In this season of robust debate over memorials, monuments, and history, Boston is finally poised for a debate that has been postponed for far too long.
Boston Red Sox owner (and Globe publisher) John W. Henry recently disclosed that the team is preparing to take a leading role in pushing for the renaming of Yawkey Way, the public street on which Fenway Park sits.
The team’s willingness to publicly push the issue is new, but the subject isn’t. I wrote in a 2015 column that it was past time to banish former owner Thomas Yawkey’s racist legacy. That was true then, and it is even more urgent now.
Henry told the Boston Herald that he is “haunted’’ by the legacy of Yawkey. It’s truly great that Henry feels that way. The rest of Boston should as well.
Yawkey’s history of exclusion is well known. And even though apologists have sought to spin it for decades, it’s not pretty. The Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. They didn’t have a black player on the roster until 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Just think about that. The last. The St. Louis Cardinals — who threatened to strike in 1947, rather than appear on a field with Robinson — were integrated before the Red Sox. Sam “the Jet” Jethroe was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1950 — as the first black player on the Boston Braves. Robinson was retired before the Sox were integrated.
Yawkey was a complicated figure. He was an industrialist from Detroit with plantations in South Carolina, and he was widely regarded in his day as a benevolent owner. He was, of course, a major philanthropist, whose name adorns major civic institutions across the city — from the Yawkey Center at Massachusetts General Hospital to the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury (which was named for the Yawkeys long after Tom Yawkey’s death). His embrace of the Jimmy Fund created a relationship that has helped save lives for decades.
But the fact is, Tom Yawkey was a bigot who ran his baseball team accordingly. One of the most infamous incidents in Boston sports history occurred in 1945 at Fenway. At the behest of city councilor Isadore Muchnick, the Red Sox held a tryout for three Negro League stars: Robinson, Jethroe, and Marvin Williams. Yawkey was there, along with general manager Eddie Collins and manager Joe Cronin.
As they finished, someone yelled. “Get those niggers off the field!” One witness, sportswriter Clif Keane of the Globe, thought it was Yawkey. That has never been firmly established, though the incident itself isn’t disputed.
That episode alone is plenty of reason to rename a street.
The Tom Yawkey apology machine has never stopped. His latest biographer, a man named Bill Nowlin, recently was quoted in the Globe saying he found no evidence, none whatsoever, that Yawkey was “personally racist.”
Yet, refusing to hire a black player for as long as you could possibly get away with it is indisputably racist.
Henry’s position on this comes as no surprise. Throughout his ownership, Sox management has made no secret of its contempt for Yawkey’s racism. Henry has previously referred to it as the team’s “shameful past,” while former team president Larry Lucchino publicly referred to it as “an undeniable legacy of racial intolerance.” The team had quietly been formulating a public position on Yawkey Way for at least a couple of years, though the timing of Henry’s announcement was unexpected.
A stretch of Jersey Street became Yawkey Way in 1977, not long after Tom Yawkey died. It’s time for the city to undo that rushed judgment.
The road to renaming a street runs through City Hall. The city’s Public Improvement Commission would have to approve a change, which could be blocked by any of the Yawkey Way property owners. But what was true in 1977 still holds: If the Red Sox want to rename the street Fenway sits on, they can almost certainly make it happen. Red Sox chief executive Sam Kennedy said Friday that the Sox have begun discussions with the other abutters about a change. Mayor Marty Walsh is on record saying he will support the change if it makes it through the commission.
It matters what we memorialize, what we honor. It is an expression of who we are as a city, and of the face we want to present to the world. That honor should not be bestowed on a man who spent decades pandering to the city’s worst instincts. It’s fine for nonprofits who have benefited from the Yawkey family’s generosity to name buildings after him, but Yawkey’s name doesn’t belong on a street. By the same logic, the MBTA should rename the Yawkey Station as well.
I’m not wild about Henry’s idea of renaming it for David Ortiz. In less than a year since he retired, there has already been a (tiny) street and a footbridge named for Big Papi. He was a great player and he’s a great guy, but it’s time to take a deep breath. He’s not Paul Revere.
And there are other candidates. Pedro Martinez. Pumpsie Green, who finally broke the Sox’s color barrier. Or Jackie Robinson, an American icon who was wronged on Yawkey Way.
Boston owes him.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.