On the Dregs of Cooperstown

Pioneer/Executive: Tom Yawkey

Way back at the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that none of the players on the list were bad players. All 13 had great careers, and although I don’t think they’re worthy of the Hall of Fame, I tried to highlight the parts of their respective legacies that should be celebrated. I make no such stipulation about the sole non-player.

Now, as a Red Sox fan, I have a bit of bias when it comes to the Hall of Fame. I didn’t mention anyone on this list who was known primarily for playing with the Red Sox (though Bobby Doerr would be a reasonable candidate at second base). In previous pieces, I’ve advocated for the Hall of Fame cases of Dwight Evans and Luis Tiant, and while I’d do so regardless of their team affiliation, it helps that they’d go in wearing Boston caps.

It makes sense, then, that I save my harshest criticism for the owner who ran my beloved franchise into the ground for over 40 years.

Of course, the biggest charge against Yawkey is that he was an inveterate racist, one of the most bigoted men in baseball. That, in itself, isn’t enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Cap Anson was a virulent racist who probably contributed as much as anyone to the segregation of baseball, but he was also the sport’s first true superstar. He belongs in Cooperstown. Ty Cobb was extremely racist among his many other flaws as a human being, but he was arguably the greatest player of his era. He was the first player voted into the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so.

The difference is that Cobb’s and Anson’s bigotry can be viewed separately from their contributions to baseball. Yawkey’s cannot. He repeatedly allowed his racist views to influence his decisions as an owner.

Consider that the Red Sox turned down an opportunity to sign a young Willie Mays because he wasn’t Yawkey’s kind of player. Consider that Yawkey hired manager Pinky Higgins, who was quoted as saying, “There’ll be no n—— on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it,” and said nothing in response. Consider that racism was widely believed to play a role in Red Sox personnel decisions even very late in Yawkey’s tenure, as in the trades of Reggie Smith and Ben Oglivie in 1973.

The Red Sox were, shamefully, the last major league team to integrate; they called up infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green in 1959, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color line. Even today, more than 50 years later, Boston still has a reputation as an uncharacteristically racist city. I’m not suggesting that that reputation is entirely or even mostly Yawkey’s fault, but I am suggesting he may have played a role.

So, there’s a very strong argument against Yawkey’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame. What bothers me most about Yawkey is that there’s no argument at all for his inclusion.

Consider the case of commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a widely decried recent choice. At least during Kuhn’s tenure, the game experienced significant growth. The league expanded, franchises moved all over the country, the reserve clause was abolished and baseball became a much more national sport. In many respects, baseball was better off when Kuhn left office than when he entered.

One could argue (correctly) that those things happened in spite of Kuhn, not because of him, but at least there’s that.

Tom Yawkey owned the Red Sox from 1933 until his death in 1976. During that time, the team obviously didn’t win a single World Series. The Sox only went to the World Series three times: 1946, 1967 and 1975. Remember that for most of Yawkey’s tenure as owner, there were only eight teams in the American League – you’d expect them to win a few more pennants just by dumb luck.

Much is made today of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team that won the AL pennant. Of course, the dream was only so “impossible” because the Sox had been terrible for quite some time. The last time they’d posted a winning record was 1957. The last time they’d won 90 games was 1950.

During Yawkey’s time as owner, the Red Sox were often terrible, sometimes contenders, very occasionally pennant winners and never champions. It’s not the worst 44-year span imaginable, but it’s not very good.

If the Hall of Fame called me tomorrow and asked me to pick one person to throw out, I’d give them Yawkey’s name, no question. Heck, I’d ask them to call the City of Boston and get Yawkey Way renamed while they’re at it.

Unless there’s an award for incompetence and bigotry out there somewhere, Tom Yawkey doesn’t deserve any honor, least of all the highest in the sport.

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