Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tom Yawkey, Race, and the Smoking Gun II

(as published in Boston Baseball September 2017)


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 continue to be apologists – both in the press and among Red Sox fans – who sought somehow to explain away the franchise’s long-standing recalcitrance and failure to put a black ballplayer on the field.

Most recently, in the wake of John Henry’s desire to see Yawkey Way renamed, some have chosen to revisit an issue the Red Sox organization has long viewed as decided. In one example, Yawkey biographer Bill Nowlin recently told the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, “I never once found any evidence that Yawkey was personally racist... I looked for a smoking gun, and couldn’t find one.”

Time and again, others have asked this same question, as history has tended to place the blame squarely upon Yawkey, the man at the top and the one figure in the franchise who could have integrated the Red Sox in an instant, yet did not. They argue that not only was Yawkey not personally bigoted, but that the failure lay elsewhere, either among the organization’s scouts, 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.

There is a long tradition of Yawkey defenders. In 1986 the late Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough rushed to defend Yawkey after coach Tommy Harper filed a successful suit with the EEOC, 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 again distilled the issue down to the matter of who within the organization "was racist," as if that was the only question worth 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....”

A little more than a decade later, following the publication of “Red Sox Century,” a history of the club this author co-wrote with Richard Johnson that addressed the racial issue head on, McDonough again went on the offensive, calling me at home. "The only problem the Red Sox have ever had with blacks," he said to me, "was finding blacks who could play, alright?"

A few years later Howard Bryant’s book “Shut Out,” a comprehensive look at the question, appeared to be final word on the subject, pointing out the long-term impact, including the teams’ continued recalcitrance even after Yawkey’s death to sign African American free agents, a pattern that has ended under Henry. Yet some still hold Yawkey blameless and continue to ask “Where is the evidence, the smoking gun, the definitive act or statement the exposes Tom Yawkey as a racist?” Yawkey himself rarely spoke about the matter himself on the record and did not leave a written record of his attitude in regard to race. They prefer to focus on anecdotes that speak to his private interactions and the charitable contributions the Yawkey Foundation has made long after his death rather than the indisputable comportment of the organization under his leadership, as if one cancels out the other.

I have long believed that the only evidence that mattered was in plain view on the playing field for every day of the fourteen years between Robinson’s tryout and Green’s appearance. But for those who disagree, consider Jack Mann’s Sports Illustrated feature, “The Great Wall of Boston,” published on June 28, 1965.

Mann, who died in March of 2000, was a staff writer at Sports Illustrated and offered that the main reason the team had recently failed to compete for a pennant was because the Red Sox, as a franchise, had sought to build a team to take advantage of the wall and were therefore unable to win on the road. But Mann admitted other possibilities, 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 broached the question of race with Yawkey directly, something local sportswriters historically neglected.

“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… 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.

The owner responded with statements both telling and damning:

"They blame me,” Yawkey says, “and I'm not even a Southerner. I'm from Detroit… 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."

That statement is telling.

Yawkey first assigns blame to his Southern employees, intimating that because he was born in 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, citing the fact that he employs African Americans on his 20,000 acre South Carolina estate, a former plantation. But that is hardly the equivalent of putting a ball player on a major league field, and as late as 1959 the Sox employed none in any capacity on or off the field, not even as vendors.

But if you need one, then comes the first smoking gun: “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. First Yawkey clearly believes that all African Americans share the same characteristic – in this case, being “clannish,” the kind of dubious stereotyping that has been used to provide a moral justification for segregation. But when he states “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, blaming the African American ballplayers themselves. He is saying, in effect, that “because African Americans erroneously thought we were racist, 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 for any reason sounded spurious to me, and in a survey of the Negro League history books I could find no such accounting. But I wanted to be sure and since then have broached the question to a number of baseball historians asking, “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?” and if any had heard of such a claim in regard to a player refusing to sign with the Red Sox.

The answer is “no.” None could recall a single instance of a player turning down an offer to sign with a major league team when such an offer was made – before free agency no player of any color could choose their employer. Wrote Lawrence Hogan, 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, “I have never heard even the slightest suggestion of either thing you mention happening... I cannot 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.”

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. For if we follow Yawkey’s logic – “We looked for black ballplayers but we wanted talent first and foremost” – then consider that from the time of Robinson’s signing to July of 1959, the Red Sox neither put an African American player on the major league field that they signed themselves nor even traded for one already in the majors.

The conclusion is inescapable: Against all evidence to the contrary, Yawkey and his organization refused to admit that any black ballplayer had enough 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 nearly nine percent of all players in MLB were African American, winning championships, winning Cy Young awards and MVP awards and playing on All-Star teams, players like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe and many, many, many more. None, apparently, were good enough for Boston. “We wanted a ballplayer,” indeed. And the result of that was on the field, and in the standings for decades.

There, in his own words, if you need one, is a “smoking gun” Decades after they were first uttered, the echoes still resound around Fenway Park.

[Note: Adapted and condensed from a 2009 blog post which appears in slightly different form here: Further information on the Red Sox organization’s racial history and sources cited can be found below.]

Howard Bryant, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (Boston, 2002)

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 McDonough’s and John Harrington’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.

Glenn Stout is series editor of The Best American Sports Writing.