America at Large: Boston Red Sox move to ditch Yawkey legacy

Shadow of racism surrounding former owner leads to bid to change club’s address

With the arrival of Pumspie Green in 1959, the Boston Red Sox became the last team in Major League Baseball to field an African-American player.

Twelve years had passed since Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the time lag between those two landmark events led to charges that the club and its then owner, Tom Yawkey, were racist.

"I have no feeling against coloured people," said Yawkey, answering the accusation in Sports Illustrated.

“I employ a lot of them in the South. But they are clannish and when the story got around that we didn’t want Negroes they all decided they wanted to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.”


His ham-fisted attempt at spin was undermined by the baffling personnel decisions the Red Sox made under Yawkey. Having first passed up the opportunity to sign a future Hall of Famer in Robinson, they also declined the services of a teenage Willie Mays, a prodigious talent who went on to become one of the greatest ever to play the game.

For a club always willing to throw money at trying and failing to win a World Series in that era, the reluctance to bring in two preternaturally gifted black players in quick succession appeared far more due to institutional reasons than incidental.

All of which explains why John Henry, current owner of the Red Sox (and Liverpool), announced last week that he hopes to persuade the city of Boston to change the name of Yawkey Way, the address of storied Fenway Park, to something that isn't synonymous with bigotry.

“For me, personally,” said Henry, “the street name has always been a consistent reminder that it is our job to ensure the Red Sox are not just multicultural, but stand for as many of the right things in our community as we can – particularly in our African-American community and in the Dominican community that has embraced us so fully.”

In a charged socio-political climate where America is confronting monuments to historical racism on an almost daily basis, the move has been welcomed by many (but crucially not all) in the city and the sport.

Forty years have passed since the street was renamed to honour the man who owned the club from 1933 until his death in 1976. While, up to now, most casual fans associate his reign merely with decades of disappointment during which the Sox invariably always found a way to lose, his legacy is far more complex and tarnished than that.

Vast inheritance

Born Thomas Austin, he changed his surname when adopted by his wealthy uncle, William Yawkey, following the premature deaths of his own parents.

Among other enterprises, his uncle had co-owned the Detroit Tigers and his nephew grew up around the game and that team, particularly befriending Ty Cobb, its best player and most notorious racist.

Four days after his 30th birthday, a date which signified the freeing up of his vast inheritance, the younger Yawkey paid $1.5 million for the struggling Red Sox, retained a private suite at the Ritz-Carlton on Boston Common, and vouchsafed to deliver the city a title.

That never happened. The failures in this regard were so epic and soap operatic that they spawned “The Curse of the Bambino”, a myth claiming the club was somehow hexed by an earlier regime’s inexplicable decision to trade Babe Ruth to the rival New York Yankees. A much simpler explanation may have been a recruitment policy where race was often prized ahead of ability.

Since Henry made public his intentions, the case for the defence is that Yawkey was a generous philanthropist, and was merely a figurehead, not responsible for the day-to-day running of the club. A flimsy enough premise given that he was a character so intoxicated with the sport that he regularly got into a player’s uniform and took batting practice at Fenway. The profile is not of a man without his finger on the pulse but of a devotee who never missed a home game.

Even if his latest biographer Bill Nowlin contends that he hasn’t been able to unearth a single instance of overtly racist behaviour by Yawkey, the record also shows he presided over a management structure where a pair of Irish-Americans, Joe Cronin and Mike Higgins, held sway and were known to be prejudiced.

That both men were drinking buddies and close pals of the owner makes light of the theory either would have made a significant move without his approval or knowledge. Hence, Jackie Robinson describing Yawkey as late as 1967 as “one of the most bigoted guys in baseball”.

Long after the Red Sox racially integrated, something else happened on Yawkey’s watch. In 1971, a boy made an allegation that he’d been sexually abused by a clubhouse manager named Don Fitzpatrick, a particular favourite employee of the owner and his second wife, Jean. No action was taken against Fitzpatrick. He spent another 20 years working for the club and molested dozens of more kids in that time.

Apparently, Fitzpatrick’s proclivities were an open secret around Fenway but even still there are those who contend Yawkey knew nothing about his serial assaulting of poor black boys from the neighbourhood. Just like he didn’t know about the racism informing who the Sox signed either. Different crime. Same old excuse.