For Red Sox, Black History Month is about vital education
Published in Baseball
When Black History Month began Feb. 1, the Red Sox unveiled a new page on their website to “celebrate and recognize the contributions of our Black players and alumni,” with new content throughout February.
The hub includes activity pages and videos, including several about Jackie Robinson and Pumpsie Green, the team’s first Black player.
In partnership with the Red Sox Foundation, the Sox are offering free admission and tours of the Museum of African American History in Boston and Nantucket from Feb. 21-26. Fenway Park Tours this month will also have a special focus on the club’s Black history.
But as they strive to be a more equal, inclusive ball club, the Sox are fighting a battle against their former selves. They will always be the last team to integrate at the big-league level; Green became their first Black player in 1959, 12 years after Robinson became MLB’s first. And Green’s debut only happened after the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination conducted an investigation and held public hearings.
Thank Tom Yawkey for that.
Over a decade before, the Sox owner had the chance to sign Robinson and integrate baseball first, in 1945. He chose to finish last, instead.
In 1950, he could have purchased the contract of a 17-year-old Negro Leagues star named Willie Mays for only $4,500. He passed on Mays, too. Decades later, Mays famously lamented to Ted Williams, “We should have played together.”
Yawkey purchased the team in 1933, and after he and his wife passed away, team control went into the Yawkey Trust, where it remained until current ownership purchased the club in 2002. The Robinson famously called Yawkey “the most bigoted man in baseball.”
Over the years, people have tried to come to Yawkey’s defense by making various points: that he was a product of his time, that the Sox were actually the first team in the majors to have a Mexican-born player (Mel Almada debuted in 1933), that he was a charitable person and that the Yawkey Foundation continues to make a huge difference in New England.
All of those things are at least partially true, but the fact remains that as the sole owner of the team, Yawkey had the final say on everything, and when it came to integrating, the Sox only capitulated when under duress by a government agency.
If Yawkey was not overtly racist, as his defenders maintain, he was, at the very least, complicit in and unbothered by his team’s enduring racism. In 1965, he told Sports Illustrated that he had “no feeling against colored people,” and tried to claim that it was actually the Black players who chose to sign with other clubs because they thought the Sox didn’t want them. Even if that had truly been the case, he had clearly been in no rush to change that perception, and as a result, his teams were worse than they needed to be, to say nothing of the racist reputation that flourished as a result.
There is no way around any of it, no way to erase what’s already been written in permanent marker. The Sox don’t have a DeLorean to drive into the past and change Yawkey’s mind. They can remove his name from the street — and did so, in 2019 — but they cannot undo the damage of their predecessors; the only way is forward.
After principal owner John Henry admitted that Yawkey’s legacy still “haunted” him in 2017, the Sox made a successful bid to return Yawkey Way, the street that borders the right side of the diamond, to its original name, Jersey Street.
At the time, the Yawkey Foundation issued a statement decrying “the effort to expunge” their namesake “based on a false narrative.” They called the change a “drastic step” that would “give lasting credence to that narrative and unfairly tarnish his name.”
And if the Sox were only trying to erase Yawkey’s name — as if that could erase the worst parts of club history — the foundation would have been somewhat correct. But over the last several years, the Sox have worked to move beyond their unfortunate legacy by acknowledging and confronting the problem, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.
In May 2017, Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones told reporters that fans had hurled racial epithets and a bag of peanuts at him during the game. The Sox issued a public apology and strong condemnation the following morning, and Henry met with Jones. In the next game, Jones received a standing ovation from the crowd at Fenway.
In June 2020, Torii Hunter revealed to ESPN radio that he’d stipulated no-trade clauses to Boston in each contract of his career, noting that he’d “always wanted to play for them,” but that he’d “been called the N-word in Boston a hundred times” and understandably, did not want to experience that for 81+ games each year. The Sox were quick to issue a statement of support, tweeting, “Torii Hunter’s experience is real. If you doubt him because you’ve never heard it yourself, take it from us, it happens.”
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