FORT MYERS, Fla. — Tommy Harper is 77 years old and first worked in professional baseball in 1960. Blessed with speed, power, and smarts, he was a big-league All-Star who hit 31 homers for the Brewers in 1970 and held the Red Sox’ season record for stolen bases (54) for almost four decades.
He played three seasons for Boston and has also served the team as a coach, consultant, and equal opportunity employment officer. He was traded by the Red Sox in 1974, and has been fired by the team three times since 1979.
In 1986, Harper accepted an out-of-court settlement from the Red Sox after filing a federal discrimination lawsuit against the ball club when he was fired for blowing the whistle on the club’s practice of allowing the Winter Haven (Fla.) Elks Club to allow admission to white Red Sox players at the exclusion of black and Hispanic players. In 2010, Harper was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
Today, Harper serves the club as a player development consultant (along with Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, Tony Cloninger, and Dick Berardino) and spends two weeks every year working with players and staff at spring training. I caught up with Harper Monday to talk about the Red Sox’ campaign to change the name of the street that runs in front of Fenway Park.
It was Jersey Street when Fenway was built in 1912 but was changed to Yawkey Way shortly after Red Sox owner Thomas A. Yawkey died in 1976. Last August, current Red Sox owner John Henry said he is “haunted” by the racist legacy of Yawkey and proposed changing the name of Yawkey Way.
Henry (who also owns the Globe) declined to discuss the initiative in his spring training press conference, but two weeks ago the Red Sox officially petitioned the Boston Public Improvement Commission to change the street’s name back to Jersey Street. The committee is expected to review the request at a meeting Thursday.
Yawkey owned the Red Sox from 1933 until his death in 1976. Under him, the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, bringing Elijah “Pumpsie” Green to the majors in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In 1945, the Red Sox held a tryout for Robinson and two other black players, but the workout at Fenway Park was not a serious exercise. It was a sham orchestrated to appease an open-minded Boston City Councilor who had power over Yawkey’s request to play Sunday games at Fenway.
Local folklore holds that during the tryout someone yelled, “Get those niggers off the field.” In numerous retellings, the comment has been assigned to Yawkey, but no one alive knows the truth, and the Yawkey Foundations have gone to great lengths to establish that Yawkey probably was not even in Boston on the day of the tryout.
According to Howard Bryant in his book “Shut Out: A Personal Story of Race and Baseball in Boston,’’ as late as 1958 the Red Sox did not employ a single black person at any level of the organization. This included groundskeepers, janitors, and concessionaires.
The fact that the Sox were the last team to integrate, compounded by Yawkey’s cast of unenlightened employees (former Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson insisted that manager/GM Michael “Pinky” Higgins was racist) has contributed to the narrative that the Red Sox were a bastion of institutional racism in the Yawkey years. Harper’s 1986 discrimination case came under the watch of Yawkey hires John Harrington and Haywood Sullivan.
Former Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino in 2002 spoke openly of the club’s “undeniable legacy of racial intolerance.’’
Harrington, trustee of the Yawkey Trust until the team was sold to Henry’s group and now chairman of the Yawkey Foundations, acknowledged to the Globe in 1997 that “we had some difficulties with some great young men of African-American heritage,’’ then offered, “We’ve patched those up.’’
Harper disagrees, claiming he was fired twice by the club for pushing back against institutional racism. Harper says he never received an apology or admission of wrongdoing from anyone associated with the Yawkey regime.
In this spirit, I interviewed Harper to get his feelings about the initiative to erase Yawkey’s name from the street.
These are some excerpts:
“I don’t have a problem with anyone saying that because of his philanthropy, they ought to leave his name there. I’m neutral. But if you combine his philanthropy with his ownership, you’re going to have a problem.
“What the commission has to figure out is, why is the street named for him? Why is he in the Hall of Fame? It’s because of the money. Gillette Stadium is called Gillette Stadium because of the money. There was some controversy when the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club was going to be named the Yawkey Club of Roxbury.
“When you put something out for naming rights, they get the cash, they get the name. I don’t have a problem with that. So if you donate to a hospital and donate a wing, you get your name on the wing. I have no problem with that. But then you turn around and say that [Yawkey] was a great owner, I have a problem with that.
“If you want to say that they should keep the name on the street because of his philanthropy, OK. But it cannot be both. There’s a distinction. The man never won nothing in 43 years. If I understand your point of view, then you have to understand my point of view that there’s never, in the history of the Yawkey administration, has there been an apology.
“Everybody wants to admit that there’s this regretful past. But no one wants to assess blame. Everyone says he’s such a great owner, but never apologizes for that past. They just say it happened and forget about it.
“But it’s our livelihood. When they accused me of things in 1985, they affected my livelihood, but I didn’t get a phone call from one person, including John Harrington. You can tell me all you want about philanthropy. But don’t tell me that in 1950 they were trying [to integrate the team].
“You can’t pick and choose. History is what it is. Does philanthropy outweigh the harm done to African-American players? Does it? In my opinion, it does not.
“There is inconsistency in members of the Boston Red Sox bringing the Robinson legacy to middle school students then going back to Red Sox offices located on a street that honors a man who stood on the wrong side of history and added to Robinson’s pain.
“I did not know Mr. Yawkey. The man was invisible. If you say to me that you know him and you know him as not being a bigot or a racist, I have to accept your word. I don’t know. That’s why I stay away from calling anybody a racist because I don’t know.
“I can only go by policy, whether it’s written or unwritten. I can only go by what I know. The history. Does that outweigh the philanthropy? If you are going to say they are going to keep the name, you are telling me that the racial history did not outweigh in Boston what he did with his money.
“It’s not me tarnishing Mr Yawkey’s reputation. It’s the people he hired, the people who tolerated the Elks Club thing for 12 years. If you hired them, that’s on you. Was Haywood a racist? I don’t know.
“All I know is when I went to them and complained about the Elks Club, they fired my ass instead of accepting the truth. I can’t call Tom Yawkey or Jean Yawkey a bigot, but I can tell you that no one came to my defense. They did not intercede. They did not say, ‘This has got to stop.’
“Whatever caused John Henry to feel the way he feels, I have no idea. I haven’t talked to him. I don’t know why John Henry’s haunted. I haven’t talked to anyone. I don’t have a side.
“And I’m good with it either way. If Reggie Smith is angry [if the name changes] and he’s saying Mr. Yawkey was OK with him, or Luis Tiant, that’s fine. I’m just telling you how I feel and I’m not trying to persuade anyone else. These are my feelings that I don’t talk to anyone about.
“It’s the commission’s decision. It’s not mine. What I’m saying is that you cannot say it was benign neglect, that Mr. Yawkey was never around. The responsibility goes to the ownership. Whatever happens at Fenway Park eventually winds up at the owner.
“I’m not in agreement that Mr. Yawkey yelled that horrible thing during the tryout. I’ll give him that. But don’t tell me he tried to integrate the team. Were the Red Sox scouts just inept? It’s not an individual act by Yawkey against African-American people. There are no comments that indicate that he had a racist attitude.
“But institutional racism is what kept Jackie Robinson out of the game. It was all the owners in conjunction with each other to form a gentlemen’s agreement. But like Howard Bryant says, after 1947, the Red Sox didn’t get the memo that it’s over.
“If that committee wanted to know all the facts, they’d be sitting with me, talking. They’d talk to Reggie Smith. Instead, they’re interviewing [Yawkey’s] friends . . . If you want to know the particulars and you are investigating the history, you just can’t look at the [Yawkey] Foundation statement. It’s full of [expletive].’’