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Monument debate renews push by Red Sox to rename Yawkey Way

BOSTON ­— A dark blue banner with red letters reads "Welcome to Yawkey Way," and on Friday morning it still hung over a street lined on one side by shops selling Red Sox gear and souvenirs, and on the other by the brick facade of the team's century-old home, Fenway Park.

The question was, how long would the banner, and the name, remain?

The Red Sox this week strode purposefully into a roiling national debate about racism, monuments and history when the team's owner, John Henry, said the club would renew its efforts to have the city rename Yawkey Way. The designation honors a former Red Sox owner, Thomas Yawkey, a member of the Hall of Fame whose long tenure remains infamous to some because of his resistance to efforts to integrate baseball in the 1950s.

Henry's comments came at a tense time in this city, where some fear that a rally by self-described free speech advocates scheduled for Saturday will attract white nationalists, who are expected to be opposed by thousands of counterprotesters, and where one group has proposed renaming Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, which is named after Peter Faneuil, a slave trader in the 1700s.

President Donald Trump has mocked as "foolish" the idea of removing statues and monuments or renaming parks and other public spaces bearing the names of controversial historical figures. And in a sequence of messages posted on Twitter on Thursday, he inflamed the debate further by questioning how far the removals would go.

Yawkey Way, just two blocks long, is a narrow and unremarkable roadway, but it is familiar to Red Sox fans because it transforms into a pedestrian promenade on game days, with much of it cordoned off to allow thousands of fans to gather to drink beer, eat grilled sausages and buy souvenirs before entering the ballpark.

By noon Friday, before an important weekend series against the visiting Yankees, fans had already begun filtering onto the street, lining up to take tours of Fenway Park and wandering in and out of the shops.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh supports changing the name, members of his staff said, although he declined to address the topic with reporters Friday, saying he was focused on the demonstrations in the city planned for Saturday.

Debate exploded on local radio, with callers to several stations objecting to a potential name change. One man, identifying himself as "John from Quincy," said on WGBH that changing the name was "foolish" because no one thinks about Yawkey when they go to games at Fenway.

"If you want to do something for whites and blacks," he added, "lower the ticket prices."

The Yawkey Foundations, a major local charity that has contributed almost half a billion dollars to causes in Boston over the years, issued a statement saying it had always been "colorblind" and was disheartened by the proposed change.

"We are honored to have the Yawkey name on so many organizations and institutions that benefit Bostonians of all races," the statement said. "We are disheartened by any effort to embroil them in today's political controversy."

Sam Kennedy, the team's president and chief executive, indicated in several interviews that the matter had been under discussion for some time, before the violence last week at a far-right protest in Charlottesville, Va. But, he said, recent events had "elevated the conversation."

Yawkey owned the Red Sox for more than 40 years until his death in 1976, and the team remained in his family until it was sold to a group headed by Henry in 2002.

Proceeds from the sale have financed much of the Yawkey Foundation's philanthropy, but Yawkey's role in resisting integration has attracted renewed scrutiny recently in a city where a quarter of residents are black, and the long-held perception has been that it is an unwelcoming place for minorities generally — comedian Michael Che referred to Boston this year as "the most racist city I've ever been to" — and for black athletes specifically.

The Red Sox were the last major-league team to integrate, when they promoted infielder Pumpsie Green in 1959, a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yawkey had owned the team for more than two decades by then, and he would continue to control it for 17 more.

African-American ballplayers have spoken for years about the difficulty of playing in Boston. Just last winter, Red Sox pitcher David Price ­— the team's highest-paid player and a former Rays ace ­— said racial taunts were directed at him while he warmed up in the Fenway bullpen last season. And this season, Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones said that a fan in the Fenway bleachers had yelled racial epithets at him.

City officials and Red Sox leaders apologized profusely to Jones, and he received a standing ovation from the Fenway crowd when he came to bat the next day. But the episode fed a narrative that the city and its fans — sensitive to the stain it carries — have long tried to change.

"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 multicultural, but stand for as many of the right things in our community as we can," Henry wrote Thursday in an email to the Boston Herald. While the makeup of the team's roster changed long ago, Henry said he was "haunted" by the team's complicated racial past.

Yet Henry's mere suggestion that the team would press for the renaming of the street made the Red Sox the latest organization or figure in sports to enter the kind of polarizing political discussion that athletes and teams have long avoided.

LeBron James and Martina Navratilova, among others, have used Twitter to strongly criticize Trump's shifting comments about the protests in Charlottesville, and another NBA star, Kevin Durant, said he would skip a possible visit by the league champion Warriors to the White House because "I don't respect who's in office right now."

And Thursday, the Bucs, Lightning and Rays pledged to cover the cost of removing a Confederate statue in front of the old Tampa courthouse, saying the monument "does not reflect the values of our community."

In Boston, the feelings about Yawkey are not nearly as polarizing. Tim Frost and his friend Michael Douglas, who attended an event for season-ticket holders Thursday night at Fenway, said they were in favor of the name change.

"It's not like they're trying to erase him; it's not like they're taking down a statue," said Frost, 51. "But Henry is very aware of the perception of Boston as a racist city, and that's the last thing they want."

Henry noted that changing the name of Yawkey Way would require the approval of another business that shares the street.

One solution, he suggested, might be to simply honor a different Red Sox figure. He floated an idea: David Ortiz Way.