FORT MYERS, Fla. — Reggie Smith and Jim Lonborg, two stars of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox, are in favor of keeping the name “Yawkey Way” on the street that runs in front of Fenway Park.
“I wish they would leave it Yawkey Way,’’ said the 72-year-old Smith, an African-American who came up through the Red Sox system and was known for his speed, power, and outspoken disposition during a Sox career that ran from 1967 until he was traded after the 1973 season.
“Tom Yawkey treated me very fairly,” said Smith. “I had conversations with him about the reputation that he had and the Red Sox had during the time I was there. He wanted to make sure that he had a good team and he wanted the best players he could possibly get, and if there was anything that I needed or any problems that I had to bring it to him and let him know. I was treated fairly and I know that when I left Boston I was the highest-paid African-American player that he had, and I respect him for it.’’
“I was not happy that a legacy like his could be wiped off the map with comments that were more anecdotal than fact,’’ added Lonborg, the Cy Young Award winner in 1967, who retired to become a dentist and raise six children in Scituate with his wife, Rosie. “I feel that it’s important for people to know that people can change and do change, and Mr. Yawkey was one of those people.’’
On Thursday, Lonborg spoke publicly in defense of the Yawkey name at a meeting of Boston’s Public Improvement Commission.
The initiative to change the name of the street was first raised by Red Sox (and Globe) owner John Henry last August when Henry said he was “haunted” by the racist legacy of the Yawkey regime. Three weeks ago, the ball club petitioned the commission to request that the name of the street be changed back to Jersey Street, as it was known when Fenway opened in 1912. The street was renamed in honor of Yawkey one year after the longtime (1933-76) Sox owner died in 1976.
The issue has split the Boston community and even members of the Red Sox who played for Yawkey in the 1960s and ’70s. Seventy-seven-year-old Tommy Harper, an African-American who has been fired three times by the Sox, but was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and today serves the team as a consultant, spoke with the Globe last week and advocated changing the name, saying, “Does philanthropy outweigh the harm done to African-American players? In my opinion it does not.’’
Smith, a Sox teammate of Harper’s during the early 1970s, disagrees.
“As far as them wanting to take his name down because at the time he was associated with racism, we have to live with how things were,’’ said Smith, when reached by telephone on Friday. “Do we agree with them? No. Was it the way it was? Yes. You move on. You do the things that you need to improve. I think it softened his heart. Mr. Yawkey may have realized at the time that that was the wrong thing to do, and some of the other things that I have read and known about him that I didn’t know, I think people need to know them as well. That not every black player hated Mr. Yawkey.’’
Smith’s stand on Yawkey is not easily dismissed. He was never one to hold back on issues of racism. In Howard Bryant’s “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston,’’ Smith said, “I never felt welcome in Boston . . . I made comments to the effect that it was [racist] and I was immediately considered a troublemaker . . . I believed that it was a racist city.’’
Smith paints a kinder picture of Yawkey.
“He offered to do things for me similar to what he did for all players,’’ the former Sox outfielder said. “When it came to building a house and wanting to move into a house he actually got upset with me because I didn’t come to him and ask for a loan. That was something that he did. He helped a lot of players make down payments on their home. It was something that I wanted to do on my own and I did, but he said, ‘What’s the matter, my money’s not good enough for you?’ It showed me that he cared, and when it came time for me to be traded, he wrote me a beautiful letter thanking me for the time that I had been there and that they had traded me to a really good ball club (Cardinals) and he hoped that I’d have a great future. And if there was ever anything that he could do for me that I needed, not to hesitate to ask.
“We also had [African-American players] Joe Foy and George Scott and Earl Wilson who had been with the Red Sox, and I am the only one alive who can answer these questions, but I know what he did for me and the fact that he said he did for ‘other players’ — he didn’t say ‘other black players’ or ‘other white players’ he just said ‘other players.’ I believe that’s something he had done.’’
Did Smith see institutional racism under Yawkey at the Red Sox?
“There were things that went on and I spoke of them during the time I was there,’’ he answered. “There were times that we did wonder why there weren’t more black ushers. That was part of the times. It started at the top. You didn’t see any [black] secretaries or anything like that, but a lot of people that were there had been there a long time. What were you going to do, fire people just to make it look like that’s what you were doing? It was something I felt they needed to change in time, as ultimately it did, to make it be more equitable.’’
Lonborg, who pitched for the Red Sox from 1965-71, said, “In the course of my search, I’ve reached out to Jim Rice and Reggie Smith and Carl [Yastrzemski]. I read Tommy Harper’s comments. I want to get as broad a picture as I can of the sentiments of ballplayers that played during Yawkey’s life. Earl Wilson was one of my mentors and I would see Mr. Yawkey with his arm around Earl Wilson, consoling him after a bad game. That’s what I relayed with regard to my feelings for Mr. Yawkey.’’
Rice, Luis Tiant, and Dwight Evans, all of whom work for the Red Sox as consultants, have chosen to stay neutral in the debate, claiming to have been treated fairly by Yawkey but not wishing to weigh in on the issue. Yastrzemski, who annually works with Sox minor league hitters in Fort Myers, has finished his 2018 spring stint and did not return calls from Lonborg or the Globe.