The official effort to rename Yawkey Way was met with passionate pleas by both supporters and opponents of the proposal Thursday, though both sides seemed to agree that the decision faced by the Boston’s Public Improvement Commission represents more than just a name change.
The proposal to change the name of the street that runs alongside Fenway Park was requested by the Red Sox, and pits those who say former team owner Tom Yawkey was a racist whose name should be removed from a public way against those who say Yawkey’s legacy of charitable giving should not be expunged from the city’s history books.
The Public Improvement Commission could vote on the change on March 29, though one member said he wants to hear from Red Sox principal owner John Henry directly. Henry also owns the Globe.
One of the opponents of the name change argued Thursday that Yawkey’s charity “has benefitted hundreds of thousands in the greater Boston area.”
“The importance of what you’re considering today goes far beyond procedure,” said the Rev. Ray A. Hammond of Bethel A.M.E. Church, one of Boston’s most prominent black pastors and a trustee with the Yawkey Foundation II charitable trust that was established by Yawkey’s wife, Jean. “They have framed their petition not as a mere street name change — they have made it about race. The Red Sox have created a false narrative about Tom Yawkey and his record as owner.”
But Walter C. Carrington, who investigated the Red Sox in 1959 as a member of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination on behalf of the NAACP and other organizations, said that the discrimination perpetuated against black players at the time was clear, and that Yawkey was at the center of it. The Red Sox ultimately reached agreements with the state to be more inclusive in hiring, not only of players but also of staff, he said.
“It was clear from those hearings that the Red Sox policies were the policies of Tom Yawkey himself,” said Carrington. He added later that “if [Yawkey] was not an absolute racist, he certainly enabled racism.”
Others at the meeting called on commission members to rename the street in honor of a black judge who led the probe into the Red Sox, or to force the Red Sox to create a baseball academy for local youth. A former Red Sox pitcher, Jim Lonborg, was sympathetic to Yawkey, and recalled how he changed his ways.
“I would like to see you keep that name, for all the good things he did later on in his life,” he said.
The Public Improvement Commission, an independent body that controls and permits the use of public space, is slated to discuss the name change petition again on March 29, and could decide at that time whether to abolish the name Yawkey Way.
The members represent departments within the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has not publicly taken a position on the proposal. His office said he would defer to the commission’s process, “which is still ongoing.”
The Red Sox, with support of Yawkey Way neighbors, filed the petition in February to change the name of the two-block strip back to its original name, Jersey Street, after years of public debate, saying the move was meant to send a message of inclusion and “reinforce that Fenway Park is inclusive and welcoming to all.”
Yawkey, for whom the street was named in 1977, owned the team from 1933 until his death in 1976. He and his wife created charitable foundations that have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to area programs.
Several civic leaders — including Jack Connors, board chairman emeritus of Partners HealthCare; Darnell Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts; and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston — submitted a letter saying it would be impossible to separate the name change of Yawkey Way from the positive work of the Yawkey Foundations.
But his legacy has also been tarnished by accusations of racism within the Red Sox organization. During Yawkey’s tenure, the Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball club to integrate, finally calling up their first black player, infielder Pumpsie Green, in 1959. That was 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Yawkey is also believed to have screamed a racial slur from the grandstand at Robinson and two other black players during a team tryout in 1945, though the person who yelled the slur has never been confirmed, and Yawkey’s wife has said they were not in Boston at the time.
On Thursday, Edward Hesford, one of the members of the Public Improvement Commission, asked a Red Sox representative if the organization had any plans to remove any Yawkey signs from inside the ballpark, including on the scoreboard. David S. Friedman, a lawyer representing the Red Sox, said “at this time” the team was focused on renaming the street, but were considering “a variety of issues.”