Two takes on the Yawkey Way controversy

How should we reckon with an ugly chapter in Boston history?


There is a simple but equitable solution to the current controversy over the name Yawkey Way, the little street that runs alongside Fenway Park that has become an outsize symbol for our city’s troubled racial past.

The street is named for Thomas A. Yawkey, who owned the Red Sox from 1933 until his death in 1976, a stretch marred both by a dearth of championships and the team’s refusal to hire black players until every other major league club had done so. That legacy of racism and exclusion has overshadowed Yawkey’s charitable work and become a local point of focus for our newly awakened hunger for inclusion and racial equity.

Instead of deleting the Yawkey name, however, as the Red Sox have proposed, we should join with it another name — that of Jackie Robinson, who received a show tryout with the Red Sox before becoming the first black player in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers a year later. Let’s rename the street Yawkey-Robinson Way.

That compromise would fuse the legacies of the two men, the last redoubt against social progress in baseball, and the most notable pioneer in that long endeavor. We have compromised before, with the naming of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, a nod to both a legendary local civil rights activist and the Charlestown neighborhood’s proud role in the American Revolution.

While I applaud the current Red Sox management for attempting to take on a challenging dilemma in Yawkey’s legacy, I believe a deeper opportunity exists. Instead of deleting our history, pretending it didn’t happen, we should study it to understand it more fully. Planting our heads in the sand about racist elements of the city’s past does not undo the problems wrought by such ignorant attitudes. But that history can serve as a platform to educate future generations about what we have overcome, and how we can prevent the recurrence of those problems.

To that end, an optical problem can be turned into a pathway toward economic benefit. The Red Sox could focus their energy on encouraging other teams – in baseball, and other sports – to diversify their front offices and the outside organizations with whom they contract and do business.

Professional sports teams, led by the Red Sox, should increase diversity among their executives and with outside partners: law firms, accounting firms, food vendors, printers, marketing agencies among others. And they should encourage those outside partners to themselves work with firms who employ, promote, and do business with people of color. They should have the same expectations of their external vendors that they have of themselves, so they’re not working with businesses who come to the table without a diversity and inclusion plan, along both gender and racial lines.

Ironically, the Yawkey-owned Red Sox succeeded at this in the 1990s, when women and men of color occupied a number of senior positions within the organization and when the club frequently partnered with minority-owned local businesses, mine among them.

Similarly, we should not discount Yawkey’s undeniable philanthropy. The Yawkey Foundation has donated around $300 million to non-profits just here in Boston alone, according to a recent letter from trustees.

Many of those organizations are located in the heart of Boston’s communities of color. The Yawkey Boys and Girls Club of Roxbury helps kids with homework, promotes STEM skills and healthy lifestyles, and gives young people a place to go after school. Between 1977 and 2017, the foundation donated more than $72 million to youth and amateur athletics, 16 percent of its overall giving.

In 1953, Yawkey committed the Red Sox to the Jimmy Fund as the team’s official charity, an organization that – with the Red Sox by its side for more than a half-century – has waged historic fights and against cancer, a disease that does not discriminate.

Tom Yawkey’s legacy is complicated, but so is America’s. We must come to grips with truth and reconciliation. That doesn’t mean forgetting our past, or wiping out history, it means understanding it, owning it and then creating a new and more compelling future. That could come from walking down Yawkey-Robinson Way with a richer understanding.

Removing Yawkey’s name from the street by the ballpark won’t erase our history any more than the 2004 World Series championship reversed the disappointing outcomes of the previous 86 seasons. But that title did launch a new era of excitement and optimism around the team. Pursuing inclusive, healing remedies to the racial sins of the past could do the same, street by street.

Colette A. M. Phillips is president of Colette Phillips Communications a strategic public relations and diversity and inclusion communications consulting firm. 



John Henry, the current owner of the Boston Red Sox, has taken a bold stance to address the past and no longer commemorate his predecessor, Tom Yawkey. Yawkey, the owner of the team for some 43 years, had a racist reputation; under his leadership the Red Sox were the very last team in Major League Baseball to integrate.

Recently, Pastor Ray Hammond, a fellow clergyman and elder, came out publicly in support of preserving the Yawkey legacy in Boston. I am sure that Rev. Hammond means well in his apologetic defense of Yawkey Way. We both agree that the City of Boston has a lot of work to do to assure that people of color have more access, protection, and representation socioeconomically and civically. However, I take issue with Rev. Hammond’s reluctance to address the history tethered to Tom Yawkey as something that would “aggravate old wounds and force people to take sides.” Rather, I suggest that yielding to such anxieties only serves as only a Band-Aid to gaping wounds that have never healed.

As a young leader of color committed to Boston, I view such hesitance to address the city’s dark past as an example of the intergenerational chasm that many millennials of color find hard to bridge with elders of color from previous generations. The way to change the belief that Boston is a racist place is not to avoid the problem for fear of pushback, but rather to work to remove the vestiges of the past that prevent us from moving forward. If we continue to do things the way they have always been done, we will get the same results.

Therefore, I agree with Red Sox great Tommy Harper — actions speak louder than words.

It was reported by sportswriter Clif Keane that the words “Get those niggers off the field!” shouted after Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams auditioned to break the color line, were likely shouted by Yawkey. Even if we question the veracity of this account, we cannot negate the racialized disparate treatment and discrimination that Tommy Harper documented. Although I cannot deny the great charitable impact that Yawkey, and his family, have made throughout Boston, I am hard-pressed to support any attempts to paint the history of institutional racism with a revisionist brush and suggest that philanthropy can ever compensate for prejudice.

No longer can we as Bostonians afford to faintly address the racial past of our city. Rather, we must address racism, and all forms of discrimination, head on with a righteous vigor, especially if we hope to move into an equitable future.

Last year, the Red Sox had to address a few racially charged incidents — one garnering national attention, in which Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was called the n-word multiple times as a bag of peanuts was thrown at him. Although many came out publicly decrying such behavior, including Mayor Marty Walsh, this only deepened the stain of racism on the Red Sox brand and the City of Boston writ large. Thus, I think I understand what Henry is saying when he says he is “haunted” by Yawkey’s racial legacy, because in many ways we are all haunted by Boston’s racial legacy.
This is not about political correctness, as some would suggest, but rather this is about prophetic correctness, to speak truth to power for the betterment of Boston as whole so that we can truly be a shining city on a hill.

The Red Sox are a storied organization that stands as a pillar of America’s pastime, so what better way to begin the process of healing in this country than to no longer celebrate people for being “products of their time,” but focus instead on people who stood for what was right in their time. Yes, Tom Yawkey can and should be forgiven, for God’s grace extends to all — but he should not be celebrated.

Therefore, I support John Henry’s efforts to formally change the street name and create a more welcoming environment for all that visit Fenway Park, because real change happens by actions, not just rhetoric.

Meet the Author

Colette Phillips

Guest Contributor, Colette Phillips Communications
Meet the Author

Willie Bodrick II

Associate Pastor, Historic Twelfth Baptist Church
Instead of Yawkey Way, let us celebrate a person who represents the change that is happening. The great Sam Cooke sang in his timeless song that “A Change is Gonna Come” and I submit Boston is changing for the better by acknowledging its frailties and injustices. I have faith that these improvements will continue, and that it is inevitable that a street-name change is gonna come.

Rev. Willie Bodrick II is associate pastor of the Historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Georgetown University. He is currently a student at Northeastern University School of Law.