Ethics Alarms Encore: “Tom Yawkey’s Red Sox Racism, and How Not to Prove It”

Yawkey TributeEvery now and then a comment out of the blue reminds me of a post that I had forgotten. That was the case here. Reading it again for the first time in five years, I was struck by how the crux of the post is still relevant today (that crux has nothing to do with baseball), and indeed how the intervening five years have made what I thought was a bad trend a genuine political and cultural malady.

And the World Series is going on, and I feel badly about the Red Sox having such a miserable season. This post, which few read when it was first published as the blog was attracting (let’s see…) less than 200 views a day as opposed to nearly 4000 a day now, is a good one, and I enjoyed it.  That “self-professed ethicist” has his moments….

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 and confirmation 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 association 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.

One thought on “Ethics Alarms Encore: “Tom Yawkey’s Red Sox Racism, and How Not to Prove It”

  1. The problem is that we are now at a point where the little boy who cried wolf found himself JUST BEFORE the wolf actually showed up. He, like the politically correct, was having a gay old time (using the word ‘gay’ in this context proves I’m homophobic) rousting every one out in the dead of night, but folks were starting to grumble, and a few were saying “Yeah, yeah, I’m staying in bed”. Jesse Jackson claiming the first ebola case in Dallas died because of racism (using Reverend Jackson’s name proves I’m racist) is now causing a lot of folks to say the same thing, “Yeah, yeah”. Having two black pastors go on Bill O’Reilly and basically say that it doesn’t matter what the facts are in Ferguson, the fact that white people are “interpreting” those facts means racial bias., is just icing (my use of the word ‘icing’ is proof that I am obesity-phobic) on the cake. So, since we know where we are, I speculate what “the wolf actually showing up” will be. Obviously, something that involves actual rather than fantasized racism. Violence? Possibly. Blacks only make up 14% of the population and in some parts of the country are feared well beyond any rational need to do so. Chicago and inner-city Detroit come immediately to mind. Whatever form the backlash takes, you can bet that whites will not be the only ethnic group involved; Asians and Latinos (no studies, just observation where I live) have no interest in being lumped in with racial reactionaries and they are somewhat more active in defense of themselves and their culture.

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