By Ted Gay – @TedG63
I had read a lot about Tom Yawkey lately but seldom by someone old enough to recall when he was Red Sox owner. Yawkey is remembered as a man who built the Red Sox into league champions, saved Fenway Park, came within a game of winning world championships in 1946, 1967 and 1975 then sadly passed away a year later, beloved by all who met him.
In 1949 the Red Sox were a game ahead of the Yankees with two to play at the Stadium. After they lost both the Red Sox would finish no higher than third for the next 18 years. Yawkey, who had, both pre and post World War II built the Red Sox into a juggernaut second only to the Bronx Bombers stopped spending lavish amounts of money on players and employed cronies like hunting partner, drinking buddy and proud racist Pinky Higgins as manager, GM, then manager. Fenway Park was empty and crumbling. The Sox, unable to compete with teams open to more than white players, were never in contention. The fans, who remembered the glory days of Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom Dimaggio, held Yawkey accountable for the Red Sox failings.
In 1967 the Red Sox improbably won the American League pennant thanks to allowing players like George Scott, Elston Howard, Joe Foy, Reggie Smith and Jose Santiago to wear the words Boston on their chest; and their acerbic, tactician rookie manager Dick Williams. Two years later MVP Carl Yastrzemski complained to Yawkey about Williams’ grating managerial style. Per his nature, Yawkey, always one to cave to his favorite players, fired Williams, and the Sox did not make the playoffs for another eight years.
In 1975 the city of Boston was burning over the racial strife set ablaze by the busing crisis. The Red Sox healed the city just as the 2013 team would 38 years later. The relationship between the team and the media was different then. The newspapers tended to be the Sox’s house organ. They painted a Norman Rockwell like picture of Daddy Tom Yawkey, now diagnosed with leukemia, hoping his boys could finally bring him the championship he had chased for over forty years. The fact that once again the boys from Boston fell short made Yawkey’s lament poignant.
The 1976 team slumped early and never recovered. Yawkey, whose past sins had been forgiven, as they often are for dying men, passed away in July. There was a groundswell of support to honor this “beloved” man, and soon Jersey Street became Yawkey Way. There were those who correctly opposed it, but they were outnumbered. Two years earlier the thought that Tom Yawkey would have a street named for him was as unlikely as a street being named for John Henry is now.
When Jersey Street became Yawkey Way Bill Cosby was the most popular comedian in the country, Pete Rose was a certain Hall of Famer, OJ Simpson was the most famous athlete in America and Joe Paterno was an admired college football coach. None of these people changed, our perception of them did, just as it did for Yawkey.
As the years passed the newspapers stopped being the Sox house organ, not only about Yawkey’s racist beliefs but the covering up by the Sox front office of the sexual abuse young boys experienced at the hands of clubhouse manager Don Fitzpatrick, of which, reportedly, Yawkey was aware. The facade of the beloved Yawkey crumbled. His defender’s pointed to him, and his wife Jean, creating and leaving their fortune to the Yawkey Foundation, which has given $453 million in grants that have greatly aided the people of Boston. Ironically Yawkey accomplished more for Boston in death than in life.
With Confederate statues being taken down (rightfully, since there is something inherently wrong with a country that builds monuments to those who were in open rebellion against their government and started a war that led to the slaughter of millions) and the country becoming more sensitive to its racist past, it was inevitable that the name Yawkey Way would be reconsidered.
Thus completed the two sins of Yawkey Way. The first was naming the street after a man who did not deserve the honor. The second was changing the same street back to Jersey. Yawkey’s failings were not enough to warrant the dramatic switch. If we are going to change street names for racist reasons we are going to have to raise the tax rate to afford all the new signs.
Red Sox ownership said they petitioned to have the name changed to distance themselves from their racial past. The Red Sox and America can’t distance itself from the racial past because of our racial present. Racism is a part of our country. We cannot separate from it. It is like a limb, we can remove it, but the phantom pain will remain.
Now it is Jersey Street and should remain Jersey Street. A street nerd fact: When the Back Bay was filled in they wanted to name the streets running from east to west in alphabetical order as was done in London, starting with Arlington and ending with Minor. They needed a J name and picked Jersey for an island between England and France. Jersey Street is an island between the Yawkey years and the Henry years. The name fits.
If they name the street for someone else who knows what the result will be 40 years from now. Will the Red Sox owners petition to have their street name changed because they have to distance themselves from Big Papi’s meat-eating past?
Like a guy who breaks down on the Garden State Parkway, we are stuck with Jersey.
ICYMI: EPISODE 41 OF THE AVIDBOSTON PODCAST!!!
THE RED SOX OFFENSE IS SLUGGISH!! TAMPA NEARLY SWEEPS US!!! THE YANKEES ARE CLOSING IN!!!
Also available on iTunes!