“Tom Yawkey: Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox” by Bill Nowlin
Baseball, history, biography, Red Sox, race
February 1, 2018
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
From 1933 until his death in 1976, one man was the owner of the Boston Red Sox. Some consider this man, Tom Yawkey, to be the savior of the franchise as they were in a dire financial situation due to the Great Depression when he bought the team from Bob Quinn for $1.25 million. Others considered him to be racist and holding back progress for minority players and employees because the team was the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. Yawkey’s team did not have an African American play in a game until Pumpsie Green made the team in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
Whether a reader believes one of these images of Yawkey to be true, there are many more aspects to the man and they are told in this very good book by long time Boston sportswriter Bill Nowlin. The issue of race is frequently mentioned in the book, but there is far more to the man that should be told and Nowlin does that in vivid detail
This book could be considered more of a history book on the Red Sox than a biography, as there is little space dedicated to Yawkey’s life outside of the Red Sox. There is some information from his childhood and how he obtained his wealth, but the bulk of the book is dedicated to the team to which he dedicated his life. His relationship with his players is well-known to be warm, cordial and personable. Stories of interaction between Yawkey and his players are plentiful in the book. These players include stars such as Carl Yastremski and Ted Williams, but there are plenty of warm exchanges shared in the book with other players not as well known, writers such as Al Hirshberg and even regular citizens.
An example of this type of generosity with fans is a story in the book about a 13-year-old fan who ran away from his home in Nova Scotia, hoping to see the Red Sox in person. When the young man made it to Boston, the Red Sox were on the road. But Yawkey brought him inside Fenway Park anyway, gave him a tour and a baseball. When the young man was flown home by the police, he received a letter from Yawkey inviting him back to Fenway – but the next time he had to bring his mother along with him.
This type of generosity and personality was also reflected in his leadership, which is where he drew most of the criticism he received. He rewarded loyal employees and managers with continued employment and raises. He hated to get rid of loyal employees in the front office, no matter the team’s record or their mistakes. Men like Joe Cronin, Pinky Higgins and Eddie Collins were part of Yawkey’s front office for decades and when they were gone, others like Heywood Sullivan stepped in – and stayed.
This type of leadership style led to the most damaging criticism that he faced and still faces today, more than 40 years after his passing. The charges of racism are addressed throughout the book and while Nowlin never comes out and says that Yawkey was a racist or ran an organization that blatantly discriminated against African Americans, he does point out that there was plenty of circumstantial evidence that made the charge of racism appear to be true. Among the harshest critics of the Red Sox and Yawkey on the matter of race are Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. The Red Sox had the opportunity to sign both men to the team but never did. Robinson was especially negative toward the team after he and two other African American players were invited to a tryout for the team that many feel was a sham. This event is covered quite well in the book and on the topic of racism, Nowlin is tough on Yawkey for his lack of leadership in addressing this with Cronin, Higgins and Collins but stops short of taking sides. I believe this is a fair approach to this topic for the man and the book does this very well.
It should be noted that while it doesn’t cover as many pages as the question of racism does, Yawkey’s Red Sox were much more progress toward allowing women access to the press box and the players. While their attempts were awkward at times, such as placing a flower on the table for female press members, many recognized that the team was at least recognizing that these women were simply doing the same job as the men.
There is also a lot of material in the book on the success and failures of the Red Sox on the field. Of course the pennant winning years of 1946, 1967 and 1975 are covered extensively as these were the pennants won during Yawkey’s life, but plenty is written about other seasons and players as well. There is enough baseball material in the book that a reader who wants more baseball and less business or social issues will be able to learn much about the Red Sox on the field as well.
This was a very good book that despite its length, was one that was a relaxing one to read and one could easily escape into the world of Fenway Park and Tom Yawkey’s space in that park, as well as his off-season home in South Carolina and his hotel in New York where he conducted his non-baseball business. It is an excellent source of information for both the man and his team.
I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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