City stalls on Yawkey name change
Commission puts off vote after hearing on Sox owner’s legacy
A STANDING-ROOM ONLY crowd, including reclusive former Red Sox CEO John Harrington making an emotional plea to retain the street’s moniker, left disappointed after a Boston commission charged with overseeing the city’s public ways unexpectedly delayed a controversial vote to rename Yawkey Way on Thursday.
The city’s Public Improvement Commission, which had been slated to vote on a petition by Red Sox owner John Henry to change the street’s name back to Jersey Street because it honored one-time team owner Tom Yawkey, who many claim was a racist, made the decision after yet another unusual two-hour public hearing.
Once again, supporters of the Yawkey Foundation praised the late owner as a man who changed over time and whose philanthropy, with that of his wife, Jean, has benefited the city. They said the smear on Yawkey as a racist is one not borne out by history, despite the fact the Sox were the last team to integrate.
“To do it on the basis of reality is one thing,” said Harrington, who heads the Yawkey Foundation I and II and who choked up several times recalling his old boss. “But to do it on the basis of rumor… is so damaging to Tom Yawkey’s work. We should not only honor his name but we should support his work.”
“Yawkey Way was named for a man who was not perfect,” said Bleday. “But like all people, he grew to be a different person.”
But Walter Carrington, who as head of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in 1959 led an investigation into the Sox lack of black players and front office employees, said his interviews with people around the team as well as other teams convinced him Yawkey’s racism ran deep. Carrington said he went to New York to interview Jackie Robinson, who got a sham tryout with the Sox that is at the center of the controversy over the name change.
“He believed Tom Yawkey was the biggest bigot in baseball,” Carrington told the commission.
The president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation wrote a letter in support of the Yawkey Foundation work, including grants it has made to the Jackie Robinson Museum. But, while noting the controversy over the issue, the letter neither endorsed nor opposed the petition to rename the street. And it notably referenced only Jean Yawkey in expressing gratitude for the support of the foundation and museum.
“It has profoundly helped pave the way for the completion of the Jackie Robinson Museum, which will tackle the same complex racial dynamics that are swirling around the Yawkey Way naming controversy,” wrote Della Britton Baeza, president and CEO of the Robinson foundation.
Carrington also cited Yawkey’s support of an all-white school in South Carolina that was created after a court ordered schools there desegregated in 1971. Not only did he give money for the school’s start-up, said Carrington, he kept the school in his will to the tune of more than $1 million over nearly four decades. Carrington said that showed Yawkey did not change his stripes as he got older.
A long line of Yawkey supporters and those who have benefited from the foundation testified to how the charities have enriched their lives and the city. But on the other side, a number of black activists and officials spoke to how the Sox and Fenway were traditionally inhospitable to people of color and the name is a reminder of those days.
At the end of a public comment period, which was out of the norm for this type of action, Chris Osgood, the city’s Chief of the Streets who acts as commission chair, said after the impassioned testimony the issue requires further consideration, noting “this is a different conversation” than the routine issues the commission deals with. The commission voted to return to the matter at its April 12 meeting and promised a decision at that time.After the hearing, a relieved Harrington said he plans to meet with Mayor Marty Walsh to seek a solution to ease the tension. He said the Yawkey Foundation and the Red Sox could pool funds to help tackle issues such as homelessness and education that are facing the city’s minority community.
“Our goal is to bring people together,” he said, adding there should be a path forward, though the street name change cannot be part of that compromise. “I can’t describe it to you. It’s like any dance, it takes two.”