It’s not often that I am called upon to rebut a web post that relies on one of my articles for its unethical conclusions, but that is the position that Ron Chimelis has placed me in with his recent essay, Why the Boston Red Sox should rename Yawkey Way.
To catch you up quickly: Tom Yawkey was a lumber tycoon and baseball enthusiast who owned the Boston Red Sox from 1933 to 1976, making him the longest-tenured team owner in the sport’s history. Yawkey was almost certainly a racist; if he was not a racist, his team’s policies certainly were for many years. The Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, and blacks did not have a significant place on the team’s roster until the late 1960s, two decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. From the beginning, Yawkey ran the Red Sox as a public utility, paying little attention to the bottom line as he tried to build a winner out of the franchise that had been a perennial loser since selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919. After his death, Yawkey’s wife Jean continued the family tradition, running the Red Sox, except for a few years, until her own death in 1992.
When Tom Yawkey died, the City of Boston re-named Jersey Street, which runs past the entry to Fenway Park where the Red Sox play, Yawkey Way in his honor.
In the unerring clarity of hindsight bias, Chimelis argues that Tom Yawkey is undeserving of any recognition by the city that he devoted much of his life to representing, enhancing, serving, inspiring and entertaining because racism is the ultimate crime, and anyone possessing that vile state of mind should be consigned to shame forever. It is a common point of view, and an unfair one.
Yawkey’s racist attitudes probably impeded the progress of the team he cared about so much (they may have led him not to sign Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, both of whom had try-outs with the Sox), but he was also a philanthropist (he was a major force in building The Jimmy Fund, Boston’s charity for children stricken with cancer), and every bit of joy, commerce, publicity, excitement, civic pride, drama, social cohesion and more that Boston and New England have gained by their adoration of the Boston Red Sox are directly or indirectly due to the work and generosity of Tom Yawkey. The city and the region, in short, owe him a lasting debt of gratitude, just as the nation owes gratitude to many racists of its past who were, like Yawkey, flawed but good men influenced by the majority attitudes of their generation that allow arrogant, politically correct critics like Chimelis to assume unearned moral superiority today.
The author doesn’t even try to build a factual or fair case; he cites my post noting that Yawkey was a racist, but irresponsibly over-states the degree to which Yawkey’s racism had certifiable tangible impact on the team, or in fact anyone. Remember, we are talking about accomplishments, recognition and gratitude, not character. In assessing what good a man has done and whether a life should be honored, attitudes are less relevant than achievements. Does the fact that Yawkey was a racist, the attitude and the consequences of it, outweigh everything else he did for the city, the sport, children, and cancer research? Chimelis has to make that case, and he doesn’t; I don’t think the case can be made.
The Red Sox didn’t sign Jackie Robinson: was it because Yawkey was racist? If racism was more important to Yawkey than the success of his team, why did Robinson even get a tryout? The year was 1945 (Robinson wasn’t allowed to play anywhere until 1947)—did the Red Sox fail to sign him because he was black, or because he primarily played two positions, left field and second base, and those positions already were filled by two eventual Hall of Famers, Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr? Chimelis says that the Red Sox were weakened by not signing Robinson. Really? They slaughtered the American League in 1946 without him. They narrowly missed pennants in three of the next four years. Boston was one of the most racist of Northeastern cities then (and for decades after); would Robinson have been as happy and successful playing in Boston as he was eventually playing for the Dodgers? I don’t know, and neither does Chimelis. But then, Chimelis just makes stuff up. He writes:
“This team’s “curse” was its owner’s stewardship of a whites-only roster. The team’s backward racial attitude haunted the Red Sox for years after Yawkey’s death – arguably, in fact, until the current owners took over in 2003.”
Arguably? Nobody argues that, because it is demonstrably untrue. Do you know how many African-American players the Boston Red Sox had playing the field regularly when they won the 2013 American League Championship? None. Do you know how many African-American pitchers they had on the team? None.
The answers to these same questions for Yawkey’s prize 1967 pennant-winning team are five (out of nine!), and one. The “haunting” had been over for 37 years when the current ownership took over, which, by the way, was facillitated by arrangements made before her death by Jean Yawkey, who is also honored by Yawkey way. Yawkey, like most good men, learned from his mistakes.
The broader ethical issue is the continuing obligation all organizations and institutions have to honor their founders, builders and leaders—flaws, mistakes, warts and all. Every so often in Washington D.C. journalists beat the drums to take J.Edgar Hoover’s name off the F.B.I building. Hoover was, in many ways, a despicable man and a serial power abuser, but the F.B.I is his legacy. He built it, and he earned forever the right to be honored for that. Walt Disney had some dark and disturbing political beliefs, but the empire and culture his genius built doesn’t bear his name to honor those beliefs, any more than Yawkey Way salutes Tom Yawkey’s racial biases. They acknowledge a debt of gratitude for real, tangible contributions to his industry, his art, American society and millions of people.
On a smaller but not insignificant scale, this is true of Thomas Yawkey as well. Last year, shaken by the Boston Marathon bombing, Boston’s spirits were raised and healed in great part by the triumphs of the Boston Red Sox, the team Tom Yawkey rescued and transformed into the spiritual heart of the community. Boston owes him for that, and always will. But to those like Ron Chimelis, for whom political correctness trumps everything, the lives of history’s unenlightened deserve only ignominy and contempt.
Sources: Mass Live