John Henry's call to rename Yawkey Way shows progress is afoot in Boston

Red Sox owner John Henry called for the renaming of Yawkey Way, a Fenway Park-adjacent street named for a previous owner who adamantly resisted integration. John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

As the Red Sox hosted the Yankees this weekend and extended their lead in the AL East to five games, an iconic street in front of Fenway Park became a gauge for where the country now stands.

Last week, Red Sox owner John Henry suggested that Yawkey Way, a ballpark-adjacent street named after Thomas Yawkey, who owned the team from 1933 until his death in 1976 and who famously and adamantly resisted integration, should be renamed. It's a refreshingly strong stance -- one that simultaneously confronts the team's problematic history while still recognizing its longstanding heritage.

The Red Sox are notorious for being the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson made his Brooklyn Dodgers debut. The team passed on him and Willie Mays because of Yawkey's aversion to black players: As a former scout told the Boston Globe in 2005, "We could have had Mays in center and [Ted] Williams in left," but Yawkey and his general manager "already had made up their minds they weren't going to take any black players." Given this history -- and the current push in the country to reconsider the people we choose to honor with statues and symbols -- Henry is calling to rename the street after beloved Red Sox great David Ortiz.

The debate to rename Yawkey Way, a street that fills with vendors and entertainment before ballgames, mirrors the ongoing demonstrations for and against Confederate monuments throughout the country. Last week's violent demonstrations and counter-protests around the removal of a statue of Robert. E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, highlighted a resistance to a reevaluation of our national ideals, of what we choose to immortalize and honor versus what we simply remember as a dark time in our collective memory. We will never forget those who have rightfully earned their place in textbooks and history classes, but it's important to still remember just what they stood for and why the march of progress leaves their specific ideals in the past.

Symbols carry particular significance within the realm of sports, sometimes mythologizing individuals to the point of hero worship. Recall the backlash when Penn State removed the statue of Joe Paterno; to the throngs of students and alumni who protested, the legend of JoePa on the football field far outweighed his role in enabling child abuse. By removing the statue, the school's aim wasn't to erase his legacy, but rather to signal the need for a culture change that would hopefully usher in a new era of awareness and accountability.

Similarly, renaming Yawkey Way wouldn't wipe away decades of the Red Sox's past, but it would mark the progress the city and team has made since, while providing an ideal of equality for which to strive.

As Henry put it, "For me, personally, the street name has always been a consistent reminder that it is our job to ensure the Red Sox are not just multi-cultural, but stand for as many of the right things in our community as we can -- particularly in our African-American community and in the Dominican community that has embraced us so fully." Noting the positive steps the team's philanthropic efforts have taken toward reaching out to diverse communities, Henry also noted, "I am still haunted by what went on here a long time before we arrived."

Since Henry took over in 2002, the Red Sox broke the "Curse of the Bambino" in 2004 and have won more World Series trophies than any American League team since. Boston also boasts one of the most diverse rosters in baseball and can thank the likes of future Hall of Famer Ortiz for many of those victories. The team currently sits in first place in the division and can ostensibly look forward to a playoff push. While the Red Sox failed to win a World Series during Yawkey's tenure, some wonder what, exactly, he did to earn his spot in Cooperstown.

The question looming is whether the removal of symbols such as Yawkey Way tangibly changes anything. Boston, much like the country at large, has its own current state of racial unrest with which to reconcile. Much of the populace still reels with the memories of busing, while spatial and income segregation still loom large. After Baltimore Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones said in May that a fan called him the N-word and threw peanuts at him in a series at Fenway, other black players, including Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia, recalled hearing similar language at the Boston ballpark. Here's a whole list of great athletes dealing with racism in Boston, from Joel Ward and P.K. Subban visiting the Bruins, to Celtics great Bill Russell describing the city as a "flea market of racism" in his memoir.

It's a long game to figure out whether team- or league-wide decisions can effectively change the mindsets of individual fans and citizens, let alone systemic racism and oppression. But as someone who made it a point to see Ortiz's last game at Yankee Stadium with a friend who's a Sox fan, I think there would be a serious appetite -- let alone a marketing opportunity -- to hold a rededication ceremony for Big Papi Way, replete with signage that could actually feature a World Series ring.

But here's the bigger picture: Thanks to the leadership of people like Henry and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has denounced racist showings from fans as antithetical to the promise and spirit of a diverse and inclusive city, and whose administration has made it a point to study systemic racism, progress is actually afoot, by virtue of the fact that we're actually having this conversation. After the Jones incident, Red Sox president Sam Kennedy flat-out stated "there's no place for" what Jones was subjected to.

Acknowledging the team's racist past can go a long way in course-correcting the present, especially for black and Latino Red Sox fans. It helps when those in charge take the lead on guiding us toward our future history -- not forgetting what's happened, but remembering that which we shouldn't let happen again.

I'm sure there are many well-meaning Red Sox fans who might resist the name change of a street that has so long defined their fandom. But I'm just as sure that many of those same fans would and did rise up against hatred and racism this weekend, as evidenced by the tens of thousands who showed up to Boston Commons on Saturday to quell a planned "free speech" rally and denounce white nationalism. As one protester's sign read, "The only thing Boston hates is the Yankees."

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