Friday, August 18, 2017

International Editor: One Man's Take On Yawkey Way Flap

by Mark Lawrence, FN International Editor
Sydney, Australia. John Henry, Boston’s own hedge-fund drivin’ man, raises an interesting issue when he says he’s ‘haunted’ by the Yawkey Way signpost on the street outside his ballpark. He has every right to feel that way and, to be honest, Nation, he does have a valid point—the kindest thing one could say about Thomas A. Yawkey was that he was – ahem - somewhat reluctant to sign any player who wasn’t white. Now, for those of you who may not be completely familiar with the club’s less than savory history, here’s a summary. You can skip it if you already know.  

Baseball’s notorious Color Line excluded black ballplayers until 1947—when visionary and baseball genius Branch Rickey signed a pretty fair ballplayer named Jackie Robinson, making him the first black man in the Majors. It took the Boston Red Sox—under Yawkey’s stewardship—another twelve years to follow suit, becoming the last team in Major League baseball to sign a black player. But two years before Robinson was signed by Mr Rickey, he was given a Fenway tryout by an owner who had no intention of ever offering a contract—the tryout was a cheap stunt designed to get desegregationist City Council member, Isadore Muchnick off Yawkey’s behind. And even though the only people in the Fenway stands that day were club execs, racist slurs were still heard on the field by Robinson, who left town feeling pretty well used and humiliated. He later described Yawkey as ‘one of the most bigoted guys in baseball’. And you know what? He was probably right. Interestingly, some pundits have argued that Yawkey’s prejudice basically shot the team in the foot play-off wise—by refusing to take advantage of the tremendous talent available to his club, Boston was largely absent from the play-offs for twenty years.

Early in 1959, the NAACP sued Yawkey, charging that the Red Sox actively followed an 'anti-Negro policy'. This forced Yawkey to finally relent and they brought up a guy named Elijah Green from the AAA club—you might know him as Pumpsie. They used him as a pinch runner from time to time that first year and the whole race problem slowly went away. Well, at least for a while, anyway.  

Years after Yawkey had shuffled off his mortal coil, the Red Sox were once again entangled in another mire of racial discrimination. In 1986, the Elks Club of Winter Haven, Florida (the Sox’ Spring Training base at the time) refused entry to black folks. But the Red Sox allowed the Elks to casually wander through the club house handing out dinner invites to white players, ignoring other less-acceptable team members like Tommy Harper. Tommy—an African-American—was understandably a tad upset by this and protested about it. The whole sorry tale wound up in the pages of the Globe and—surprise, surprise—Tommy lost his job. But he sued the Red Sox for racial discrimination and won, so there’s that, I guess.  

Nowadays, Fenway is largely discrimination free—well, except for this year. There have been a couple of despicable incidents recently and I’ll leave it to the experts to determine what cruel and unusual new factors may have emboldened this scattering of Fenway Bigots that have up 'til now somehow managed to keep their ugly fat faces shut.  

In the very early days of my infatuation with the Red Sox, I was heartbroken and dismayed to learn about Yawkey’s attitude towards folks of a different color—I did not want to believe that my Beloved Red Sox had ever been managed so appallingly. But they had. And I remember my first visit to Cooperstown and having the shine of that experience tarnished when I happened across Yawkey’s plaque. But while I felt conflicted standing in front of it, I still had enough smarts to understand the importance of any legacy, good or bad. If you erase an unpleasantness from history, you risk denying the opportunity for others to learn from it. John Henry’s concern is obviously related to recent events in America and he understandably wants to nip any potential protest in the bud—and by backing this change, he can expect a considerable division of opinion—but, hey, that’s life. Discuss it, argue it and reason with each other. Personally, I care little about Tom Yawkey’s legacy, despite the unarguable good he did for outfits like Dana Farber and others. But it’s worth remembering that a bigot who donates generously and helps old white ladies cross the street is still a bigot. Let people find out what that name means in the context of the team’s history and use it to show how far the Club has advanced since Yawkey’s troubled tenure. Tom Yawkey was no Civil War General, he was just a moneyed bigot and a product of his time. If the only 21st century trace of him is a street sign outside a ballpark in Boston, well—I think we can pretty safely leave it be.    

But what about that dern scoreboard?