Thursday, March 8, 2018

Memorializing the Yawkeys in Boston

I did not grow up in New England, or near it.  I have lived in many states, but spent the majority of my life in Virginia and live in the Carolinas now.  I lived in Boston only during college and for a few years after medical school.  But I can assure you that my affection and teeth-grinding fandom for the Boston Red Sox goes back nearly to my toddler stage.

So I have known the name of the late Tom Yawkey, the long-time owner of the Red Sox (with his wife Jean), my whole life.  Yawkey had owned the team for 18 years when I was born, and I was 25 when he died.  Do the math.

Yawkey was a beloved figure in Boston while he owned the team.  He earned that loyalty early on, investing a lot of his own money in renovations to the park and stocking the team with better ballplayers than the team had seen since its heyday, four world championships in the 1910s.  He earned a lot more regard as an owner, generous with his players, paying them better than most owners would, although he then hired managers who were mostly drinking buddies of his.

The lasting legacy of his is the Yawkey Foundation, a massive charity which ultimately owned the team for a few years after the death of Jean Yawkey (and reaped a huge windfall to its endowment when the team was sold).  The Foundation has donated tens of millions of dollars to worthy charities, including the Jimmy Fund, the iconic children's cancer research organization that has done so much marvelous work advancing research in pediatric cancer.  Countless lives, over more than 60 years, have been saved through the Fund's support of the Dana-Farber Cancer Center, which does the great work.  

I can assure you that, wherever he may be right now, of all he ever did, Tom Yawkey is most proud of what his Foundation has accomplished for those children.  Perhaps he is nearly as proud of the 20,000 acres of South Carolina marshland he donated, for what is now the Yawkey Wildlife Preserve.

We will also stipulate that Tom Yawkey owned the team that was the last in baseball to integrate.  With the opportunity to sign such players as Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson -- literally, the Red Sox had the inside track and could have had both of them -- Boston passed on them.  Whether Yawkey was personally opposed on racial grounds, or he thought that integrating the team would have hurt ticket sales, they passed.

There appears enough reason to stipulate that Tom Yawkey was fairly typical of the time as far as racial attitudes were concerned, and we'll go with that.  The conventional wisdom is that he was bigoted, and it's hard to argue -- although it will never be clear the extent; Yawkey was a hard drinker, to say the least, and his words and actions in regard to some issues and actions involving race may have reflected his true feelings -- or just "going along."  But we'll assume typical '30s-era bigotry, for argument's sake.

This all comes up because the Boston Red Sox have now gone to the City of Boston and asked that the short street on the south side of Fenway Park be renamed.

When I lived there in the early '70s, the street was called "Jersey Street" for some reason (the streets in that area of the Back Bay mostly have old British names).  After Tom Yawkey's death in 1976, the city renamed it "Yawkey Way", which it is called to this day, a monument to the owner of the team and his relationship to the team, and the charitable efforts of the man himself.

The City of Boston is going to have fun with this one.  Obviously, the team owners, John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino and a few others, feel a compelling need to erase the name "Yawkey" from our collective consciousness, and figure that using the "bigot" allegation, true or not, well, that seems like the right way to go about it.

Of course, there are three obstacles in such an action.

The first, of course, is that most people have a compulsive objection to attempts to rewrite history, whether by removing statues of Confederate generals or using textbooks to advance a political agenda.  When the cost will also include heavy expenses by the innocent businesses on the street that heavily use the name "Yawkey Way", including in their names ( for one), well, there has to be a better argument.

Second, of course, is the element of charity, particularly the fact that Yawkey's eponymous Foundation, so tightly associated with Boston and the Red Sox, has done such marvelous service.  The Yawkey Foundation is the lasting legacy of Tom Yawkey, more even than the team which was owned before him and is owned by others now.  Their work, unlike, say, the Clinton Foundation, is spotless, selfless, and for causes we can all support.  To erase the name of its founder simply smells.

Finally, there is simply the whole political correctness aspect, which is the frustrating part of the discussion.  I would like to think that much of the 2018 USA is tired of being forced to adopt a specific frame of reference for everything, and being castigated for questioning that basis.

I'm willing to concede Yawkey's attitude toward people of other races in his earlier days.  I'm willing to concede that I have preconceived notions myself about people of different national origins and races, not that I don't generally take each person on their own merits on meeting them.  I'm not even sure that Tom Yawkey was any different, except that he had to make decisions from a group perspective, while I have the freedom to take each person as he comes along.

But the whole PC-as-public-policy thing is such a slippery slope.  I mean, suppose they pick an actual person (deceased only, according to Boston law) to rename the street after.  What is to say that we find the tragic flaws of that person, and a whole other set of aggrieved people point out that the new guy cheated on his wife (maybe not such a flaw in JFK-loving Boston), or drank to excess and caused the death of a young girl (oops, sorry, brother Teddy), or ... well, you get the idea.

We're not all saints, and we're not all sinners.  We are both, which makes us human, and our PC friends need to figure that out.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton.

No comments:

Post a Comment