Tom Yawkey: Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox
by Bill Nowlin
University of Nebraska Press, 2018
If you write a full-dress biography of legendary Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey – as prolific Red Sox historian Bill Nowlin has done in his groundbreaking new book Tom Yawkey: Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox – you're going to have to address the question of racism. The Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to integrate black players into their organization, and the standard characterization of that foot-dragging has always been that it originated at the top, with the virulent racism of the team owner. There was much, much more to Yawkey's life and times, and Nowlin, writing the first account of that life and times, does an infectiously readable job fleshing out all of it. But no matter how generous a philanthropist Yawkey was or how he could be by turns supportive or abusive to his star players during his forty-plus years as team owner, or what a troublesome business partner or boss or husband he could be, any comprehensive biography is going to have to deal with racism.
And any discussion of Yawkey's racism is going to hinge on one infamous moment, one shouted line that instantly entered Red Sox lore and permanently attached itself to Yawkey's name and reputation.
In April of 1945, a kind of unofficial tryout was held at Fenway Park, in which three of the best black players, Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and the great Jackie Robinson, were invited onto the field to perform for the press and the front office. The move was grudging; the city of Boston had been putting pressure on Yawkey and his lieutenants for months to integrate the team, even going so far as to threaten pulling the team's license to play ball on Sundays. Sportswriter Clif Keane later recalled that during these tryouts, somebody from the team's front office yelled “Get those niggers off the field!” At the time, the front office consisted of three men – Yawkey and two others, one of whom was watching the tryouts from the stands and so is probably out of the running. In 2014 Boston Globe writer Tim Powers suggested that Keane simply invented the line. Nawlin quotes the great, inimitable Boston sportscaster Clark Booth's opinion of this possibility: “Clif swore it was Yawkey – although he did not say he saw him. He heard him. But he always swore it was Yawkey. Clif was a lot of things, but he was a really good reporter. He was colorful, eccentric, and a character at times, but, man, you didn't last if you made shit up in those days. They policed themselves much more rigorously than they do today.”
Where does Nowlin come down on the issue? He doesn't; he remains gently afloat, like an inflated ball being kept aloft at Revere Beach. “The Red Sox had a historic opportunity to become the first team in the Majors to desegregate. Instead, as it happens, they bear the shame of being the last,” he writes. “In retrospect, it is clear how badly the Red Sox missed out.” Then before the reader is even fully aware of how it happened, the pages are suddenly about Yawkey giving money to a hospital.
It'd be hard to come up with more exonerating language than “as it happens.” The Red Sox remained adamantly racist longer than any other team for pointed reasons, not by happenstance, and although Nowlin concedes that the buck stops with the team owner, he's unwilling to call Yawkey “personally racist.” Jackie Robinson wasn't so diplomatic; he regularly ranked Yawkey as the most racist owner in the league.
It's impossible for the rest of Nowlin's book – 500 pages of meticulously researched and terrifically engaging prose, a wonky, magnificent work of baseball writing that will be necessary reading for all Red Sox fans (pathological and otherwise, if there is an otherwise) – to quite entirely escape from this key issue. This is true not only for personal reasons – bitter, career-long racists typically don't merit affectionate 500-page biographies no matter how many wildlife refuges they bankroll – but also for professional ones; as Boston journalist Charlie Pierce commented in 1988: “All the encomiums relentlessly thrown in the direction of the late Tom Yawkey – you know, how he really deserved a world champion – ignore the fact that the man clearly didn't know how to run a baseball team. Being the last team to integrate wasn't merely morally reprehensible, it was also pragmatically stupid.”
Tom Yawkey's wife Jean survived him by nearly a quarter of a century, and she features prominently in Nowlin's book. And the narrative is superb, downright page-turning in bringing to life the team's triumphs and tragedies during her husband's long tenure in charge. The whole thing is a big, rounded epic of an era, and although Tom Yawkey doesn't star in that epic as any kind of visionary and as only the most cramped and compromised of leaders, Nowlin does a neat job portraying him as a true believer in the game. And the warm memories of Yawkey by Red Sox greats like Ted Williams and especially Carl Yastrzemski bring humanizing tones to the man. The polarizing elements – that lingering historical shame – are inescapable, and since Nowlin knows more about the subject than anybody else, he could easily have given his readers a more flawed portrait to consider. Maybe it's ultimately a commendable mercy that he didn't do that – both Tom and Jean Yawkey did more clear, objective good in their lives than most people, after all. But readers – and particularly Red Sox fans – should read with perhaps less forgiving eyes.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.