson for years branded him a racist.

People who knew Yawkey deny this. And he himself once said: “I don’t care if the man is a Chinese, Indian, Negro or white man. I want to see him play baseball. Race, color and creed don’t matter to me: it’s the individual. To me a guy is a guy.”

He also became a figure of controversy in the early 1950s when attendance for the Boston Braves fell badly and he was asked to share his field with them. Lou Perini, who owned the National League club along with Joe Maney and Guido Hugo, made all kinds of offers to get the Braves into Fenway Park. There were reports that Perini offered to pay for the lighting for each team, for the office help, care of the park and more.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee was building a new ball park and demanding a franchise in baseball. Sports writers pecked at Mr. Yawkey, asking him to save the Braves. But to no avail. So, in the spring of 1953, having failed to get help from the Red Sox owner, Perini announced that he was moving his team to Milwaukee.

Mr. Yawkey had no comment about the Braves’ departure. As far as he was concerned, that was Lou Perini’s business.

At one point in the 1960s when the Sox were floundering, rumors were rife that he was going to sell the team. He gave out a series of contradictory statements and copyrighted stories were falling around like a losing campaigner‘s buttons. However, not long after they were printed he would deny them. “I have no intention of selling the team as long as I’m healthy and can enjoy it,” he once said. And, or course, he never did.

In addition to baseball, Mr. Yawkey had an abiding interest in the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation. For more than a quarter century he served as its president, board chairman or on its executive committee. He also helped to make the Jimmy Fund a household word by bringing teams to Boston to play exhibition games against the Red Sox and handing the proceeds over to the foundation,

In 1973 he was presented the Dr. Sydney Farber Medical Research Award for being a guiding spirit of the foundation. Other awards that came his way included the Great Heart Award of the New England Variety Club for bringing “happiness and wholesome recreation to millions of people.”

Two years later, before the opening of the 1975 World Series, he was given a reception at City Hall by Mayor Kevin H. White who called him “a durable pillar of example for all major league sports for 42 years.” The mayor said his loyalty to baseball, his investment in the team and his patience during good times and bad times had helped “toward making Boston a liveable city.”

Other honors included the New England Regional Commission citation for bringing top-flight baseball to Boston and the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association’s Bill Slocum Memorial Plaque for meritorious service to that spurt.

In South Carolina, Mr. Yawkey carried out extensive development work to provide feeding and resting ground for migratory birds and other wildlife and was in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service Ducks Unlimited and the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation.

In the South he also was active in charitable work, including the gift of a hospital wing to the Georgetown Memorial Hospital, the building of a church and the support of Tara Hall a home for boys. “No one knows how much good he does,” an admirer said.

Mr. Yawkey, a man of simple tastes and a man of his word, stood with unflinching integrity as a symbol for decency in baseball. He also marked the end of the era of personal ownership of baseball clubs.

A Boston Red Sox fan once said of him: “It will be a bad day for this town when he leaves it.”

Now he has.

He leaves his wife, Jean R. (Hollander); and an adopted daughter, Mrs. Julia Gapton of Connecticut.

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