The city of Boston will change the name of Yawkey Way, the street outside Fenway Park, to its former name, Jersey Street, following a petition that the Red Sox filed with the city’s Public Improvement Commission in February and multiple public hearings.
Former Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who has been plagued posthumously by allegations of racism, is also the namesake of Boston College’s Yawkey Athletics Center. BC said in February that it will not change the name of the Center, citing an agreement with the Yawkey Foundation II that requires recipients of grants from the foundation to bear the Yawkey name.
Today’s hearing, where officials voted unanimously in favor of the name change, follows months of debate over the issue. John Henry, the Red Sox majority owner and owner of The Boston Globe; Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP; and other prominent activists have been vocal in their support for the name change. But a number of Boston power brokers were against the decision. Some of them are closely associated with Boston College, including Jack Connors, a longtime trustee and BC ’63, John Fish, chair of the Board of Regents and a trustee, and John Harrington, BC ’57, the namesake of a new athletic complex recently opened on Brighton Campus and the chairman of the Yawkey Foundation. Charles Clough Jr., trustee and BC ’64, is a trustee of the Yawkey Foundation II.
Connors, a founder of advertising firm Hill Holliday, is a philanthropist who has championed initiatives to make Boston more inclusive. At a public hearing on March 29, he acknowledged that Boston has a race problem and expressed a desire to combat racism, but argued that changing the name of the street was not a substantive way to combat the issue. He also pointed out that the Yawkey family, regardless of the allegations of racism surrounding Tom Yawkey, has “helped generations of the least fortunate in this city.”
“What ever happened to common sense?” Connors asked. “We have important issues to address in this city, and we’re talking about street signs?”
Harrington, a former CEO of the Red Sox and the chairman of the Yawkey Foundations, testified at the public hearing after Connors, and has been vocal about the issue in other ways. In September, he wrote a letter to the editor to The Boston Globe criticizing an editorial entitled “Tom Yawkey was no hero.” In it, he explained that Tom “treated every player the same, regardless of their race” and praised the Yawkey Foundation’s charitable efforts. He also wrote a letter on the Yawkey Foundation website praising the family, as well as a three-page letter published last September that defends Yawkey at length.
One story about Yawkey—that he “yelled an inappropriate statement” from the stands on the day in April 1945 when Jackie Robinson tried out for the Red Sox—is just not true, Harrington wrote. The letter also questioned the allegation that Yawkey, who Harrington wrote inherited a part of and later bought the rest of a large piece of land in South Carolina, was a “southern plantation owner.”
Last month, Connors and Fish, along with other prominent figures in Boston, signed on to a letter expressing their support for keeping the Yawkey name on the street. They explained that the city has benefited enormously from the generosity of the Yawkeys, and that it was unfair to depict Tom Yawkey as “racially divisive and take the drastic action of striking his name from the street.” They also praised the Foundation’s hundreds of millions of dollars worth of charitable donations, which aimed to “serve the forgotten and disadvantaged” in Boston.
Others who spoke out against the decision to change the name of the street felt that it would taint the name of Yawkey and the Yawkey Foundation and that the allegations of racism are a regretful, but isolated, period of the former Sox owner’s history in Boston.
The Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, not employing a black player, Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green, until 1959—12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Red Sox front office and fans have been known as notorious for racism, as reported by NPR, and this history proved quite painful last May when Adam Jones, current outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, claimed that a Sox fan threw a bag of peanuts at him and called him the n-word.
The incident triggered an apology from the Red Sox and a wide-ranging discussion over racism in Boston involving Mayor Marty Walsh, BC ’09, the president of Boston’s NAACP Tanisha Sullivan, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, and other prominent figures. The Red Sox then launched the campaign to strip Yawkey’s name from the street outside Fenway.
“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 Sox attorney David Friedman, at the start of a recent hearing before Boston’s Public Improvement Commission.
State Legislator Russell Holmes was the only individual to testify at today’s hearing. He argued that the Yawkey Foundation has belittled the importance of renaming the street, and essentially said that “nothing happened” and “we will take the money from you, if you decide to take the sign.”
“[The Yawkey Foundation] has shown no sense of responsibility, no sense of remorse,” Holmes said.
He also questioned the motives of powerful individuals in Boston who were in favor of keeping the street name.
“Were they doing it to make sure the reputation of Mr. Yawkey stayed sound or were they doing it from a perspective that they wanted to help our community?”
The Yawkey Foundation II was established by Jean Yawkey in 1982, and contributed a $15 million donation to the construction of the Yawkey Athletics Center, which opened in March 2005. The $27 million building houses the football offices, player lounges, sports medicine offices, equipment rooms, a gym, and the Murray Family Function Room.
The sale of the Red Sox to an ownership group led by Henry in 2002 enabled the significant expansion of Yawkey Foundation II’s philanthropic activity. Beneficiaries other than BC include Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Medical Center, Children’s Hospital, The Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, and Catholic Charities. The Foundations’ website also includes a refutation of the claims of racism made against Yawkey, citing attempts at signing several black players and prospects, and the signing of black players to the organization’s minor league teams.
“As we have said throughout this process, the effort to expunge Tom Yawkey’s name has been based on a false narrative about his life and his historic 43-year ownership of the Red Sox,” the organization said in a statement. “The drastic step of renaming the street, now officially sanctioned by the city of Boston (and contradicting the honor the city bestowed upon Tom Yawkey over 40 years ago), will unfortunately give lasting credence to that narrative and unfairly tarnish his name.”
Featured Image by Chitose Suzuki / Associated Press