The Ethics of Bigotry, Part III:Tom Yawkey’s Red Sox Racism, and How Not to Prove It

Tom Yawkey owned the Boston Red Sox for four decades and his wife Jean owned them for one more; it is accurate to say that he was the most influential individual in the storied team’s existence. Yawkey bought the team in the mid-Thirties, after it had suffered through one of the worse stretches of awful play on record, sparked by an earlier owner’s fire sale of its best players, including Babe Ruth. Yawkey ran the Red Sox with an open checkbook and a stated objective of giving the city of Boston the best championship money could buy. Soon the once-pathetic team was fielding all-time greats like Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, Lefty Grove, and a brash young phenom named Ted Williams. By the time Yawkey died in 1976, the Red Sox had one of the largest, most loyal and fanatic fan bases in sports, and the team was entrenched in New England culture. Boston remains properly grateful, and the re-naming of the street outside Fenway Park “Yawkey Way” is no perfunctory tribute. (The names of Yawkey and his wife Jean are spelled out, vertically,  in Morse Code on the famous hand-operated scoreboard on Fenway Park’s left field wall.

The Red Sox came close, but they never won that World Championship under Yawkey.  One of the primary reasons was that the Yawkey way was racist. Bolstered by the undertone of racial apartheid that long was otherwise-liberal Boston’s dirty little secret,  Yawkey’s Red Sox neither sought nor signed African-American players until the team’s all-white roster became an embarrassment. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in 1947, had been retired for three years before the team fielded its first black player in 1959, making the Red Sox the very last baseball team to integrate. Pumpsie Green was the token black player’s name, and he had to play for a manager, Yawkey pal Mike Higgins, who was an unrepentant southern racist who could have stepped into Rod Steiger’s  “In the Heat of the Night”role without an acting coach. Thanks to Higgins, with Yawkey’s support, the Red Sox never had significant black representation  until 1966.  The next season, it won the pennant.

Because Yawkey did many good things for Boston, its baseball team, and the community (he was a major supporter of the Jimmy Fund, for example)  the subject of his racism is a delicate one. Some Yawkey admirers still dispute it, but there really is no denying the facts or their obvious meaning. While the Red Sox were declining in the late Forties and Fifties, Yawkey had well-documented opportunities to sign great black players like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, yet somehow couldn’t see past their skin color. Higgins was prone to using racist slurs, yet Yawkey not only kept him on as manager for several years, he promoted him to general manager, guaranteeing a team policy of “blacks need not apply.”

I didn’t think there remained any controversy about Yawkee’s racism, but sportswriter Glenn Stout thinks so, and he has been more involved in the issue than I. He has written a post on his blog in which he purports to end the debate for good, citing a “smoking gun,” a 1965 Yawkey interview. Stout argues that this statement by Yawkey, in response to a question about his team’s dearth of black players,  proves Yawkey’s racist attitudes beyond a shadow of a doubt:

They blame me and I’m not even a Southerner. I’m from Detroit. I have no feeling against colored people. 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.”

As Stout analyzes Yawkey’s words, he employs hindsight bias to interpret ambiguous sentiments as “proving” what Stout already knows. He points out, correctly, that Yawkee’s comparison between employing blacks in other jobs and his baseball team is a false one, but using a rationalization to excuse himself from blame doesn’t show that Yawkee was a racist. Stout then plays dirty, writing that Yawkee “employs African-Americans on his South Carolina estate, a former plantation,” insinuating  guilt by associaton with the slave-holders who once owned his property.

Stout’s primary proof, however, is Yawkee’s statement that blacks are “clannish.”  He writes,

“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.’”

Yawkey did not say that “all African-Americans share the same characteristics.” He said that blacks shared one characteristic, that they are “clannish,” meaning that they tend to stick together, follow each other’s lead, and support each other. What minority groups, especially oppressed minority groups, aren’t “clannish” in this way? 98% of blacks voted for the Democratic candidate for president in 2008, a black man—does this not indicate shared attitudes and mutual support? In Boston, there are Italian neighborhoods (the North End), Irish neighborhoods (Southey) and Armenian neighborhoods, as well as black neighborhoods (Roxbury), Greek neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods and Chinatown—what is that, exactly? Is acknowledging the indisputable fact that people of like races, ethnic backgrounds and religions tend to bond together racist? Nonsense.

The second part of Stout’s argument is irrelevant to his topic. He’s saying that Yawkee’s excuse that it was blacks who avoided the Red Sox, and not the other way around, doesn’t make sense or square with the facts, and that’s true. But the statement could just as easily have been made by a non-racist who was making excuses for his inept management decisions.  The reason Stout sees Yawkee’s statement as the “smoking gun” proving his racism is that Stout already knows Yawkee was racist.

The same is true of Stout’s condemnation of Yawkee’s next statement, “…we scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.” Stout cites the obvious facts: there were many, many talented black ballplayers, and the Red Sox didn’t sign any of them despite desperately needing talent. But that doesn’t make Yawkee’s statement proof of his racism. Yawkee didn’t personally scout players; his statement could mean that he was naïve, clueless, or hired terrible scouts. It doesn’t prove he’s lying, and it doesn’t prove his bigotry. It proves that there were great players to be had, and his organization, looking for “ballplayers,” supposedly without concern about their color, blew it. Well, why wasn’t the organization that was the only baseball team without a black player looking specifically for one? I can think of flawed reasons, sinister reasons and stupid reasons, but not embracing the objective of affirmative action—hiring for racial equity and diversity rather than on merit alone—is not proof of racism. Yawkee was saying that you don’t pick players because of their race. That is, on its face, the antithesis of a racist statement.

Why does this matter? Why do I object to Stout proclaiming Yawkey’s 1965 words the missing “smoking gun’ regarding his racism, when I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion that the Red Sox owner was indeed a racist?

I object because his weapon of choice is political correctness. The words themselves don’t prove anything, just like the fact that Yawkey refers to blacks as “colored people” and Negroes doesn’t say anything substantive about his racial attitudes, other than the fact that he wasn’t current on the politically correct term of the times.  Similarly, Yawkee accepted the popular misconception, still held by many liberals as well as racists, that racial bigotry is restricted to the South. Irrelevant. He employed blacks on a former plantation. Also irrelevant.

He said blacks are “clannish.” That is not a racist statement, or even an offensive statement, since almost everyone is clannish. Yawkey might have meant that blacks and only blacks are clannish, and that being clannish is proof of some racial character flaw, but he didn’t say that.

I object because we are in a period where inartful, well-meaning and innocent words are frequently used to impute racism, sometimes cynically, sometimes to quiet opposition. Ross Perot, while running for president in 1992, “proved” he was a racist, it was said, because he off-handedly referenced “you people” while addressing the NAACP. Of course, he was already unpopular with that organization; it already “knew” what his words “proved.” When a Republican referred to Barack Obama as “articulate” in 2008, that “proved” he was a racist to some Obama supporters. Joe Biden referred to Obama, weirdly, as “clean,” but that didn’t “prove” a thing…because, you know, Joe Biden obviously isn’t a racist.

Enough. Words can prove racism; I’d say comedian Michael Richards (“Kramer”) proved he was a racist when he began screaming racial slurs at audience members in his comedy act a few years ago. I’d say when the Aryan Nation chief talks about “the superiority of the white race,” that’s a smoking gun, alright. But imputing racism from unpopular phrasing, archaic terms, mistakes and rationalizations is infectious and destructive. It is easy to argue that the words of someone whom you already know is racist “prove” his or her racism, but it also gives those words or sentiments the power to discredit people who are not racists, but merely people who hold a different world view.

Yes, Tom Yawkey was a racist, but he proved it with his actions and non-actions, and those of the organization that he led. He’s accountable for that. His words, however, don’t add anything to that proof, and claiming they do lays the groundwork for unfairly labeling the unbigoted and the unbiased as racist when they are not.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Bigotry, Part III:Tom Yawkey’s Red Sox Racism, and How Not to Prove It

  1. Right. And what would be the point of finding quotes to “prove” that Mike Tyson is stupid, a bully, and a wife beater, when all of his actions have already proved these traits?

    The news media loves to take partial quotes out of context to unfairly besmirch reputations, which is why so many people find the news media unethical and untrustworthy. It is incredible to me that Mr. Stout has turned this on its head and has taken the time to find “quotes” to “prove” something that virtually everyone already knows. He needs to find something constructive to do. Or get a real job.

  2. BRILLIANT ANALYSIS. By virtue of being a Communications major, a Black man and a witness of decades of prejudice, I had three opportunities at bat to crack that same conclusion – but I struck out. Thank you for your skillful call. I see it clearly with the benefit of your slo-mo replay, but congratulations for being able to read the stitches on that wild throw that still packed plenty of heat.

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