Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Tom Yawkey, Race, and the Smoking Gun
On April 16, 1945 the Red Sox held their infamous tryout of Jackie Robinson. For the next fourteen years - and for some years beyond it - the question of race during the tenure of Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey loomed over the Red Sox franchise as palpably as the Green Monster. While it is undeniable that the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, since that time there have always been apologists – both in the press and among Red Sox fans – who have sought somehow to explain away the franchise’s long-standing recalcitrance and failure to put a black ballplayer on the field.
[NOTE: IN THE WAKE OF THE RED SOX DECISION TO CONSIDER RENAMING YAWKEY WAY, THIS POST HAS BEEN UNDATED AND APPEARS IN THE SPETEMBER 2017 ISSUE THE UPDATED VERSION APPEARS HERE: https://verbplow.blogspot.com/2017/09/tomyawkey-race-and-smoking-gun-ii.html]
History has tended to place the blame squarely upon Yawkey. He was, after all, the man at the top and the one figure in the franchise who could have integrated the Red Sox in an instant, yet he did not. But some have argued, both before and after the Red Sox finally put Pumpsie Green on the field in July of 1959, that not only was Yawkey not bigoted, but that he, in fact, wanted to have African American on the team, and that the failure lay elsewhere, either among the organization’s scouts, or the structure of its southern-based minor league system, or upon others in the organization, from general managers Eddie Collins and Joe Cronin, to manager and general manager Pinky Higgins.
The late Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough was among Yawkey’s most staunch defenders and his arguments are representative of those who believe Yawkey bears little responsibility over the issue. In 1986, after the club had fired coach Tommy Harper and Harper filed a successful suit through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, McDonough rushed to defend Yawkey, writing that “They smear the man and his memory with the legacy of Pumpsie Green and Tommy Harper.... I knew Tom Yawkey, the Man to whom they trace all of this alleged racist history. I never thought he was racist. But I wasn't as close to him as Joe Cronin and Dick O'Connell were. These two former Sox general managers knew him as well as anyone in Boston. Over the years, I asked both if Yawkey ever suggested they do anything racist. The answer was no." In 1991, after Globe reporter Steve Fainaru authored a three-part series on race and the Red Sox, McDonough once again distilled the issue question down to a question of who within the organization "was racist," as if that was the only question worth asking. He attacked Fainaru's story and sought the name of a racist who had ever worked in the organization, asking, "Was it late owner Tom Yawkey, or his widow Jean who now controls the organization, was it a series of general managers–Joe Cronin, Pinky Higgins, Dick O'Connell and Lou Gorman? Are we to believe it is the scouting department ...? Once again, no names.... Yawkey was so sensitive to the Jackie Robinson issue and criticism of the Sox' lack of blacks that he wanted them on his team."
A decade later, following the publication of Red Sox Century, a comprehensive survey history of the club this author co-wrote with Richard Johnson that addressed the racial question head on, McDonough again went on the offensive, calling me at home and scoffing at the notion that racism ever played any part in the history of the team or that Tom Yawkey played any role in the fact that the Red Sox waited fourteen years after Robinson integrated baseball to put a black player on the field at Fenway Park. "The only problem the Red Sox have ever had with blacks," he said to this author, "was finding blacks who could play. All right?"
A few years later Howard Bryant’s book Shutout, a comprehensive look at the question, appeared to be final word on the subject. Yet both Bryant and I have continued to hear periodically from those who steadfastly hold to the notion that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey is blameless and continue to ask for evidence that goes beyond the circumstantial. Most ask essentially the same question. “Where,” I have been asked, in a variety of ways and in a variety of forums that range from letters and e-mails sent directly to me to anonymous message board postings, “is the evidence, the smoking gun, the definitive statement the exposes Tom Yawkey as a racist?” Indeed, Yawkey himself rarely spoke about the matter himself on the record, and, like other club owners at the time, was careful not to leave any written record of his attitude in regard to race. While I have always offered that the evidence, the so-called “smoking gun” was in plain view, on the playing field for every day of the fourteen years between Robinson’s tryout and Green’s appearance, some who still choose to view Tom Yawkey as some kind of benevolent, lovable old coot and defend him as a “man of his times” have clung to the lack of this supposed “evidence” as evidence in itself of both Yawkey’s innocence and that of the Red Sox franchise itself.
This past week, while researching another topic, I came across an article in the June 28, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated written by Jack Mann entitled “The Great Wall of Boston.” I am embarrassed to note that the article has somehow escaped me over the twenty years I have spent periodically mining Red Sox history (and, apparently, virtually everyone else, for I have not seen it cited elsewhere in regard to this issue). But now that I have read it I feel I must correct the record: For those who need one, it provides the smoking gun.
Mann, who died in March of 2000, was a staff writer at Sports Illustrated and his article presents an overview of then recent Red Sox history, offering that the main reason the team has failed to compete for a pennant for more than a decade is because of the left field wall, because the Red Sox, as a franchise, have sought to build a team to take advantage of the wall, and as a result have been unable to win on the road. That observation is hardly unique, but Mann, a thorough reporter, entertains other possibilities. He interviewed Yawkey and explored some of these other reasons, such as Yawkey’s misplaced loyalty, which caused him to hang onto favored players for too long and hire old cronies as scouts, many of who simply received checks and did no scouting at all.
But Mann also brought up the question of race to Yawkey, and the owner responded with his most telling- and damning - statement ever.
“One way to win,” wrote Mann of the Red Sox, “is to have the best players. The Red Sox did in 1946, but coincidentally that was the year Jackie Robinson—who had been tried in Fenway Park and found wanting—played his first year in organized (white) baseball. In the parade of Larry Dobys and Roy Campanellas and Elston Howards that followed, the Red Sox brought up the rear. Brooks Lawrence had pitched and won for five years in such pseudo-southern cities as St. Louis and Cincinnati before Pumpsie Green became the Red Sox' first Negro big leaguer in 1959. Writes Mann:
It is easy now for Bostonian critics, seeking a policy man behind such a self-defeating pattern, to point fingers at Mike Higgins, an unreconstructed Texan with classically Confederate views on Negroes, but it is too easy. Higgins, who did not become field manager until 1955 and did not take a desk in the front office until late 1962, could hardly have been the Caucasian in the woodpile.
Then Mann allows Tom Yawkey to weigh in on the subject:
"They blame me,” Yawkey says, ‘and I'm not even a Southerner. I'm from Detroit.” Yawkey remains on his South Carolina fief until May because Boston weather before then is too much for his sensitive sinuses. “I have no feeling against colored people,” he says. “I employ a lot of them in the South. 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. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn't want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer."
Read the statement closely, for it tells us everything we need to know.
Yawkey first tries to throw his Southern employees under the bus, by intimating that because he is from Detroit, he is obviously not a racist, and that because they are from the South, they presumably are. But he doesn’t stop there.
He next offers that he has no feelings against African Americans, and as evidence cites the facts that he employs African Americans on his South Carolina estate, a former plantation. But that is hardly the equivalent of putting a ball player on a major league field. After all, in their own way, even slave owners “employed” African Americans.
But then comes the first of two smoking guns: “But they are clannish,” Mann quotes Yawkey as saying of African Americans, “and when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club.”
No single sentence could be more revealing – or more pathetic. First Yawkey offers that all African Americans share the same characteristics – in this case, being “clannish.” That kind of stereotyping is damning enough, but when he states that “when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club,” he is in fantasy land. Yawkey is making the claim that the reason the Red Sox remained white is the fault of the black ballplayers themselves. He is saying nothing less than “African Americans erroneously thought we were racist so therefore they refused to sign with us.”
The notion that an African American ballplayer in the late 1940s and 1950s would turn down an offer to sign with any major league team over any issue, even money, sounded spurious to me, and in a survey of the Negro League history books that I have in my possession, I could find no such accounting. But I wanted to be sure.
I contacted my friend Lawrence Hogan, a Professor of History at Union College in New Jersey, one of the foremost Negro League historians in the country and the author of Shades of Glory, published by National Geographic and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a book which has been referred to as a definitive history of Black baseball in America. In an e-mail I asked him, “Are you aware of any Negro League players, from the time Robinson signed to the late 1950s, who turned down offers from major league teams to remain in the Negro Leagues?” I asked specifically if he had ever heard of such a claim in regard to a player refusing to sign with the Red Sox.
The answer is no. Wrote Hogan, “I have never heard even the slightest suggestion of either thing you mention happening. I am sure there were players good enough to be signed who were not because of the glacial pace of integration. But I can ot imagine any Negro League player turning down an offer, other than on the normal personal grounds of not enough money being offered, or wanting to get on with life in a non-baseball way.”
But that is not all. Upon examination, Yawkey’s final statement - “We scouted them right along, but we didn't want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer," might be the most telling statement of all. For if we follow Yawkey’s logic – “We looked for black ballplayers but we wanted talent first and foremost” – then compare it to the fact that from the time of Robinson’s signing through July of 1959 the Red Sox neither put an African player on the major league field who they signed themselves nor traded for one, the conclusion is inescapable: Tom Yawkey and his organization simply did not believe that any African American ballplayer had the talent to play for the Red Sox. This, despite the fact that they were playing on every other team in baseball, and that by 1959 there were dozens and dozens of African Americans winning championships, winning Cy Young awards and MVP awards and playing on All-Star teams throughout the major leagues, players like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe and many, many, many more. But none, apparently, were good enough for Boston. “We wanted ballplayers,” indeed.
There is your “smoking gun” - in his own words. Decades after they were first uttered, you can still detect the stench.
[Note: I have tried to keep this story contained to the question of Tom Yawkey and the statement cited from Sport Illustrated, rather than go through another full explication of the Red Sox organizations racial history. Further information on that topic can be found in some of the the sources cited below.]
Howard Bryant, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (Boston, 2002)
Lawrence Hogan, e-mail message to Glenn Stout, November 17, 2009
Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, Red Sox Century (Boston, 2000)
Glenn Stout. “Tryout and Fallout: Race, Jackie Robinson and the Red Sox,” Massachusetts Historical Review, Volume 6, 2004.
Will McDonough, "Ticket Increase at Fenway Shouldn't Raise Fan's Ire," Boston Globe, Dec. 2, 2000 (contains McDonoughs and John Harington’s criticism of Red Sox century and defense of Yawkey).
Will McDonough, "Sox Racist? Says Who? Harper Case No Proof," Boston Globe, Apr. 17, 1986.
This story also appears in its entireity on my website, www.glennstout.net
(Copyright 2009 by Glenn Stout. All rights reserved.)