SABR

Tom Yawkey

This article was written by Mark Armour.

As the owner of the Boston Red Sox for 43 years, few if any people have influenced the history of the team as much as Tom Yawkey. He was a man of immense wealth who spent millions on the Red Sox and on gifts to dozens of charitable organizations. He saved a dying franchise in the 1930s and rebuilt Boston’s Fenway Park. Despite his years as the head of one of the city’s beloved institutions, and one of the city’s greatest benefactors, he avoided publicity so much that most fans of the team are not aware of his life outside of baseball. The overriding goal of Yawkey’s life was to win a World Series, and in this he would remain disappointed.

Thomas Yawkey Austin was born in Detroit on February 21, 1903, into a family that held substantial timber and mining interests in the Midwest. Tom’s father, Thomas J. Austin, was an insurance executive who married into the wealthy Yawkey family. Tom’s mother, Augusta, was the first child of William Clyman Yawkey, who had diligently expanded the family’s wealth by logging most of Michigan’s remaining pine forests and by buying large tracts of timber in Minnesota which eventually were found to contain the world’s largest deposit of iron ore. Augusta and Thomas Austin married in 1893, and Austin soon joined the family business, buying an island of timber in Ontario and settling down on the family’s Detroit estate. Augusta had two children who survived childhood—Emma Marie and our Thomas—before father Thomas’s sudden death in September 1903, just seven months after the birth of his son. Emma was nine years older than Tom.

In 1906, Augusta and her two children moved into the home of her brother William Yawkey in New York City. Unlike his hard-working father, Bill Yawkey lived a life of leisure, and was never particularly interested in growing his family’s sizable fortune. He co-owned the Detroit Tigers for several years, and loved to hunt, attend ball games, drink, and gamble on horses, often in the company of his players. He bought a 20,000-acre former plantation on the South Carolina coast, where he and his friends could hunt and fish and drink. Young Tom spent his life in posh apartments and huge estates.

In 1912, Tom was sent to the prestigious Irving School in Tarrytown, New York, and spent much of the next eight years there. Tom’s mother, Augusta, who had not spent much time with him in recent years, died in 1918 from influenza. Fifteen-year-old Tom was formally adopted by Uncle William and his wife, Margaret, and Tom became Thomas Austin Yawkey. Six months later, Bill Yawkey, too, died, leaving behind his wife and adopted son. Suddenly the 16-year-old boy was extremely rich, with a fortune estimated at more than 7 million, and perhaps as much as 20 million, dollars. (In 21st-century dollars, that was about 99 million to 283 million dollars.) All of the money would be maintained by conservators until Tom’s 30th birthday--February 21, 1933.

For the intervening 14 years, Tom lived the life of leisure expected of rich young men in the Roaring Twenties. In 1920, he graduated from the Irving School and enrolled at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, studying the family business—forestry and mining. He earned a degree from Yale in 1925. In a social environment of mainly wealthy people, Yawkey was richer than most, and a willing member of the social scene. After leaving Yale, he married Elise Sparrow, a former beauty queen, and began spending some of his time working in the family business. He did not need to do much--Yawkey Enterprises at this point consisted mainly of buying and selling lands and stock. While he was bear hunting with his friends, his wealth continued to accumulate.

Tom Yawkey always loved baseball. He had lived with William when his uncle owned the Tigers, and had known and idolized famous ballplayers his entire life. It was Ty Cobb who first suggested to Yawkey that he consider buying a baseball team. That was in 1926, several years before Tom would get his inheritance. Yawkey’s biggest idol in baseball was Eddie Collins, a great second baseman of the 1910s and 1920s who had preceded Yawkey at the Irving School by more than a decade. Yawkey played ball himself at Irving and was a pretty good athlete. Years later, Yawkey met Collins at a school function and asked Eddie, then a coach with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, to let him know if a baseball team came up for sale.

By late 1932, the Boston Red Sox were in dire straits. In the early 1920s, owner Harry Frazee had decimated a great team by selling or trading all its best players to the New York Yankees. When he sold the wreck of a club to Robert Quinn in 1923, there were no good ballplayers left. Quinn owned the Red Sox for 10 seasons, finishing last eight times and losing money every year. After the club finished 64 games out of first place in 1932, Quinn decided he had had enough. During the World Series he ran into Collins, who arranged a meeting with Yawkey.1

The price for the team and Fenway Park was 1.25 million dollars, a lot of money for a struggling franchise in 1933. The sale was announced on February 25, four days after Yawkey’s 30th birthday. Yawkey would love the Red Sox for the rest of his life, but he knew nothing about running a team and never really would. Before making the deal, Yawkey persuaded Collins to be the team’s vice president and general manager, running the club’s day-to-day operations. The stories in the local papers played up the role of Collins over the unknown Yawkey. “Eddie Collins and 30-Year-Old New York Millionaire Buy Red Sox Club,” announced one headline.2

The Red Sox franchise was failing. They had just lost 111 games, to this day the worst record in their long history. The team had no farm system from which to draw new players, and the club was largely made up of players other teams had discarded. To improve the team, Yawkey had to either begin purchasing good prospects from the many independent minor-league teams or try to acquire or purchase productive major-league players. Yawkey—a rich man during a time when most owners were struggling financially—chose the latter course.

Over the next few years, the Red Sox acquired a few of the better players in the American League—notably Lefty Grove, Billy Werber, Rick Ferrell, Wes Ferrell, Joe Cronin, and Jimmie Foxx—to jump-start the sagging club. Cronin, purchased for $250,000 in October 1934, would be the club’s manager for the next 13 years. The Red Sox also brought in several veterans whose best years were behind them--George Pipgras, Rube Walberg, Max Bishop, Lloyd Brown, Heinie Manush—indications that Yawkey (or Collins) was not as discriminating about spending money as perhaps he could have been. Most of these players were acquired using Yawkey’s money, as the team had little in the way of players to trade.

Armed with these players, many observers thought, unrealistically, the club should vault to the pennant. In fact, most of the star players continued to perform at a high level, but the team still did not have the kind of talent that could contend with the Tigers of the mid-1930s or (especially) the great Yankees of the late 1930s. Yawkey took over a team that finished 43-111—two years later they were at .500, and by 1938 they were the second best team in the league. The expectations of the media and fans, that purchasing a bunch of veteran players would put them on par with the New York Yankees, were not realistic. Perhaps Yawkey was not misguided to invest money as he had, but he and everyone else should have recognized that his approach was nothing more than a reasonable first step.

Yawkey remained perfectly content with his chosen hobby. “Some men like to spend their dough on fast horses and other things that go fast,” he told writer Dan Daniel in early 1937. “Some men like to go in for polo, for example, and spend thousands of dollars on ponies. Some go nuts for paintings, and give half a million for a hunk of canvas in a fancy frame. But my passion is baseball. My idea of heaven is a pennant winner. Boston would go nuts over a winner, and maybe someday we’ll get all the dough back. But in the meantime, don’t let anybody tell you Tom Yawkey is a sucker.”3

At the time, both press and public were supportive. Yawkey had purchased a fading franchise and made it relevant again, without causing more than a ripple in his own substantial bank account. “The fact is,” wrote Joe Williams in 1938, “it would be better for baseball--much better--if there were more Tom Yawkeys in it. What do you think a Yawkey would do for the dismal situation in St. Louis, as regards the Browns? When a young fellow comes along and decides to take the rubber band off the bank roll, for some reason the first people to scoff at him are the wise guys.”4

The Red Sox in the late 1930s were sometimes called the Gold Sox, or the Millionaires, and many stories written about them in this era referred to their opulent salaries. This characterization is misleading. In 1933, Yawkey’s first year in charge, the team’s payroll was sixth highest of eight teams in the league, and far behind the Yankees. Six years later, in 1939, when most of Yawkey’s high-priced purchases were still on the team, their payroll had risen to $227,237, only the fifth highest in the league, while New York was paying out $361,471. The team’s reputation was fueled completely by the prices Yawkey paid to purchase some of his players, but was not reflected in the club’s payroll.

By the late 1930s, the Red Sox had also begun to acquire promising minor-league players, purchasing Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, and Dom DiMaggio from the Pacific Coast League. They also established their own farm system, controlling several of their own teams by the mid-1940s. The 1942 club, largely dominated by the three aforementioned youngsters plus rookie Johnny Pesky, finished 93-59 (their best record since 1915) with the youngest core of players in the league. The next three years saw most major-league rosters severely depleted by service in World War II, but the returning Red Sox stars captured Yawkey’s first pennant in 1946. The ’46 team lost the World Series in seven games to the Cardinals. Four more years of contention followed, helped by Yawkey’s willingness to spend additional money on buying Vern Stephens, Ellis Kinder, and Jack Kramer from the Browns.

Eddie Collins’s health forced him to step down after the 1947 season, and Joe Cronin replaced him as general manager. Yawkey continued to defer on matters of players, though he apparently personally hired Lou Boudreau to manage the team in 1951 (Cronin wanted to hire Mike Higgins). During the 1950s, as the club fell out of contention, there was much speculation as to who was making the decisions among Yawkey, Cronin, and the field manager. Yawkey rarely spoke to the press, mainly because of an intense shyness, and never second-guessed Cronin or the manager. He primarily seemed to just provide the money.

Yawkey remained a fairly popular figure in Boston, still considered the savior of the franchise. In February 1956, both the Boston and New York chapters of the Baseball Writers Association presented him with awards for his long service to the game. From 1956 through 1973, he served as the vice president of the American League—a position whose duties were mainly presiding over meetings when the president was absent, though still indicative of his stature with his fellow owners.

Yawkey’s marriage with Elise was troubled during much of the 1930s. Tom’s interests were mainly sporting—hunting, fishing, and baseball—while his wife loved the social whirl of New York and Beverly Hills. Tom was a very shy man, who hated parties. They adopted a daughter, Julia, in 1936, but the couple separated not long after and lived separate lives for a few years before finally divorcing in 1944. Both remarried within a few weeks, Elise in an expansive high-society affair in the Hamptons, Tom before a few witnesses in South Carolina.

Tom’s second wife was Jean Hiller, herself divorced and working in New York as a clothing model. This was a great match—Jean loved the same things Tom loved, including privacy and quiet evenings, and grew to love baseball and the Red Sox as much as he did. The two divided their summers between New York, where his company was headquartered, and Boston, at a private suite at the Ritz Carlton, and winters in South Carolina. Yawkey’s 20,000 acres were really a private preserve where he hunted and fished with his select friends. The couple rarely missed a summer Red Sox home game for the rest of their lives, sitting in their private box on the third-base side of the press box above the crowd at Fenway Park.

The Yawkeys also became immersed in charitable causes. In 1953, the Red Sox began a long association with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, with its Jimmy Fund becoming the team’s official charity. Yawkey was a longtime supporter of Georgetown Memorial Hospital in Georgetown, South Carolina, near his winter home. After the tragic death of young Red Sox star Harry Agganis in 1955, Yawkey established the Agganis Foundation, which has given over one million dollars in scholarships for student athletes in the Boston area. In 1968, Tom and Jean purchased property in Georgetown, and built the Tara Hall Home, a place for troubled or abused boys.

Yawkey first visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, when Joe Cronin was inducted—he was so impressed with the facility that he became one of its largest benefactors and eventually a member of its board of directors. Yawkey was inducted posthumously in 1980.

The writer Al Hirshberg, in his 1972 team history, wrote that there was no nicer man in baseball than Yawkey, “no more loyal friend and no one with a more sincere feeling of good will toward his fellow man.” The problem, thought Hirshberg, was that Yawkey hired people he liked, and was more concerned with keeping them happy than he was in their performance. Cronin was the general manager for 11 years while the team slowly declined. Mike Higgins was hired to manage in 1955 and spent 11 years as either the manager or general manager. Yawkey liked both men, but kept them long after it was clear that the organization needed a change. The main qualification for employment by the Red Sox, it was charged, was friendship with Yawkey or Cronin. Yawkey apparently liked to drink, and he enjoyed the congenial camaraderie of those who would drink with him.

One of the more unfortunate legacies of the 1950s Red Sox was their failure to field a black player until 1959, the last major-league team to do so. Many of the recent histories of the team have tried to assign blame for this shortcoming to one person or another, and Yawkey (as the man in charge) certainly should have demanded that the problem be rectified. Although the team did make a few attempts to acquire black stars from other teams (notably Larry Doby from the Indians and Charlie Neal from the Dodgers), the club ultimately waited for Pumpsie Green and Earl Wilson, signed in 1953, to work their way through the farm system. Red Sox inaction in this area cost them dearly on the field—as so many black stars entered the game in this period—and the taint of their delay haunted them for decades after.

In 1960, Yawkey named longtime scout Neil Mahoney as farm director, and Dick O’Connell as vice president of the business—in charge of everything aside from major-league personnel. These two promotions might have been the first of Yawkey’s regime that were based solely on the men’s job performance and not on their relationships with their bosses. The organization slowly began to recover, especially after O’Connell became general manager in 1965. Two years later, the famous “Impossible Dream” club won Yawkey’s second pennant, before falling in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Red Sox have contended almost every year since, and the club has become a beloved institution in the city.

Yawkey was always very popular with his players. In his early years, he hunted and fished with many of them—especially Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx. These men were his peers, and he loved being around his ballplayers. In fact, he often suited up and took batting practice. He always treated his players well—to a fault, many observers felt. The Red Sox rarely had any salary disputes. Yawkey did not socialize with Ted Williams, but he treated him with deference during his long career of stardom and tantrums. Many in the press wanted Williams punished for his outbursts at them or the fans, but Yawkey generally did not punish his players—on the occasions when a manager would fine a player, it was said that Yawkey would not impose it. By the early 1970s, he was more of a grandfather figure—Carl Yastrzemski especially revered Yawkey, who was 36 years his senior.

Yawkey was criticized for the firing of manager Dick Williams in 1969, apparently over the objections of O’Connell. Williams believed he was fired because the players didn’t like him, and because Yawkey typically sided with the players. As players became more militant on labor matters in the late 1960s, the Red Sox players were less understanding of the conflicts. Carl Yastrzemski, for one, was criticized for publicly suggesting that the players should back off over a pension disagreement in 1969, and again when the players struck in 1972. The Red Sox players liked Yawkey and felt they were treated well.

Yawkey witnessed a third and final pennant in 1975, but once more he watched his team lose a seventh game, this time to the Cincinnati Reds. The organization had never been stronger than it was at that moment, with a great farm system and a team filled with young players sure to bring more pennants.

But there would be no more winning for Yawkey, who succumbed to leukemia on July 9, 1976, after a long battle. He was 73. Walter O’Malley of the Dodgers, a longtime fellow owner, said, “He was a good man and a good friend. I never remember anyone ever saying anything bad about him personally. Things just won’t be the same without him.” Bill Veeck, an owner who clashed with Yawkey over the years, said, “Mr. Yawkey stood for genuine class.” Ted Williams, on a fishing trip in New Brunswick, said, “No one thought more of Tommie Yawkey than I did. I am really terribly sorry. I can’t put it into words.”

The great writer Red Smith wrote a reminiscence in the New York Times. “He had little in common with other club owners,” said Smith, “and they were mystified by him, if not downright suspicious, because he was a strange fish who was in baseball not to make a buck or feed his ego but because he happened to love the game.” He was a man, felt Smith and others, who never regretted a single moment or a single dollar he spent on the game.5

He was survived by his wife, Jean, who held a majority stake in the team until her own death in 1992. Jean spent most of the rest of her life adding to the family’s considerable legacy in starting or helping support charitable organizations.

After Yawkey’s death, the team originally passed into the hands of a trust. In 1977, a deal was struck to sell the team to the partnership of longtime team executive Haywood Sullivan and former team trainer Buddy LeRoux. Fearing that the team would be overly leveraged, the American League originally rejected the sale, but approved it when Jean Yawkey joined up and became a third general partner. In 1983, LeRoux attempted to wrest control by cobbling together the shares of several minority owners; when his coup failed, he sold his share to Jean Yawkey, who then held two of the three voting shares and control of the team. Upon Jean’s death in 1992, her share of the team passed to the Yawkey Trust, managed by John Harrington. The trust bought out Sullivan in 1993, and sold the club to John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino in 2002, thus finally bringing to an end the 69-year Yawkey ownership of the Red Sox.

Upon his death, Yawkey’s 20,000-acre South Carolina estate was willed to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), land that now comprises the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center. Consisting of two islands and part of a third, the land has been maintained as a wildlife preserve and nature center, and is one of the largest conservation grants in US history. The land remains an undisturbed habitat for migratory birds, eagles, alligators, and many endangered species. Public access to the land is by boat or ferry only, and guided nature tours can be arranged only through the DNR.

The Yawkey Foundations comprise a trust set up according to the wills of Tom and Jean Yawkey. The foundation claimed assets of $36 million in 2002, before the sale of the Red Sox brought in an additional $420 million. From 2002 through 2008, the foundation has given $230 million in aid to a variety of organizations. Areas of giving include health care, education, human services, youth and amateur athletics, arts and culture, and conservation and wildlife. In 2007, the foundation made its largest gift to date--$30 million to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to fund the construction of the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care in Boston. The 14-story building, located on the corner of Brookline Avenue and Jimmy Fund Way, opened in 2011 and provides modern personal care to its patients.

There are many other reminders of Tom Yawkey in and around Boston. The local amateur baseball league, rescued by a large donation from Jean Yawkey in 1990, was renamed the Yawkey Baseball League of Boston. Jersey Street, the road adjacent to the Fenway Park and its main entrance, was renamed Yawkey Way after Tom’s death. The only memorial to the Yawkeys at Fenway Park is a subtle one: his and Jean’s initials (TAY and JRY) are printed in Morse code along the side of the left-field scoreboard.

Since his death, Tom Yawkey’s legacy has suffered. Mainly beloved while he lived, most histories of the team written in the past few decades have focused on the team’s inability to win the World Series for 85 years (including all 43 years of Yawkey’s ownership) and on the team’s tardiness in fielding a black player. The latter obviously sullied the team’s reputation for many years, even long after his death. In Yawkey’s defense, his later teams—including the 1967 and 1975 pennant winners--featured many prominent African-American and Latino players, and there is no record that his relationship with any of his players was anything other than positive. As an owner, Tom Yawkey was the team’s greatest fan. Whether this is the most appropriate role for the CEO of a business has been debated, but this was the only role Yawkey knew how to play. He loved the game and his team, and was never happier than when he watched them play and win.

 

Notes

1 Al Hirshberg, Red Sox, The Bean and the Cod (Waverly House, 1947).

2 Boston Sunday Advertiser, February 26, 1933.

3 Dan Daniel, “Rambling Around the Circuit,” The Sporting News, May 6, 1937.

4 Joe Williams, New York World-Telegram, May 28, 1938.

5 Red Smith, “Man Who Couldn’t Buy Pennants,” New York Times, July 12, 1976.

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