I wandered over to Yawkey Way last month while in Boston, if only because it’s likely to be called something else when I return.
The little street that meanders off Brookline Ave. is named for Tom Yawkey, who owned the Red Sox for 43 years. Yawkey was generous with his money and popular with his players, and when he died in 1976, Jersey Street was soon renamed in his honor.
This is why there’s a five-year waiting period on Hall of Fame elections. Thurman Munson would have gotten far more votes in August 1979 than he did thereafter (never more than 62 in 1981), and removed from the emotion of Yawkey’s death — or with a more diverse panel — reasons to not rename Jersey Street might have seemed obvious.
The Red Sox won no World Series during Yawkey’s tenure. And for 26 of the 43 years Yawkey owned the Red Sox, those players who mostly loved him were white, long after other teams weren’t. It wasn’t until three years after Jackie Robinson retired that Yawkey’s Red Sox finally employed an African-American player (Pumpsie Green). The wheels of progress in Fenway Park were slower even than the Red Sox on the base paths.
With the hindsight of time, it’s a curious choice. The street outside Fenway Park is named for a man whose Red Sox never won and were the last to integrate. Not only were Yawkey’s Red Sox behind for much of the 1950s when it came to the standings, they were behind the times, too. By some distortion, that resume has Yawkey in the Hall of Fame, an example of baseball’s white privilege.
Yawkey’s reluctance to integrate is at the crux of current owner John Henry’s request to change the name of the street, a small part of a nationwide self-examination of whose statues adorn our parks and whose names we honor on our streets. It’s not always a satisfying exercise.
It’s fashionable to say Yawkey’s views on race were complicated, but perhaps it’s not his views that were but the remembrances of them. Boston sportswriter Clif Keane was there the day the Red Sox gave Jackie Robinson and two other Negro League stars a tryout. From Adrian Walker’s 2015 Bostonglobe.com column: “The moment that gave the day its lasting juice came as the players were finishing up. As later reported by Clif Keane, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, a voice from the grandstand rang out: ‘Get those n—–s off the field!’ Who actually said it has never been established, though Keane believed it to be Yawkey, according to Howard Bryant’s book ‘Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.’ Needless to say, none of the players were signed.”
That doesn’t sound like the Yawkey described by former Boston Globe sportswriter Peter Gammons on his website gammonsdaily.com: “I knew Tom Yawkey from the time I began covering the Red Sox in 1969 until he died in 1976. He had stopped drinking. There was a clear sense in our talks that what happened up to the arrival of Pumpsie Green … was a regret that weighed on him.
“Yawkey himself was not a racist. He was raised in Tarrytown, New York. Bill Nowlin’s upcoming book on him delves on this, and Nowlin quotes Reggie Smith and other African-Americans who got to Fenway in the late Sixties … as not sensing racism in the man.”
Who to believe? If the Yawkey Gammons knew was in the stands at Fenway Park on the day of Robinson’s tryout in 1945, perhaps Harrison Ford would have been portraying him and not Branch Rickey in the movie 42.
Perhaps they’re both right, and whoever it was that yelled at the Negro League stars in 1945 didn’t think the same way about race a generation later. George Wallace, who once stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in defiance of integration, courted blacks and won elections with their votes a generation later.
In his 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, Ted Williams implored the Hall of Fame to induct the great stars of the Negro Leagues, and called Yawkey — who refused for years to employ them — “the greatest owner in baseball.” Gammons called it “the most important acceptance speech in the history of the Hall of Fame,” and perhaps it was for Williams’ clarion call on behalf of the Negro League stars. But it’s impossible to miss the contradiction.
(It’s hard to say how much of the refusal to integrate was Yawkey and how much was Joe Cronin, his general manager for most of the decade. Cronin left the Red Sox to become president of the American League in 1959, which shows what the league’s owners thought of the Red Sox’s stance. Cronin did for MLB’s umpires in 1966 what he didn’t do for the Red Sox in more than a decade as GM: he integrated them when the AL hired Emmett Ashford. Ultimately though in Yawkey v. Cronin, Yawkey owned the team).
The Red Sox’s lack of success and their failure to integrate were not unrelated. You can’t bypass part of the available talent and not expect it to matter. For years, the NHL’s Flyers refused to sign Soviet hockey players because of that country’s official stance toward Soviet Jews; other teams, who signed Soviet hockey players, had an edge. Perhaps nothing expedited integration in the South as much as college sports, namely football. Racists who terrorized blacks trying to integrate were likely rooting for them on athletic fields within a generation.
The Red Sox played in the next-to-last all-white World Series in 1946 and didn’t win a pennant again for 21 years. They finished second by a game in 1949, when Robinson, who left his 1945 workout with a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you farewell, was the NL MVP. Robinson’s 1949 — .342, 16 homers, 124 RBIs, 37 steals, 86 walks to 27 strikeouts, .960 OPS, 152 OPS+, 1.8 defensive WAR — might have been enough to make the final-day doubleheader the Red Sox lost to the Yankees moot.
The 1950 Red Sox were third, four games back. Robinson (.328/.423/.500), and/or Sam Jethroe (.273, .780 OPS, 18 homers, 37 steals), one of the other Negro League stars chased away in 1945 who was the 1950 Rookie of the Year for the other team in Boston, the Braves, might have made a difference. Ted Williams left for Korea in 1952, but the Red Sox might not have fallen so precipitously had scout George Digby been permitted to sign Willie Mays for $4,500.
Digby, from Espn.com: “I called up the Red Sox. I said, ‘I got Willie Mays. He’ll break the color line.’
“Eddie Glennon, the GM of our club in Birmingham, called Cronin. The owner of the Black Barons had told us we could have Mays for $4,500. I said, ‘I’ll be back to you by tomorrow.’ Glennon had asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I think he’s a big leaguer.’ We could have had Mays in center and (Ted) Williams in left.
“Cronin sent another scout down to look at him, but (owner Tom) Yawkey and Cronin already had made up their minds they weren’t going to take any black players.”
We can guess it wasn’t about the money.
When the Impossible Dream Red Sox won the 1967 pennant, it was integration that made it possible. Three blacks — first baseman George Scott, third baseman Joe Foy and center fielder Reggie Smith — started. Another, former Yankee catcher Elston Howard, did for much of the World Series. Another, John Wyatt, saved 20 games. And Jose Santiago of Puerto Rico won 12 games, saved five and started the Series opener.
Diversity and winning were no coincidence. By belatedly accepting equality, the Red Sox restored theirs competitively.
But it took way too long. Green played his first game for the Red Sox in June of 1959; by June of 1958, every other major league team had already integrated. Even the Yankees, who once had a top executive tell Roger Kahn the team would never integrate, beat the Red Sox by four years. Elston Howard, who ended his career with the Red Sox in 1968, started it with the Yankees in 1955.
From Kahn’s Boys of Summer, in 1952: “The third highest executive, after three martinis, said he would never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. ‘We don’t want that sort of crowd,’ he said. ‘It would offend boxholders from Westchester County to have to sit with n—–s.'”
(In Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, he wrote about Howard: ”The best way I can explain Howard is to recall the day Jimmy Cannon, the elderly columnist, Howard, his wife, Arlene, and I got involved in an argument about civil rights. Arlene (and I) on one side, Cannon and Howard on the other. Arlene and I were the militants.” Bouton regretted his Ball Four portrayal of Howard, and added 30 years later: ”I see Elston Howard, not as the less-than-militant fellow portrayed in the book, but as a black man who survived growing up in the 40’s and worked his way to the top of what was once a white-man’s game.”)
The Yankee executive’s attitude in Boys of Summer is the one the Red Sox couldn’t beat to integration. That’s a little like losing a contest in humility to a Yankees fan.
And that’s why Henry is seeking, and should, to change the name of Yawkey Way. Seeing Yawkey’s name on the signs tells minorities they’re no more welcome around Fenway Park than they were on Yawkey’s 1950s Red Sox. If the city and team lionize an owner who kept the latter all white for as long as he could, what message does that send to all Red Sox fans? Not changing it and calling it history is akin to businesses which use the same methods because that’s how they’ve always done it.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said tearing down monuments is “sanitizing history,” and Esquire columnist Charles Pierce rebutted, “Removing them does not sanitize history. It fumigates it.”
Pierce is right. By renaming Yawkey Way the Red Sox aren’t trying to change history, but acknowledge the truth of theirs. Like Pumpsie Green’s debut was in 1959, it’s long overdue.