Let the people of Boston decide the fate of Yawkey Way

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Fans line Yawkey Way before every Red Sox game at Fenway Park. (Getty)

Before considering the debate over whether Tom Yawkey was so racist he should no longer have a street named after him in Boston, know this: he was a terrible baseball owner.

From 1933 to his death in 1976, his Boston Red Sox never won a World Series and rarely won anything at all, reaching the postseason just three times. The occasional generational talent that would arrive (Ted Williams, most notably) would wither away via futility and frugality. Part of this was because of a stubborn inability to see obviously emerging trends, his most famous failure born from bigotry.

The Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, in 1959, a full 12 seasons after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Brooklyn. Yawkey was so opposed to employing a black player, he chose, for a dozen seasons, to run his team at a decided competitive disadvantage. He demonstrably cared more about having an all-white team than winning.

He actually could have signed Robinson. In 1945, Boston politicians forced the Red Sox to have a tryout for African-American players under threat that they wouldn’t allow games to be played on Sunday. Robinson was one of three players brought to a sham of a workout. Robinson impressed the assembled media and some scouts, but never stood a chance with Yawkey.

Instead, Robinson soon signed a minor-league deal with Brooklyn, joined the majors a season later and went on to an iconic, Hall of Fame career. Pair him with Williams in the middle of the late 1940s Red Sox lineup, and perhaps that Red Sox World Series drought ends six decades earlier.

John Henry is a great baseball owner. In 2002 he bought the Sox from the Yawkey Trust and has delivered three World Series titles, a modernized Fenway Park and a complete overhaul in the team’s racial progressiveness.

Yet he can’t get over that in 1977, the City of Boston honored the then-recently deceased Yawkey by renaming a tight sliver of a street that runs along the left field line outside Fenway after him. Yawkey Way has been its name ever since. These days, during the season, it is shut down and used as a pregame fan gathering, drinking and dining spot.

“Haunted,” Henry said in an email to the Boston Herald, citing Yawkey’s racism.

And he’d like to see the street name changed to something else. The Red Sox don’t own the street. The city does, so it’s not an organizational decision. Henry said city politicians have rebuffed him in the past because they didn’t want to “open a can of worms.”

After incidents and a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, and “in light of the country’s current leadership stance with regard to intolerance,” Henry said he is going to try to open that can all by himself. Here’s a billionaire businessman going after Donald Trump via Tom Yawkey Way.

“For me, personally, the street name has always been a consistent reminder that it is our job to ensure the Red Sox are not just multi-cultural, 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,” Henry told the Herald. “I am still haunted by what went on here before I arrived.”

The city owns the streets and a city is owned by its residents. Like with any of these issues, including statues commemorating Confederate heroes, it is fair and proper for the people of the city to determine who gets honored, whether in the first place or as time passes.

Red Sox owner suggests Yawkey Way be renamed in honor of David Ortiz. (AP)

A democratic process is the appropriate remedy here. Either the people get to vote on the issue directly by ballot, or their elected officials decide via feedback from their constituents. Fair is fair. In this case, the process involves everyone with a Yawkey Way address to agree to have the issue heard by the Public Improvement Commission. There are but two such abutters, buildings owned by Henry and one by a merchandise shop, which is on board with the name change.

A politician thought it was appropriate to take the then-Jersey Extension and name it after Tom Yawkey in the first place. So it is fine if a politician, or political process, decides to name it something else.

Times change. Cities change. Street names can change, too.

Henry said he’d like to name it David Ortiz Way or Big Papi Way, after the beloved former star originally from the Dominican Republic. Maybe Jimmy Fund Way (after the Sox longstanding charity) or Pumpsie Green Way (the team’s first African-American player) would suffice, also.

Mainly, Henry just doesn’t want Yawkey Way, even though he made sure to praise the Yawkey Foundation, which has used the $700 million in proceeds from the sale of the team to fund important work in and around Boston.

Is it fair to rename the street? There should be a hesitation in applying 2017 standards to historical figures. History doesn’t fit into a perfect box. It’s complicated, messy and gray. People are capable of doing both great things and terrible things, having clear vision and blind spots.

Boston was founded in 1630 and is a city proud of its past, particularly its part in the founding of the country. Yet none of the people then lived like people do now. Societal norms evolve. What passed for heroes and progressive thinking in the past doesn’t always today.

To simply punish everyone for being born when they were born, even if they fought for the concepts that in turn developed this nation into what it became, would be short-sighted.

When it comes to Yawkey, however, there is this: he isn’t just considered regressive by the standards of today, he was considered regressive by the standards of his day.

Changing the name of the street to reflect current life in Boston doesn’t eliminate Tom Yawkey from the history. Indeed, everyone should continue to learn from his mistaken thinking. A plaque outside Fenway telling his full story would be far more appropriate, and powerful, than a street sign bearing his name.

If anything, change can be educational.

“We ought to be able to lead the effort,” Henry said. “And if others in the community favor a change, we would welcome it.”

Near the Fens of Boston, a long way from Charlottesville, Donald Trump or the Confederacy, the issue moves on in an unexpected manner, right into the history of baseball.

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