Anyone who thinks it is critical for this city to move past its painful legacy of turning a blind eye to intolerance should loudly cheer the Boston Red Sox’ move Wednesday to change the name of Yawkey Way.
Now it’s Marty Walsh’s move.
The Red Sox filed a petition with the city’s Public Improvement Commission to rename the street on which Fenway Park sits. That is in accordance with the organization’s often-stated belief that the name of Thomas Yawkey should no longer define a street associated with one of Boston’s most beloved institutions. Instead, the Sox propose that Yawkey Way be called by its former name — Jersey Street.
Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry (also the owner of the Globe) has been on record for some time calling for the renaming of the street. And little wonder. If the Red Sox suffered a longstanding baseball curse after the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, they have dealt with an even more severe moral stain: the legacy of being the very last team to bring a black player to its roster — Pumpsie Green, in 1959.
It is the first formal step toward removing the name. In announcing its request for a change, the Red Sox were clear about the intended statement: “Restoring the Jersey Street name is intended to reinforce that Fenway Park is welcoming and inclusive to all.”
To be clear, the record of the Yawkey-era Red Sox on race relations stands as an embarrassment to Boston. Even as many African-American stars entered the Major Leagues after Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier in 1947, the Sox stubbornly remained all-white. Robinson had retired to the corporate world by the time Green came to Fenway.
Even after integrating, the team was plagued by claims of unequal treatment. Just ask Tommy Harper. After he was traded to the Red Sox in 1973, he discovered that the team’s white players had access to the local Elks Club in Florida during spring training, while black players were shut out. That, too, occurred during Yawkey’s long ownership.
No other Major League team plays on a street named for a man with such a dubious reputation.
Momentum for renaming Yawkey Way has been quietly building for several years. I wrote a column calling for the renaming of Yawkey Way in 2015. Henry declared the team’s full-throated support for a change last summer.
The process for renaming a street is pretty straightforward. If the Public Improvement Commission approves the petition, the street gets renamed. Traditionally, the PIC gives serious weight to the views of other property owners on the street. The Red Sox have insisted that the other property owners on Yawkey Way firmly support the proposal.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s position has been, well, less than firm. Walsh has previously stated that he would not block efforts to rename Yawkey Way. But he has never expressed any great enthusiasm for the idea. The Sox filing on Wednesday may force him to finally declare himself for it or against it.
Spokeswoman Laura Oggeri said in a statement Wednesday night that the mayor will “defer to the PIC process, which is ongoing.” A hearing is scheduled for March 15.
Yawkey Way is hardly the only monument in this town to Yawkey — thanks, in large part, to the family’s expansive philanthropic footprint. In announcing that it is going forward with a push to rename the street, the Sox organization went to pains to separate the issue of Tom Yawkey the person from the two very active
foundations that bear his name.
“The positive impact they have had, and continue to have, in hospitals, on education programs, and with underserved communities throughout Boston and New England, is admirable and enduring,” the team stated. “We have the utmost respect for their mission, leadership, and the institutions they support.”
In a strongly worded statement, the Yawkey Foundations insisted that Yawkey was anything but a bigot.
“Former Red Sox ballplayers and club officials who knew Tom Yawkey have stated many times that he treated every player the same, regardless of their race,” it said. “He also took an interest in their families and personal lives, and always gave them the support they needed, especially during difficult times. And he fielded diverse teams during the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when many of Boston’s institutions had yet to make meaningful progress in hiring minorities. The full picture of Tom Yawkey’s life is exactly the opposite of the one that Henry has tried to paint.”
Unfortunately, the facts strongly suggest otherwise.
In choosing to ask that the street revert to its historic name, the Red Sox avoided a second battle over what to call it. Henry’s onetime proposal to name the street for retired slugger David Ortiz has mercifully been abandoned, leaving the sole question one of whether to continue to celebrate Tom Yawkey’s legacy with a public landmark.
As with most questions that end up in City Hall, this one is likely to be decided in the mayor’s office — Walsh’s stated “deference” to some committee notwithstanding. Boston has never run on deference. The choice is clear: between venerating a racist past or rejecting it.
In a city that has never been able to outrun its painful image — and reality — for racial strife, Walsh’s options are few at this point.
His credible choices are even fewer.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.