On Thursday, a Boston city commission is expected to vote on a big battle brewing over a tiny, two-block street.
Yawkey Way, which runs alongside Fenway Park, was named for the late, former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who was known for his philanthropy, but also for his historically racist ball club.
Now, the team's current owners say they are still haunted by Yawkey's legacy, and they want the street renamed, to distance themselves from the team's checkered past.
The Red Sox were the very last team in the majors to integrate, only finally hiring a black player, Elijah Jerry "Pumpsie" Green, in 1959 — 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Sox front office was notorious for racism, even spewing the n-word, as many fans were reputed to do as well. The ugly history made it all the more painful last summer at Fenway, when Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said a Sox fan hurled the n-word at him, along with a bag of peanuts.
The incident triggered an apologetic scramble from the current Sox owners, who said they were sickened by the behavior. The team lost no time ejecting the guilty fan, banning him for life, and reiterating that the Sox have zero tolerance for any such intolerance. Shortly after, as if to underscore their commitment to inclusion and hoping to finally shake off their sordid past, the Sox began a campaign to strip Yawkey's name from the street they call Fenway's "front door."
"The undeniable and regrettable history of the Red Sox make it difficult to continue to give prominence to a symbol associated with an era marred by racial discrimination ," said Red Sox attorney David Friedman, at the start of a recent hearing before Boston's Public Improvement Commission. The panel, used to much more subdued hearings on street signs and utility poles, got a roomful and an earful about Yawkey Way.
"It is a disgrace," boomed Walter Carrington, a former U.S. ambassador, who once headed up a state investigation into alleged discrimination by the Red Sox organization. Calling Yawkey Way "Massachusetts' confederate statue," he said, "Every time I — or any black — go into Fenway Park, it's an insult."
In 1959, when Carrington was head of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, he says the Red Sox organization was rife with bias in its hiring of players — and staff. Carrington's investigation included interviews with Red Sox players, and with Jackie Robinson, who had been passed over by the Red Sox after a tryout widely believed to have been a sham.
By the end, Carrington came out agreeing with Robinson.
"[Robinson] said then to me, as he has said publicly, that he believed that Tom Yawkey was the biggest bigot in professional baseball," Carrington recalled.
But the bid to erase Yawkey's name has also rallied his fans, like former Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg. He says Yawkey eventually came around to fully embrace the team's black players.
"I understand a lot went on early in the history. But I personally saw a change in Mr. Yawkey...when I think he became a better man," Lonborg said, his voice cracking with emotion. "And we were all ... better people because he was in our club house."
Yawkey's defense included a long line-up of Bostonians who've been beneficiaries of all the charity that's been given by Yawkey, and his late wife Jean, through their foundation, Yawkey Way 2. The foundation has poured some $300 million into Boston organizations — from The Boys and Girls Clubs, to hospitals, the Jimmy Fund for cancer care and research, food banks, colleges, the Urban League, Museums, youth programs and more.
"The Yawkey family and Foundation have helped generations of the least fortunate in this city," said Boston business man and philanthropist Jack Connors. He implored the commission to keep Yawkey Way, saying that changing it would unfairly smear the Yawkeys' name, and complicate the foundation's good work.
He also warned the commission against heading down a dangerously slippery slope.
"What ever happened to common sense?" he protested. "If we're talking about street signs, who's going to talk about Washington Street, or Jefferson Way, or Madison Place?"
The view is shared by other prominent leaders, including some in Boston's African-American community.
"It's a very slippery slope and ultimately a very divisive slope," says Rev. Ray Hammond, pastor at the historically black Bethel AME Church in Boston, and a Yawkey Foundation trustee.
The street name Yawkey Way is nothing like the Confederate memorials that deserve to be dumped, he says. Yawkey's "sins" don't compare, he says, and must be considered in the context of the era, his personal growth, and his generosity. And he says, one must allow for his redemption.
"Let's understand all heroes probably have feet of clay. And let's be honest about those feet of clay, and learn from those feet of clay," he says. And maybe bring even a little level of humility to it ourselves, because when our kids evaluate us, they're going to also find feet of clay."
But others are less forgiving.
"Redemption starts with someone saying 'I'm sorry'," says State Rep. Byron Rushing, and Yawkey never publically apologized for the sins of his ball club. So, Rushing says, no amount of charity after his death can absolve him.
"That doesn't quite do it," Rushing says. "This is not an argument about the Yawkey Foundation. We're talking about the person, not the foundation."
It's why some have suggested a compromise to change the name from "Yawkey Way" to "Yawkey Foundation Way."
Outside Fenway fans are mixed on the question.
"Ahhh, that's a hard one," sighs 53-year-old construction worker, William Celeste. "You can go both ways on it, because everybody in the world is going to do some bad, so there's no such thing as somebody doing all good, right?"
For retired political science professor John Carroll, Yawkey's record makes it not a close call at all.
"He was a bigot," Carroll says. "I certainly knew what the score was in the '50s and '60s. They were an out and out racist organization."
But others lean more toward a compromise, including some tourists from the South. Shawn Livermore, from Alabama, says "whitewashing history" would hurt more than it helps. He'd rather see the city keep the Yawkey Way street name, but also post a plaque nearby, offering a fuller version of history, and a lesson to learn from.
"This knee jerk reaction is to remove it," he says. "But I really feel that's begging for history to repeat itself by not making all those moments teachable moments."
Lauren McKone agrees that the Yawkey Way name should stay, even if just out of nostalgia.
"It's like a tradition now," the 25-year-old says. "You come to Yawkey Way, and you get sausage on the street before the game. I like Yawkey Way, and it would be weird if it changed from Yawkey Way now."
Especially weird, she says if it reverted to its old name: Jersey Street. As many have noted, that might not be such a great trade for the Red Sox. The Jersey Street name was apparently meant to honor the British Isle of Jersey, where — in a long ago era — local aristocracy boosted their fortunes buying and selling slaves.
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