Yawkey Way and the Red Sox’ racist history

Fenway Park did not feel the same way about America for far too long. - Jim Rogash

The Red Sox' racist past must be met head on, and renaming Yawkey Way is part of that.

At what point do we correct the mistakes of the past? A recent column by Ron Chimelis on Masslive.com makes the straightforward and convincing argument that former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was a racist even by the hideous standards of his era, and that Yawkey Way, upon which sits Fenway Park, should be renamed. He is right. It's time the city and the team face down its racist past and do something about it.

The nicest thing you could say about Yawkey is that he was commercially successful, selectively benevolent, well-liked among city leaders, and utterly ignorant of the world around him. The historical record speaks for hitself: His hand-picked manager, Michael "Pinky" Higgins, said there would be "no n****** on this ballclub" as long as he had anything to say about it, and the Red Sox were the last team in the league to integrate.

Yes, [the Red Sox] were, quite conspicuously, the last team in Boston to integrate, including the Bruins.

The late Will McDonough spent considerable energy trying to put Yawkey's cat back in the bag, so to speak, but as his generation passed the historical record has generally won out. How? Well, Yawkey's Red Sox were forced by Boston City Councilman Isadore Mushnick to hold a tryout for a black player, which ended up being a bald, arrogant sham; there was the 14-year gap between Jackie Robinson's arrival in Brooklyn and the Red Sox' promotion of Pumpsie Green, and the infamous failure to offer a contract to Willie Mays (can't prove that negative, though!); and no, they didn't win the World Series with Ted Williams, and only came close once; and yes, they were, quite conspicuously, the last team in Boston to integrate, including the Bruins.

Nor does it prove anything that Jean Yawkey, after her husband's death, gave as conspicuously to black causes as her husband avoided then, or that Larry Lucchino acknowledged the Red Sox' racially troubled past when he bought the team. But all of it together, and the Red Sox' rich history of people who have done demonstrably positive things for the franchise, should mean the days of "Yawkey Way" ought to end, and soon.

143166623Photo credit: Elsa

The counterarguments are easy to imagine. They are:

1. That Yawkey was not a racist;

2. That Yawkey was no more a racist than a representative business owner of the time, and the street bearing his name is no more representative of institutionalized bigotry than, say, the Jefferson Memorial, which honors a slaveholder;

3. That the Yawkey family legacy is ultimately positive despite Tom Yawkey's biases, such as they were;

4. That the Yawkey family legacy is ultimately positive despite Tom's biases because of his wife, who stewarded the team for a 16 years following her husband's death, and has not been implicated in whatever it is of which he is being accused, and that "Yawkey Way" should remain so named in her honor;

5. Similar to Nos. 3 and 4, that, the politics and actions of the Yawkeys aside, it would be unfair to the surviving family members of Tom and Jean to rename the street;

6. Finally, that the name "Yawkey Way" has entered the public domain, and that the positive memories modern Sox fans have with it supersede its potential negative legacy. A corollary to this is that if we were to rename all the streets named after obvious or potential racists, an argument goes, we'd barely have time to bathe and feed ourselves.

It's easiest to take these potential objections one-by-one.

The first argument we've covered. But was Yawkey just moving with traffic, and should he be punished (so to speak) if he was no worse than other business leaders of the time? That is the substance of the second objection, but it also comes up empty. If Yawkey was acknowledged as an exceptional Bostonian and thus worthy of honor, he deserves exceptional scrutiny. More importantly, the curve we are grading on is not whether Yawkey was racist for his time; it is whether or not the degree of his purported racism was bad enough to be offensive now.

The third argument, that the Yawkey legacy is ultimately positive, does not apply here; we are talking only about the potential residue of hate-in-action. But it's hard to look at the Red Sox' relatively unsuccessful history and conclude that things could have been done considerably better had the team added Robinson or Mays, and that any Sox owner could have produced the subpar clubs that Yawkey did.

To the fourth argument, that the honorific could be shifted to Jean Yawkey: This is reasonable but fraught with problems; "We are renaming this street for the wife of our former racist owner, instead of him" seems like a tricky enough act to pull off that it wouldn't fly.

Fifth, I am far more concerned about the minimizing a possibly gross offense to Bostonians and humans than I am with the family members of the former owners, having nothing to do with whatever Tom Yawkey did or did not do; just as Jean is not necessarily complicit in her husband's potential bigotry, neither are their descendants.

"We are renaming this street for the wife of our former racist owner, instead of him" seems like a tricky enough act to pull off that it wouldn't fly.

The sixth objection, that current fans have fond memories of modern Yawkey Way is the most intractable and also the least convincing. Fans do not want to feel complicit with an atrocity; if we know nothing else about what's currently going on with Woody Allen situation, it's that separating positive memories from present-day dissonance is a supremely uncomfortable event. Movies, like sports, are entertainment. To what degree does a film or game speak for itself, and to what degree does context intrude on the proceedings?

One way people are able to separate the two is to split them into their discrete elements. If I, as a Red Sox fan, do not consider myself a racist, and I have fond memories of even the phrase "Yawkey Way," how bad could it really be? (The logic goes.)

The problem with this calculation isn't just the problem with self-assessment, which is damn near impossible in any honest way; the problem is that it's irrelevant. It's one thing to be ignorant, but it's another to be willfully ignorant, and a self-assessment enables the latter. We only know things when we learn them, and it doesn't matter how much time has passed or what be conclusions we have drawn. When an entire premise is false, it remains false.

Insofar as the Allen and Yawkey cases are different, they are different because an exposed Yawkey can much more easily be separated off from the legacy of that which he created. If Yawkey Way was renamed Pedro Place tomorrow, Tom Yawkey's impact on modern-day Boston baseball would be reduced to near-zero, but both "Manhattan" and "Blue Jasmine" remain Woody Allen films, and will remain so.

All of this is to say that changing the name of Yawkey Way in inevitable, and should be done as a matter of course. It would go a small way toward righting a wrong propagated on the city and its fans for decades. Even if Yawkey was not a racist, by refusing to employ non-whites on his team well past the idea's horribly late expiration date, he made the team worse. Correlation doesn't equal causation and a "curse" is only worth it's weight in ink spilled, but the Red Sox clearly suffered on the field during the period they raged against the dying of a harsh, horrid light.

It's time for the city and team to act. Enough is enough, and as championship banners pile up outside Fenway it's time to respect the forces that actually brought them there, and not the ones that held them back.

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