It’s time to banish the racist legacy of Tom Yawkey
It is not merely an infamous piece of Boston Red Sox lore; it’s a moment that has left a permanent stain on the city’s history.
On April 16, 1945, the Red Sox reluctantly did something the team had previously resisted. They held a tryout for three Negro leagues stars — Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams — who wanted to integrate Major League Baseball. They auditioned before the Sox brass of the day, including owner Tom Yawkey, general manager Eddie Collins, and manager Joe Cronin.
The moment that gave the day its lasting juice came as the players were finishing up. As later reported by Clif Keane, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, a voice from the grandstand rang out: “Get those niggers off the field!” Who actually said it has never been established, though Keane believed it to be Yawkey, according to Howard Bryant’s book “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.” Needless to say, none of the players were signed.
Robinson, of course, went on to become an enduring American icon, integrating baseball in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. You may not know that Sam “The Jet” Jethroe was a pioneer, too: He became the first black player in Boston, winning the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year award as a member of the Boston Braves.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, marched in an entirely different direction, becoming the absolute last team in baseball to integrate, when Pumpsie Green finally came aboard in 1959.
All this history raises an uncomfortable, current-day question. Why on earth does Boston have a street called Yawkey Way? Or a Yawkey MBTA station? At a time when activists, especially on college campuses, are clamoring for renaming monuments to racist history, it’s long past time for Boston to think long and hard about the official Yawkey legacy. That the Red Sox are so central to the city’s psyche makes it even more urgent for Boston to act now to banish this legacy of racism.
Protesters at Yale are calling for renaming of monuments to the 19th-century senator, John C. Calhoun, a tireless supporter of slavery, while some students at Princeton are apoplectic about the continued veneration of Woodrow Wilson, an ardent defender of the Ku Klux Klan. Closer to home, Harvard Law School has announced plans to reconsider its official seal, part of which honors the Isaac Royall Jr., a slave owner who play a key role in founding the school.
Just in case you were wondering if any of this history is exaggerated, or somehow in doubt, you can relax. It’s all true. To its credit, the current Sox ownership — led by John Henry, the owner/publisher of the Globe — has never made any attempt to sugarcoat the unsavory parts of Sox history.
“This current ownership does not run away from the history of this team,” Red Sox historian Gordon Edes told me last week. Edes confirmed the story of the Robinson tryout, though stressed that the culprit has never been positively identified. “We embrace it as part of the Red Sox story. I think it was Larry Lucchino who called it ‘an undeniable legacy of racial intolerance.’ John Henry has referred to ‘the shameful past.’ ”
By coincidence, just last week the Red Sox made a black pitcher — David Price — the highest-paid player in team history.
Yawkey’s legacy was, as apologists love to say, complicated. An industrialist from Detroit who owned plantations in South Carolina, he was regarded at the time as a kind and benevolent owner, and a philanthropist. His contribution to the Jimmy Fund is legendary. The Yawkey Foundation is, to this day, one of the city’s major nonprofits.
But Yawkey did have a certain blind spot, and it was huge. A few years after the Robinson fiasco, the Sox brain trust vetoed signing young Willie Mays after scouting him in Birmingham, Ala. Decades later, a still-bitter Mays would often tell Ted Williams, “We should have played together.”
Yawkey made a pathetic attempt to explain away the Red Sox’s racism in a Sports Illustrated story in 1965. “They blame me and I’m not even a Southerner,” Yawkey said. “I’m from Detroit. I have no feeling against colored people. I employ a lot of them in the South. But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn’t want Negroes, they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them all along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro, we wanted a ballplayer.”
To hear him tell it, the poor man just couldn’t find any qualified black people. Actually, he refused to sign some of the greatest players who ever lived.
After Yawkey died in 1976, the city rushed to rename a section of Jersey Street in his honor. It’s past time for that ill-fitting tribute to go. It’s fun to think of who it could be renamed for. Pumpsie Green comes to mind. Or Pedro Martinez.
But my choice might be Ted Williams, and not just for the obvious reasons. Besides being easily the greatest player in the history of the franchise, he was also racially enlightened.
At his 1966 Hall of Fame induction, he famously and successfully called for the inclusion of Negro League legends in Cooperstown: “I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”
Williams knew something about players who weren’t given a chance.
Changing the name of a street is simple enough. I’ll spare you the mundane bureaucratic process, but the city could do it in a matter of weeks. Renaming a T station is just as simple. The Sox organization doesn’t have a role, or an official position on what to call Yawkey Way; Edes says the topic has never been discussed internally.
But the rest of us should start talking about it, now. The city has moved so far from the days of Tom Yawkey. By comparison, changing a few street signs and renaming a train station is just a small step in expressing who we are now, and what we aspire to represent.
The time has come.