Tom Yawkey: Patriarch Of the Boston Red Sox
By Bill Nowlin
University Of Nebraska Press, 560 pages, $36.95
Few owners have influenced their teams in the way Tom Yawkey did when he was owner of the Boston Red Sox.
Bill Nowlin examines this major figure in baseball history in the comprehensive work biography Tom Yawkey: Patriarch Of the Boston Red Sox. takes a close look at Yawkey’s life as a sportsman and as one of the leading philanthropists in New England and South Carolina. He also addresses Yawkey’s leadership style and issues of racism during his tenure with the Red Sox.
After purchasing the Red Sox for $1.2 million in 1932, Yawkey poured millions into building a better team and making the franchise relevant again.
Yawkey was viewed by fans as a genial autocrat who ran his ball club like a hobby more than a business and who spoiled his players. He was perhaps too trusting, relying on flawed cronies rather than the most competent executives to run his ballclub.
“Tom Yawkey seemed to come out of nowhere when he bought the Boston Red Sox on February, 25, 1933,” writes Nowlin. “By the end of that year, he was being called a ‘baseball Santa’ for the largesse he was lavishing on the team and, by entension, its fans. There was even a newspaper headline reading ‘Boston Baseball Fans Think of Erecting a Monument to Honor Tom Yawkey.’
“From the day he was born (February 21, 1903, in Detroit) to the day he purchased the team, Yawkey shows up not once in a comprehensive online search of the Boston Globe‘s archives, neither as Tom Yawkey nor as Thomas Yawkey nor as Thomas Austin, which was his name at birth. Even Tom’s uncle, William Hoover ‘Bill’ Yawkey (one-time owner of the Detroit Tigers), got little press in Boston. The situation was the same with the Boston Herald: there was not one mention of Tom.
“Unknown he may have been, but Yawkey burst on the Boston big-time when he became the owner of the Red Sox, the team sold him by J.A. Robert ‘Bob’ Quinn, who had purchased the Red Sox from Harry Frazee in 1923.
“The team Yawkey bought needed help badly. The Sox had finished in eighth place (last place in the eight-team league) in 1922, and they finished last again in 1923. Unfortunately the Red Sox dwelt in the American League cellar for most of the decade: they finished seventh in 1924, then last again in 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930. A glimmer of hope arose in 1931, when the Sox finished sixth, but they reverted to last place once more in 1932.
“It was hard to believe that this was the same team that had won four World Series championships in 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918. But Frazee had sold Babe Ruth – and any number of other Red Sox players – to the Yankees, starting in December 1919. And Quinn was severely undercapitalized. There were decent arguments to be made in favor of Frazee’s selling off the disruptive Ruth, but when the player sales went on and on and the team became more deeply mired in the standings, there was some rejoicing in Boston when Quinn purchased the Red Sox from Frazee. A correspondent for The Sporting News even speculated, tongue in cheek, in a subtitle, ‘Hub May Make Date of Red Sox Sale New Holiday.’ Wanting a competitive ball team in Boston, American League president Ban Johnson was said to be ‘elated that Frazee finally is out of baseball.'”
Although the Red Sox never won a World Series under Yawkey’s ownership, there were still many highlights. Lefty Grove won his three hundredth game; Jimmie Foxx hit fifty home runs; Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941, and both Williams and Carl Yastrzemski won Triple Crowns.
The Red Sox made the World Series in 1946, losing to the Cardinals, and remained competitive into the early ’50s before another long decline.
Even though the team disappointed on the field, Yawkey still did positive things, as Nowlin points out, “A ‘feel good’ story emerged in 1957. A youngster of thirteen from New Brunswick, Canada, named Ian Joyce ran away from home, hoping to see a big league ball game, and he made it all the way to Fenway Park, dragging a little suitcase along. Ian said, ‘I sat on the steps of 24 Jersey Street for a rest. Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin came along, and I told them I came to see the Sox.’ Unfortunately the team was on a road trip to Chicago, so Ian was out of of luck. But he had caught the eye of the two Red Sox executives.
“‘This is when they took me inside and showed me around. [Tom Yawkey] asked me if I wanted him to autograph a ball, and I didn’t want it autographed; I just wanted the ball to play with. I went merrily on my way downtown. At night I crawled into some bushes in the Common, and the police found me – and [they took me] off to the station. I told them my story that I was a runaway, and one of the policemen called a friend at the Globe, and a friend of my mother who lived in Boston got wind of it and put me on a plane and sent me home. I got a nice letter from Tom Yawkey’s secretary a short time later that invited me back, but [it said] to bring my mother with me the next time.’
“Ian had enjoyed a private tour of ballpark and reportedly been treated to lunch. The following year, he returned with his mother during a Red Sox home stand. His story was memorialized in the Boston Globe along with a photo showing him with Jimmy Pearsall. He had an opportunity to visit the Red Sox clubhouse.
“Joyce reports that he was supplied with tickets on request well into his twenties, and as late as 1975 he was provided tickets to the first two games of that year’s World Series. It wasn’t so much a personal connection with the Red Sox owner; he explained, ‘I was always looked after, probably more by his secretary [Barbara Tyler] than him, as she was my contact for many years, [as was] her replacement [Mary Trank] after her retirement.’ (Trank also helped out in another way, helping way, helping filter the fan mail sent to Ted Williams. ‘He [Yawkey] used to give me all the girls’ letters to read,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if I was supposed to OK them or veto them.’)
The Red Sox came back to prominence in 1967, a season that came to be known as “The Impossible Dream” as they went from worst to first in one season.
That made Yawkey more excited about his team than he had been in years, as Nowlin recounts, “Tom Yawkey was around the ballpark more than usual – and who could blame him? A very exciting team was seemingly coming out of nowhere (ninth place is pretty close to nowhere) to contend for the pennant. Stout and Johnson say Yawkey was maybe around the park too much; we’ve already seen that the manager felt that way. ‘Yawkey, who had kept his distance from the clubhouse for more than a decade, now became a near-constant presence. He wasn’t altogether welcome. While some players like Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski), basked in the attention of the wealthiest man they’d ever met, (manager) Dick Williams, who disliked Yawkey, grated against the intrusion, which he considered ‘an insult.”
“In a later column, the Herald‘s Tom Horgan underscored the point about Yawkey keeping his distance. He was ‘always in the clubhouse from the time he bought the Red Sox in 1933 until he hired Joe McCarthy as manager in 1948. Then a friend in New York advised him that McCarthy believed a club-owner should not mingle with the players, so Tom next [sic] visited the clubhouse until the day the Sox won the pennant in 1967.’ Horgan also wrote that Yawkey was careful not to undermine the manager: ‘Yawkey freely admits he’s invited players to visit his office, but only after he’d gotten the manager’s consent, and only to discuss their personal problems, not their professional gripes. He’s acutely aware of the difference, and also very sensitive about what his presence in the clubhouse before a game might do to the manager’s authority.’
“Later Sox players, such as Dwight Evans and Bob Montgomery, stressed the same – that Yawkey’s conversations were about them and their families more than play on the field. His presence nonetheless grated on Dick Williams.
“As noted above, the 1967 pennant went right down to the final day, and Yaz was a huge part of it, as was right-hander Jim Lonborg. Before pitching on the final day, Lonborg stayed overnight at a Boston hotel; his home record had been only 7-5 while his road record was 15-4, so he decided to act as though he was on the road. Yawkey laughed at the suggestion that he offer Lonborg the $12-per-day meal money and said he’d be more than glad to if it helped him win the game.
“Yaz had put on one of the most superlative stretch drives one could imagine. ‘In the final 12 games of the season – crunch time – Carl Yastrzemski had 23 hits in 44 at-bats, driving in 16 runs and scoring 14. He hit 10 homers in his final 100 at-bats of 1967. He had 10 hits in his last 13 at-bats. And when it came to the last two games with the Twins – with the Sox needing to win both games to help avert a tie for the pennant – Yaz went 7-for-8 and drove in six runs.’
“After the Sox beat the Twins 5-3, on October 1 and won the flag for the first time since 1946, there was ‘pandemonium on the field’ (in Ned Martin’s famous phrase), and Tom Yawkey visited the clubhouse for the celebration. So did Tony C (Conigliaro). No one drenched Yawkey with champagne, but he was handed a cup of it. ‘I haven’t had one of these in four years,’ he said, having given up drinking, but he offered a toast to Dick Williams, who responded in kind, ‘Here’s to you, sir, for giving me the opportunity.’ Yawkey responded, ‘And here’s to you, Dick, for making the most of it. This is the happiest moment of my life.’
“It probably remained so.
“Yawkey said he’d gotten a greater thrill out of the 1967 pennant than the one in 1946, simply because the earlier team had been more or less expected to win, and this one had not. The final two games of the season and the back-to-back, do-or-die games against Minnesota were, he said, his brightest moments in the game. In 1967 ‘we had to fight all the way, and winning it then has to be my greatest thrill.'”
One of his more unfortunate legacies was the accusation that he was a racist, since the Red Sox were the last Major League team to integrate, and his inaction in this regard haunted both him and the team for decades.
That has led the current ownership led by John Henry to ask that the street outside Fenway Park from Yawkey Way back to its original name, Jersey Street, a grant that the city granted recently.
As one of the last great patriarchal owners in baseball, he was the first person elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame who hadn’t been a player, manager, or general manager.
Bill Nowlin does an incredible job of going into the complex figure that was Tom Yawkey, making this biography a must-read when it comes to understanding the history of the Boston Red Sox.