Sunday, March 11, 2018

Yawkey Way

There has been a move afoot for some time to rename Yawkey Way, the street outside Fenway Park named for Tom and Jean Yawkey, who owned the team for many years. It seems to be coming to pass. Tom Yawkey was racist - the Red Sox were the last team to integrate when they brought in Pumpsie Green* in 1959, and of course brought in another black player, Earl Wilson, because who would Pumpsie room with on the road? - and people in the Commonwealth don't want him honored in that way. The Yawkey Foundations, the charitable organisation the Yawkeys started decades ago is upset, because they believe the focus on a few acts is an unfair misunderstanding of a man who did a great deal of good.

I agree with the renaming, but for reasons that I think are different than most advocates for the change. The change is largely symbolic, which is appropriate because Yawkey's racism was mostly symbolic. He was of a type which used to exist but has vanished from the landscape. He generally treated African-Americans well.  He owned black baseball teams back in South Carolina where he came from, and paid those players better than average. He was kind and respectful to the black people he knew, though with that constant condescension that quietly stung.  His charitable endeavors supporting health, education, and cultural events for the poor likely benefited poor black people more than white. He just didn't think the races should be all that much together, particularly on baseball fields. Credible reports claim that he ended a Willie Mays (and others) tryout with the Red Sox by saying "get those niggers out of here." That pretty clearly racist, and not by some exaggerated modern sensibilities.

Yet look at this whole integration-of-baseball phenomenon at the time. It was symbolically huge that Jackie Robinson got to play in the major leagues. It drove a tentpeg into the ground about what America was going to be like going forward. Yet as a practical matter, what happened is that several hundred black people got to play in the major leagues over the next decades, and several hundred more got to play in the minors.  This represented higher salary, better conditions, and more recognition than black professional ballplayers had in the Negro Leagues and on barnstorming teams. (Minor league conditions were grim and insecure, but still a step up for most black players.) It was actually a loss for some of the non-stars on black baseball teams of the 40's and 50's, which soon went out of business.

Symbolically huge.  Not so much practically.

So Yawkey's long delay - the Red Sox had black players in the minors but none on the main club until 1959 - affected millions symbolically but maybe only a few dozen as a practical matter. This fits just about exactly with the renaming of a street.  It is a large symbolic gesture with very little practical effect. The bad press may indeed reduce the contributions to the Yawkey Foundations - that would be a bad practical effect.

*I had not known until today that Cornell Green, the cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, was his brother.

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