Tom Yawkey’s legacy has finally been nearly erased from Fenway Park and its surroundings.
Last year, the street outside the ballpark was renamed from Yawkey Way to its original name, Jersey Street. And last week, the MBTA announced that Yawkey Station would also be getting a new name, Lansdowne Station. Racism in Red Sox Nation still persists amid the progress, but there’s no question that the name—Yawkey—had long been a point of contention.
Under Yawkey’s ownership, the Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. He was accused of making racist comments about Jackie Robinson. To many, the fact that the franchise continued to honor the name of a man who represented everything wrong with the way Black Americans have historically been treated meant that the team was never able to fully move past it.
The decision to finally remove the name was the result of community activism, pressure from fans, and reporters continuing to raise the issue. Red Sox owner John Henry finally requested the street be renamed in 2017, telling the Boston Herald that the team was “still haunted by what went on here a long time before we arrived.” A city commission formally voted for the change in April of 2018, while the Red Sox said in a statement that the change was “an important step in our ongoing effort to make Fenway Park a place where everyone feels welcome.”
When the MBTA announced the change of its commuter rail station last week, the agency cited its naming policy, which “includes guidance to prioritize local geography such nearby streets, squares, or neighborhoods.” What the press release didn’t mention was that a bill was filed in 2017 by state Reps. Ruth B. Balser of Newton and Byron Rushing of Boston, explicitly noting that “a state overseen railway station should be named for someone more reflective of Massachusetts’ values,” as Rep. Balser told DigBoston at the time.
Both these changes are important. They make visible and explicit the Red Sox’s stated commitment to anti-racism work and ensuring that all fans feel welcome at Fenway. There are far too many examples of monuments to problematic—if not downright violent—people that are kept in place with hollow arguments about history. It’s why many Southern states have Confederate monuments still standing, why highways and schools are still named for Jefferson Davis, why Columbus Day is still a US holiday despite the fact that the man colonized, raped, and committed genocide of indigenous people.
People can—and should—take a page from the Red Sox and the City of Boston when it comes to moving past a name and an honor that serves no positive function.
There has been momentum in the fight against bigotry in Boston sports since around 2017, after an incident in which then-Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was the target of racial slurs while playing at Fenway. That prompted DigBoston’s reporting on the racism of Boston sports fandom, which was likely a catalyst for the team requesting the Yawkey Way renaming. Around that time, Boston’s pro sports teams also debuted their Take the Lead initiative, with the Red Sox spearheading a commendable anti-racism and discrimination PSA that is played before every game at Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, and TD Garden.
Nevertheless, recent progress comes as the Boston sports world is marred by yet another incident in which a fan engaged in racist harassment of an opposing player. Suggesting that beyond the Take the Lead video promotion, the initiative has been fairly toothless. Last week it came to light that a Celtics fan was ejected from a January 26 game and banned for two years for directing a racial slur at Golden State Warriors player DeMarcus Cousins (the Red Sox banned a fan for life for using the same slur). The Celtics failed to publicly address the incident at the time, and a two-year suspension is a tepid punishment for an inexcusable offense.
Meanwhile, the sports talk radio station (and Red Sox broadcast partner) WEEI has followed the same disappointing pattern that it usually does. While the network has added the much-needed nuance of Evan Drellich, who last weekend noted that if someone has an issue with Boston being labeled a racist city, they are the problem, WEEI also debuted San Diego-based host Dan Sileo in his new Saturday afternoon spot. On-air last Saturday, Sileo said, “Sometimes people drop the N-bomb. That doesn’t necessarily make you a racist.” He also argued with a Black caller about their experience of racism, and accused Black broadcasters like Jason Whitlock and Stephen A. Smith of “race-baiting.”
In 2013, Sileo was fired from a Miami radio station for tweeting out a bounty on a Florida State University football player. For a network that recently reworked its morning show, losing longtime controversial host Kirk Minihane and committing to focusing more on sports and less on controversy since recently losing some major sponsors and signing off the air for a whole day to host a mandatory staff sensitivity training, it’s a baffling addition to their lineup.
It’s important to recognize the progress being made, and to keep pushing for change. But there’s still farther to go. If Boston sports enthusiasts are angry that the city continues to be tarnished by a bad reputation for bigoted fans, perhaps their anger’s misdirected. Instead, they should be mad at fans and residents who continue to perpetuate that image, confirming that there is still more work to be done here.