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Remembering Tom Yawkey

With the news out everywhere that the Boston Red Sox have filed a petition with the city of Boston to rename Yawkey Way, a road outside Fenway Park named after Tom Yawkey, who reportedly resisted integration efforts in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The goal is to restore the original name of the street, Jersey Street.

Red Sox owner John Henry admitted the Red Sox did not have the power to change the name of a city street, but he believed Yawkey Way should be renamed. He said was “haunted” by the name.

Born on February 21, 1903 in Detroit, Tom Yawkey died on July 9, 1976 in Boston.  His mother was an heir to the Yawkey lumber and mining fortune. When she died, Tom was adopted by his uncle, William Hoover Yawkey, then-owner of the Detroit Tigers. At the age of 16, Yawkey inherited $20 million. Fourteen years later, he purchased the Boston Red Sox for $1 million in 1923.

It was not the sale but the buyer who attracted the attention of Boston’s newspaper men, a 30-year-old with a fortune estimated to be more than $40-million. They thought he was too young to have that kind of money. “He’s just a kid,” wrote one wizened scribe who couldn’t believe the news.

The “kid” who at first would be called “Tom” and later on in his ownership tenure always “Mr. Yawkey,” was heir to an enormous timber and mining fortune. He would never own a home in Boston. His time would be spent at Fenway Park, in a suite between May and October at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton, in an apartment at New York’s Pierre, or on a 40,000-acre game preserve off the coast of South Carolina where he enjoyed hunting and fishing and entertaining guests  between October and April.

Most thought that Yawkey had been taken, paying more than a million dollars for one of the worst teams in baseball and a decaying Fenway Park.

Over the next 44 seasons, Yawkey was the face of the franchise, a man who lost an estimated $10 million attempting to develop championship teams.

The young Yawkey hired veteran Edward Trowbridge Collins, Sr. the storied former second baseman and veteran baseball man as General Manager and Vice President, giving him the responsibility of transforming the sorry Red Sox into a contender and raising attendance at Fenway Park. The goals seemed wishful thinking especially in the middle of the Great Depression, but no one ever accused Yawkey of thinking small.

BILL WERBER:  In May 1933, when I came as a third baseman to the Red Sox from the Yankees, I met with Tom Yawkey about salary. It was for about $2,000 less than what I’d been earning— big money back then. But I signed at his figure. He was the owner.

Then, in a game , I ran after a high foul ball into the Yankee dugout. I missed the first step and went down on my back in the dugout with all the Yankees hollering at me.  But I caught the ball.

After the game was over, Johnny Orlando, the clubhouse boy, said that Mr.  Yawkey wanted to see me in his office.

“Bill,” he said to me, “that was the damndest catch I’ve seen in quite a while: you lying on your back with all those Yankees yelling. I am putting the money you wanted back in your contract.”

MONSIGNOR THOMAS  J.  DALY: I was an office boy in the front office from 1942 until 1946. I worked from 10 in the morning until the conclusion of the game for $2.50 a game. For a doubleheader I got $3.75. 

I met Tom Yawkey.  To an office boy he was rather formidable, of course. He would come every day to the ballgame and speak with Mr. Edward Collins, the Vice- President/General Manager. Mr. Yawkey was rather relaxed in the way he dressed, high informal.

Fenway Green was the color they used in the ballpark. It came from a paint company in Malden, Mass. There was a  commotion when they announced that they weren’t going to produce that paint any more, that green.

So Mr. Yawkey promptly bought the paint company. That made sure that that famous green would continue.

BOO FERRIS:  I was a rookie pitcher. My first-year salary was seven hundred dollars a month.  Since I was there five months in ’45, I got $3,500. 

After the season was over, Mr. Yawkey called me into his office. I wasn’t nervous.  He was an easy man to talk to.   He handed me a check – a bonus –   $10,000.

I’d thought I had robbed Fort Knox.    I took the check to the bank back in my hometown of Mississippi, where I grew up.

MEL PARNELL: It truly impressed me as a rookie pitcher to see Mr. Yawkey on the field taking batting practice with us.  I didn’t see him hit any balls out, but he got some close to the wall. The kids who worked around the ballpark would shag flies for him. When he was done, he would give each one a twenty-dollar bill.

The Red Sox’s longtime owner was never enthusiastic about night baseball. As The Boston Globe’s Hy Hurwitz reported, “Yawkey is strictly in the baseball business” and added that Yawkey didn’t “believe in fashion shows, nylon hosiery, door prizes and other nonsense.”

Finally, bowing to League pressure, Yawkey agreed to 14 night games, two with each American League team. The Red Sox became the last club in their league to play under the lights at home.

In 1947, Fenway Park seating capacity increased by 500 to 35,500 – the first increase from 1912’s 35,000.  More importantly, arc lights were installed making the BoSox the 13th big league team to light up its home park. That same year, The two-hundred-and-forty feet wide left field wall was painted with multiple coats of green paint. Tom Yawkey gave the green light to cover up advertising billboards. It was then that the nickname “The Green Monster” was first heard.

The Calvert Owl (“Be Wise”), Gem Blades (“Avoid 5 O’clock Shadow”), Lifebuoy (“The Red Sox use it”) and Vimms (“Get that Vimms feeling”) were now  history.

One thing Tom Yawkey held firm to was not integrating his Red Sox. Each season, his team had routinely received a waiver from the Boston City Council permitting them to play Sunday baseball. Now Councilman Isadore Muchnick, who represented the Mattapan section of Boston, teamed with African-American journalist Wendell Smith.  They had an offer for Tom Yawkey that they knew he could not refuse. A trade, of sorts.

For the BoSox to keep the long-held waiver going, the team would have to allow three black baseball prospects to try out at Fenway Park.

Yawkey, as the story was reported later, very reluctantly agreed to the tryouts of Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams and Sam Jethroe but only the condition decisions about them would be the province of his baseball people.

Black ballplayers from the Negro Leagues from time to time had  played at Fenway when the Red Sox were on the road. The color barrier was firmly in effect at this time, but owners thought nothing of picking up some spare change through this business arrangement. Now they would have chance to break the big club’s color line at Fenway Park, or so was the understanding.

April 16, 1945 began damp and drizzly. At about 10:00 A.M. Muchnick and Smith were in the stands watching as the tryout was getting underway.  Just back from army service in World War II, Jackie Robinson was set to play with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League that season.  Marvin Williams was a member of the Philadelphia Stars. Sam Jethroe was an outfielder for the Cleveland Buckeyes.
Red Sox Manager Joe Cronin sat in the stands, according to one account, “stone-faced.” Eddie Collins, the general manager, reportedly was unable to attend the tryout “because of a previous engagement.”

Near the end of their one-hour workout, according to Clifford Keane, reporter for the Boston Globe,  someone called out, “Get those niggers off the field!”

Boston Red Sox immortal and Coach Hugh Duffy, 78, was one of those who conducted the workouts. Later that year he would be inducted into the Baseball  Hall of Fame.

“You boys look like pretty good players,” he was quoted as saying. “I hope you enjoyed the workout.”  Later he remarked: “After one workout, it was not possible to judge  their ability.”

When the tryout was over, Jackie Robinson said: “It was April, 1945. Nobody was serious about black players in the majors, except maybe for a few politicians.”

According to United Press International, Jethroe and Williams “seemed tense and both their hitting and fielding suffered.”                 According to the Red Sox front office, the players were not ready for the majors and would not be comfortable playing for the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky.

According to Sam Jethroe, the entire experience was “a sham.”  The Red Sox front office would never contact the players.

There was a need for players with the abilities of Jethroe, Robinson and Williams. As the 1945 baseball season began and the war still raged, Major League rosters were stocked with not quite ready for prime time players, a few underage ones and quite a few who were long in the tooth. But the game went on at Fenway Park in 1945 and other big league venues, as it had always gone on, only with white players.

FRANK SULLIVAN:  I went up from pitching in A – ball in  ‘53. I was 23. I saw buck shot wounds all over the walls and learned that Ted Williams was out shooting pigeons in the park. I heard Yawkey also shot along with him.

In 1959, the Sox became the last team to break baseball’s color line. It was a dozen years after Jackie Robinson did it with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Some claim the racism with the Red Sox came not from Yawkey but from his general managers, his managers. That claim will be explored in detail in this book.

PUMPSIE GREEN: I was the first African-American there. The Red Sox got me a room in a hotel. I didn’t even know if I had to pay for it or not. I got to meet Mr. Yawkey the second day that I was in Boston. He was a very gentle, short, round man. He said he wanted to get to know me, and wished me well.

“If you run into any problems or need any advice on something, you don’t have to go to the coaches or manager. Come directly to me,” he said. I thanked him, and we shook hands.

My first night in Boston was July 24. Fenway Park just felt small.  Even Minneapolis, where I played for two years, seemed bigger. There was now more media pressure than ever.  “I can’t fail. I can’t make a mistake.” That was how I felt.

On Tuesday August 4th,   Green, 25, batted leadoff, played second base and made his Fenway Park debut in the first game of a doubleheader against Kansas City.  Boston won 4-1.

PUMPSIE GREEN: There was such a crowd, the park was full. A lot of blacks wanted to come to the game. They didn’t have seats, but they were accommodated. The Red Sox roped off a corner part of centerfield.

I got a rousing ovation when I got up to the plate – a standing ovation.  I can remember thinking to myself, “I really don’t want to strike out right now. I really want to hit the ball.” I tripled off the wall. 

I made good friends on that team — Pete Runnels, Frank Malzone.  Jackie Jensen and also Ted Williams. They were fellow Californians. Williams was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met around baseball or any other time. He’d say ‘Hey,  Pumps, let’s go warm up.’ Me warming up with Ted Williams. I loved it.

Some people said he was making a statement. But it wasn’t just he who befriended me; it was he and a bunch of the guys. It was just that after the ball diamond, they went their way and I went my way.

FRANK MALZONE: I used to marvel at the way Tom Yawkey came around to say hello to everybody. They say he sat up in his box and not only watched our game but had two TVs going on watching two other games.  This is how much he loved baseball.  

BILL LEE: I pitched all summer and came in to the ballpark in the winter to get my mail at Fenway Park. Mr. Yawkey was always stealing my National Geographics.  I had to go up to his office to get them; he was going through chemotherapy at the time.  We had long talks.

Attendance on July 8, 1976 reached 1‚007‚491, the earliest date to that time the franchise topped the million mark. The next day brought the announcement that an ailing Tom Yawkey had died of leukemia at age 73 in New England Baptist Hospital. Team ownership was then taken over by a trust headed by his widow, Jean.

One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan,Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer has written several books on the Red Sox. .

A professor for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine. He’s also the founder of

Harvey Frommer
I'm the author of 10 books. If you're looking for autographed copies just go to my Twitter @Sportsology and DM me.

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