By 1959, even the local N.H.L. team, the Bruins, had employed a black player, Willie O’Ree. But not the Red Sox. As Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Elston Howard helped their teams win championships in the 1950s, the Red Sox — with Ted Williams in his later prime — never finished first during that decade.
The Red Sox tried out Robinson at Fenway Park in 1945 and rejected him. A Boston scout, George Digby, arranged to buy Mays from the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues for $4,500. Yawkey and the general manager, Joe Cronin, refused.
“We could have had Mays in center and Williams in left,” Digby told The Boston Globe in 2005. “Cronin sent another scout down to look at him, but Yawkey and Cronin already had made up their minds they weren’t going to take any black players.”
Yawkey’s failure to win a championship — despite spending lavishly on players — partly defined him in the public mind after he died of leukemia. His final full season as owner had ended in a loss in Game 7 of the World Series, the third near miss under his stewardship.
Writing in The New York Times in July 1976, Red Smith eulogized Yawkey under the headline “Man Who Couldn’t Buy Pennants.” Yawkey was a sportsman, Smith wrote, not a businessman, and that set him apart:
“He had little in common with other club owners and they were mystified by him, if not downright suspicious, because he was a strange fish who was in baseball not to make a buck or feed his ego but because he happened to love the game. Not many of the others could understand this, and it embarrassed them. When they were counting their money or posing for television cameras, Yawkey would be off somewhere fishing or hunting with a couple of his players, or in the summer when the game was over and the crowds had left Fenway Park he would put on spikes and baseball pants and a sweat shirt and get Johnny Orlando, the maitre de clubhouse, to pitch to him he could hit line drives off that left-field wall.”
Smith makes no mention of Yawkey’s failure to integrate the Red Sox for so long. He was regarded, in his time, as a kindly and likable figure. Walter O’Malley, who was a co-owner of the Dodgers when Robinson arrived, called Yawkey a “good man” and said nobody had ever spoken ill of him. Bill Veeck, who brought Larry Doby to his Cleveland Indians in 1947, told The Chicago Tribune that “Mr. Yawkey stood for genuine class.”
In 1977, the Jersey Street extension that runs past Fenway was named for Yawkey, whose foundation has donated more than $450 million to hundreds of charities, part of a powerful legacy that also includes a spot in the Hall of Fame, awarded by the veterans committee in 1980. His plaque calls him “one of sport’s finest benefactors” and the first American League owner to have his team travel by plane.
“It’s striking to me that, as an owner, he never won a championship, and yet he’s in the Hall of Fame,” said Jay Jaffe, the author of “The Cooperstown Casebook,” a study of the Hall of Fame. “It’s not like he oversaw any significant innovation. It’s not particularly clear what he’s doing there, other than he was an old boy of the country club of old boys and obviously had enough personal popularity to get in.”
This is where the argument against steroid users falls apart. How can we justify keeping out players who used steroids in the era before drug testing when Yawkey and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis — the baseball commissioner from 1920 to 1944, who rigidly opposed integration — are there?
“Landis and Yawkey had a much greater impact on that than a Ty Cobb,” Jaffe said, referring to the great Detroit Tiger who had a reputation, deserved or not, for intolerance. “Any player could have spoken up in favor of integration, but it was the owners’ ballgame.”
In Yawkey’s case, the impact of racism should be obvious. The Red Sox won their first pennant under Yawkey in 1946, the year before Robinson and Doby debuted. When they finally won their next, in 1967, they had five prominent African-American players: first baseman George Scott, third baseman Joe Foy, center fielder Reggie Smith, reliever John Wyatt and Howard, the former Yankee who caught in all seven games of the World Series.
Today’s team is diverse, of course. On Friday, the Red Sox started two white players, three African-Americans, three from the Dominican Republic and one each from Aruba and Puerto Rico. The notion of a color barrier, and the efforts by an owner to uphold it, is hard for the modern player to comprehend. The Red Sox they know, with Henry as owner and Sam Kennedy as team president, are inclusive.
“I don’t know much about the Yawkey family,” right fielder Mookie Betts said. “I do know that our front office, Sam Kennedy and those guys, do a great job of making Fenway a place where everybody’s welcome. So I kind of support everything they do.”