Was Tom Yawkey Boston’s Donald Sterling?

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in the left picture. The late Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey is pictured in the right photograph.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in the left picture. The late Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey is pictured in the right photograph. –AP/Globe

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was allegedly caught on audio making racist comments last week.

Unfortunately, Boston knows a thing or two about racism in sports. While Sterling’s alleged words are offensive to many, let’s not sit too proud on our high horse.

Tom Yawkey, who some players called racist, was the Red Sox owner from 1933 until 1976.

It took the Red Sox until 1959 to first field an African American player. Elijah “Pumpsie’’ Green debuted with the team 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier and joined the Dodgers. The Red Sox were the last to employ African Americans at the major league level.


Yawkey pulled the ballclub out of despair after the years of losing seasons that followed the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. He also oversaw the rehabilitation of a neglected Fenway Park. The Yawkey Foundation, set up according to the wills of Tom and his wife, Jean, does tremendous good in the community. Yawkey Way, the street that leads visitors into Fenway Park to this day, is a beloved Boston landmark.

Yet, the Yawkey legacy remains checkered.

And the effects of Boston’s complicated racial past are still felt today. “‘The most racist city in America,’ is what you hear before you come here,’’ Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn told Sports Illustrated.

According to Yawkey’s 1976 obituary in The Boston Globe, future Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson tried out at Fenway Park in 1945.

According to the Globe:

The story went that Mr. Yawkey and Eddie Collins were standing in the back of the park and the club owner allegedly said: "all right, get those [expletives] out of the ball park." Robinson for years branded him a racist.

Tom Yawkey defended himself in a 1965 interview with Sports Illustrated:

"They blame me. 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."

In assembling his on field management team, Yawkey selected men like Joe Cronin and Eddie Collins, who some claimed were overtly racist.

According to “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston’’ by Howard Bryant, Collins and Cronin were Yawkey’s most important deputies in the 1940s and 1950s. Bryant wrote:

"It was under Joe Cronin that the Red Sox were exposed as a racist organization."

Michael “Pinky’’ Higgins was another Yawkey confidante charged with management of the team. He was also accused, as recounted by the Society for American Baseball Research, of saying no black players would play for the Red Sox as long long as he had anything to say about it.

The Red Sox scouted Willie Mays in 1949, but didn’t sign the man who would become one of the best ballplayers ever. Mays seemed to think the Red Sox decision not to sign him had everything to do with Yawkey being “a racist.’’

Mays is quoted in ESPN.com:

"There's no telling what I would have been able to do in Boston. But for that Yawkey. Everyone knew he was a racist. He didn't want me."

By the Impossible Dream season of 1967, the roster’s all-white days were a thing of the past and the team featured a talented group of black and Latino players. But they faltered in the playoffs. Had stars like Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays been playing at Fenway, perhaps the 86-year championship drought would have been a bit shorter.

When the current Red Sox owners bought the team, they felt the need to acknowledge the Red Sox legacy of racism.

Back in 2002, WBUR spoke to Larry Lucchino:

"We came into a situation where we inherited a lot of extraordinary things in the Red Sox legacy, and included in those bundles of very good things was one very negative thing, and that's a history of racial intolerance."

Unlike with Donald Sterling, there is no audio recording or other smoking gun when it comes to Tom Yawkey. There was also no TMZ.com back when Yawkey was at the helm. It was a time when one’s unsavory conversations were likely to remain private. Journalists weren’t inclined to report on the more distasteful missives of the powerful and famous.

Don Sterling employs black athletes, just as Yawkey eventually did. But as the nine-minute audio tape posted on TMZ.com allegedly reveals, the Clippers owner doesn’t want his girlfriend associating publicly with African Americans.

"I love everybody. I'm just saying, in your lousy [expletive] Instagrams, you don't have to have yourself ... walking with black people. You don't have to."

Does that make Don Sterling a modern Tom Yawkey? Tom Yawkey was a rich, white man who owned a sports franchise. So is Don Sterling. Yawkey earned a reputation for racial intolerance. So has Sterling. Yawkey’s Red Sox never won a title. Nor have Sterling’s Clippers.

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