Tom Yawkey has long been considered by some to be a blemish on Boston’s history, and a group of legislators are stepping in to do something about it. Yawkey, who owned the Red Sox from 1933 to 1976, has the famed street to the west of Fenway Park named after him, as well as the MBTA commuter rail station near the ballpark. A new bill is petitioning to have the name of the station changed to something that is “consistent with and reflects the values of the commonwealth.”
The bill is sponsored by Reps. Ruth B. Balser of Newton and Byron Rushing of Boston. The full text of the measure is not yet online, but was provided to DigBoston.
“I think [the proposed bill] makes perfect sense,” says Segun Idowu, a racial justice organizer and co-organizer for Boston Police Camera Action Team. “I’m confused how it’s named ‘Yawkey’ anyway, in light of what we know about him.” In fact, in a Thursday story in the Boston Herald, Red Sox principal owner John Henry is quoted as saying the franchise should lead the effort to rename Yawkey Way, saying the club is still “haunted” by the former owner’s legacy.
Yawkey the man’s history, like that of many others, is complicated. He was a philanthropist whose foundations have given a great deal of money to cancer research and treatment in the City of Boston, including building the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He also donated 20,000 acres of land in South Carolina as a wildlife preserve upon his death.
But under Yawkey, the Red Sox were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, not signing Pumpsie Green until 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the league. And, while it’s not confirmed who yelled a racial slur in the direction of Black players, including Robinson, who worked out before the team in 1945, it is speculated that the words came from Yawkey.
In a 1965 Sports Illustrated interview, Yawkey lamented that people blamed him for the Red Sox’s slow move to integration, and attempted to defend himself against the charges. “I have no feeling against colored people… But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn’t want Negroes, they all decided to sign with some other club,” he told the magazine. “Actually, we scouted them all along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro, we wanted a ballplayer.”
The Yawkey commuter rail stop was opened on April 29, 1988. Used initially only for special service to Fenway Park on game days, it was used by trains on the Framingham Line, as well as by “Fenway Flyer” trains on the Attleboro (now Providence/Stoughton) and Franklin Lines. Regular commuter service began in 2001, and in 2014 the MBTA re-opened it as a brand new, full-service station on the Framingham/Worcester Line.
Today, Yawkey Station is a beautiful sight to behold. It’s futuristic, majestic, and sparkling. Visible from the Mass Pike, you can’t help but notice it as you drive by. But some people argue that its name tarnishes the gorgeous new infrastructure.
When the renovated and expanded station debuted in 2014, Larry Lucchino, then-president and chief executive officer of the Boston Red Sox, told the Boston Globe, “The renovated Yawkey Way commuter rail station and the expanded Worcester-Framingham rail schedule will have a profound impact on many of our fans who use public transportation.”
But for some Massachusetts residents and baseball fans, seeing Tom Yawkey’s name honored with its own station has a profoundly negative impact on them. Day in and day out, the station serves as a reminder not only of Boston’s racist history, but of the fact that the city and state are still willing to celebrate people who engaged in racist and oppressive behavior.
Idowu says that while renaming these significant points in Boston where people gather is important, it is also important that legislators are not just focusing on symbols.
“If this bill says it wants to make sure our symbols are consistent with Massachusetts values, my hope is if it passes, they will also pass legislation that is in line with those values, like prison reform and [bills to support communities of color in the marijuana industry],” he says. “I think the communities who would be offended and brought down by the symbols we have up, these same communities are also tired of only being given symbolic victories. Let’s also make sure people of color are not being discriminated against in the transportation realm when we file transportation bills.”
This bill, filed long before the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, becomes incredibly prescient to the ongoing conversation around whether there is a place for things like Confederate monuments and symbols that honor people with racist history in this country. As Boston prepares for white supremacists to descend on the city for a “Free Speech Rally” this weekend, we have an opportunity to examine who we want to be and what legacy we want to present to the world. Taking a hard look at who our monuments and streets and public stations are named for is one way of doing that.
If the bill is approved, a special commission would be assigned to create a new name for the station. The commission would include a wide array of people, including a representative for the Secretary of Transportation, people appointed by both the House and Senate, a racial justice expert, someone from the Fenway neighborhood community, someone from the Boston NAACP, and someone from the Red Sox organization, among others. Zineb Curren, Senior Director of Corporate Communications for the Red Sox, told DigBoston that the team is “aware of the bill, and since it has not passed, there is no committee or participation from the club at this time.”
“There’s a fair number of people who are very concerned with the history of Mr. Yawkey,” the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Balser told DigBoston. “There is considerable evidence that Yawkey was resistant to integrate the Red Sox… A state overseen railway station should be named for someone more reflective of Massachusetts’ values.”