THE LONG and impassioned debate this spring over whether to change the name of Yawkey Way was largely an exercise in futility.
Some of those participating in the four crowded hearings in March and April before Boston’s Public Improvement Commission were aware their arguments had no impact on the final decision, but a fair number thought the proceedings were part of a deliberative process with an undetermined conclusion.
Most of the testimony focused on whether the club’s late owner, Thomas Yawkey, was a racist and whether his name should remain on street signs next to Fenway Park. But the only real issue that mattered to the commission was whether the Red Sox and other abutters on the street agreed to the name change. They did agree – two were Red Sox-related businesses and the other two were owned by Red Sox business associates – so the decision was a foregone conclusion.
“The policy of the Public Improvement Commission states that if all the qualified abutters agree on a name change, and if no safety or other factors enumerated in the name change policy statement are at issue, then the commission will approve the petition,” said Chris Coakley, the information officer for Boston’s chief of the streets, Chris Osgood, who chairs the PIC.
Those who submitted written testimony to the commission were told as much. Bill Forry, the editor of the Dorchester Reporter and a supporter of changing the name of the roadway to Jersey Street, noted in an April 19 editorial that if the city played by the rules all of the testimony would be moot.
City officials acknowledged they had little wiggle room in making the decision, but recognized the significance of the Yawkey Way name change went beyond a few street signs.
“The mayor strongly believes in an open and transparent government,” said Laura Oggeri, the mayor’s communications chief. “The PIC permits public comment at each meeting related to every petition, as each commission member feels it owes a duty to the public to allow comment on issues under their purview.”
Plainville resident Debra Ragosta, who urged the commission to retain the Yawkey Way name, felt cheated by the agency’s approach.
“It was absolutely deceptive, plain and simple,” she said after learning that her testimony was irrelevant to the decision. “Why have a hearing if it’s a done deal? It makes no sense, no sense at all. That’s all it served to do was to allow people to vent.”
Jim Lonborg, a pitcher on Yawkey’s 1967 Impossible Dream team, said he knew something was up. “I had a gut feeling that we had very little if any chance to keep Mr. Yawkey’s name on the street,” he said. “It would have been nice if all the people were told of the policy because it might have encouraged them to try and get the rules changed.
Jack Connors, a well-known Boston power broker, said the commission members could have bucked the system if they wanted to despite the rules. “They always have choices,” he said. “There’s always discretion. They’re not robots.”
Without discussion, other than to note that all four of the abutters consented to the name change, the commission approved changing the name of Yawkey Way back to Jersey Street on April 26.
The petition by the Red Sox to change the name of Yawkey Way grew out of team owner John Henry saying he was “haunted” by the fact that a street that abuts Fenway Park was named after Yawkey. Henry did not appear at any of the four hearings, instead sending one of his lawyers.
Under the ownership of Yawkey, who was enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980, the Red Sox were the last major league team in baseball to sign a black player (Elijah “Pumpsie” Green) — 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the modern major league color barrier and two years after Robinson hung up his cleats.
An incident involving Robinson played a key role in the perception of Yawkey and the effort to remove his name. It has been reported that Robinson and two other black players participated in a tryout for the Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1945. While the players were going through their drills, someone allegedly yelled from the near-empty stands, “Get those n—— off the field.” A reporter who was there said he believed it was Yawkey who yelled the epithet while others say it might have been then-general manager Eddie Collins.