The Yawkey divide

The battle over renaming Yawkey Way continues, with the Boston Globe, owned by Red Sox owner John Henry, taking all sides of the fight.

Was Tom Yawkey a racist? Yes, says Adrian Walker, and that’s why renaming the street matters. Was he a misunderstood product of his times, someone who did far more philanthropic good than bigoted evil? Jeff Jacoby thinks so. Is this a lose-lose scenario for everyone? That’s Shirley Leung’s belief.

The matter should be decided in the next week or so when the Boston Public Improvement Commission decides whether to keep the Yawkey Way as the name of the street that runs alongside Fenway Park or revert to its longtime name of Jersey Street, the Fenway stretch which was changed to honor the late Sox owner in 1976.

But decided is certainly not settled, and there’s little doubt the debate will roil for years to come, regardless of the ruling. There are disputes over whether Yawkey yelled the racial epithet when a trio of black baseball players, including Jackie Robinson, were trying out for the Red Sox. There are disagreements over whether Yawkey and team treated blacks differently. But amid all the charges against and defenses for Yawkey’s legacy being immortalized by the city, there’s a few historic facts that get overlooked.

Many, including the Rev. Ray Hammond, a member of the Yawkey Foundation board and a leader whose organizations have benefitted from the foundation’s grants, offer the argument that had Earl Wilson, a flame-throwing righty who could handle the bat as well, not been drafted into the service, he would have been the first black player, long before Pumpsie Green took the field for the last team to integrate.

But move ahead to Spring Training in 1966. Wilson and two white teammates walked into a bar in Florida that was a popular hangout for the team and he was told, according to one of the white teammates, “We don’t serve n—— in here.” He took his complaint to team management and was told to forget about it and not say anything. Anyone who knew Wilson understood that wasn’t going to happen and he went to the press with his complaints. A couple weeks later, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers for what amounted to a bag of balls and some chewing tobacco. (Actually, he was traded for outfielder Don Demeter and a minor leaguer who never made it to the bigs but the balls and tobacco would have been more useful.)

Years later, an eerily similar incident occurred involving Sox coach and former player Tommy Harper, for which he won a discrimination suit.

One anecdote that has long been overlooked involves an all-white school in Yawkey’s home state of South Carolina. When the courts desegregated the public school district in McLellanville, S.C., in 1971, not far from Yawkey’s home in Georgetown, a group of white parents launched the private Archibald Rutledge Academy. Yawkey was a benefactor for the segregated school and in his will bequeathed $25,000 a year (Boston Herald archives, subscription required.)

That annual grant continued until several years ago, amounting to nearly $1 million over time. The school is no longer a K-12 academy, leading to the end of the grant, but it would be hard to argue Yawkey was not aware of what his money was supporting then and in death.

Jacoby, like many who favor retaining the name to honor Yawkey and his wife, Jean’s, posthumous largesse to the city, argues it’s difficult to measure historic attitudes within the prism of 21st century morality. He points out if that’s the case, perhaps the name of Faneuil Hall should be changed because Peter Faneuil was a slave trader. He also brings up Henry Ford, a virulent anti-Semite, and the actions of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in Chappaquiddick as examples of people who have been lionized despite questionable behavior.

“Virtually all human beings, even the greatest, have flaws, blind spots, and times when they acted indecently.” Jacoby writes. “If the only people for whom streets, schools, and buildings should be named are those against whom there can never be any conceivable accusation of vice or bad judgment — now or in the future — we are going to have a lot of unnamed streets, schools, and buildings.”

But Harper, the former Sox player and coach who had first-hand experience with Yawkey, summed up the feelings of many who want the change.

“You can’t pick and choose,” Harper told the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessey. “History is what it is. Does philanthropy outweigh the harm done to African-American players? Does it? In my opinion, it does not.”



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