As we sit here 41 years after Tom Yawkey's death, two generations removed and with detail lost to time, it's hard for many to know exactly why he was thought of as a man for the ages.
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The Red Sox won only three American League championships during his 44 years as owner. He spent money lavishly, and many said unwisely, in creating an organization where accountability -- on and off the field -- was a largely unknown word. It goes without saying the team's racial history left a dark stain, dark enough that current owner John Henry says he's been troubled by it since purchasing the club in 2002.
Thing is, I'm old enough to remember the last decade or so of Tom Yawkey's life. Hard as it may be for anyone under the age of 50 to believe, he was a beloved figure.
He was generous to charities and causes; the Jimmy Fund is what it is today in large thanks to the support -- financial and otherwise -- of the Yawkey Red Sox. He was regarded as a benign gentleman sportsman who, rightly or wrongly, valued team above profits. When he died, the people who worked for him chipped in for a plaque that still hangs outside the front door of the team offices that reads "In memory from those who knew him best: His Red Sox employees." Sox players, at least those who spoke publicly about him, adored him. (Of course, that may have had something to do with the generous salaries he paid in those penurious times.) Even some minority players spoke well of him near the end of his life. Bill North, an outspoken black outfielder for the Oakland A's, once said: "Tom Yawkey's the only white man I call 'sir'."
That was the public perception of Tom Yawkey that I -- and others of my age -- grew up with. The portion of Jersey Street in front of Fenway Park was renamed Yawkey Way a year after his death without any pushback that I recall. He sailed into the Hall of Fame a few years later with barely a peep of protest.
All of that has been lost over the years, overwhelmed by the Sox' disgraceful racial past. (And the subsequent revelation that Yawkey and his widow Jean, who ran the team for 16 years after his death, reportedly protected an employee pedophile who sexually abused young clubhouse workers for years.) The negative is all that people seem to remember about Tom Yawkey now.
And I'm not saying that's wrong. Some sins are so strong there's no defense for them.
I just think this story is more nuanced than it's become. My feeling (and it's just my feeling): Yawkey was more weak than evil, a man who had problems with alcohol until he stopped drinking in the 1960s, who didn't question the norms of his time, who wasn't strong enough to stand up and say, "This is wrong." And he certainly surrounded himself with some virulent racists, like Pinky Higgins, to whom he gave enormous power in the organization.
The question, really, is why such a non-groundbreaking figure was given these honors in the first place.
I always had the feeling it was his philanthropy, his generosity -- which was considerable -- that earned him the love. That, and his gentle, non-assuming public persona, was why people of his time regarded him so fondly.
None of which is what John Henry's talking about. The thrust of Henry's statement -- the Yawkey name is a symbol of baseball racism, and we should distance ourselves from it -- is hard to stand against.
But though I never met him -- I was only 21 when he died -- I remember Tom Yawkey as more than just a one-dimensional, bigoted symbol of baseball's blighted past. Even if he doesn't deserve the plaudits he received, there was more to him than that.