Baseball Team Seeks to Redress Past Racism—Will Boston College Follow?

User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

February 11, 2018; The Heights (Boston College)

Early last year, Boston Red Sox principal owner John Henry felt that it was the right time to open what several confidants assured him was going to be the proverbial can of worms, petitioning the city of Boston to rename Yawkey Way in a move to break from what he described as the franchise’s haunting past of racial segregation. But how would this move affect the numerous philanthropic endeavors around the city and throughout New England bearing the same name? What’s a nonprofit to do?

Yawkey Way was named in honor of Tom Yawkey, who owned the Red Sox for 44 seasons. The Boston Herald explains that an inescapable, significant, and enduring part of the Yawkey legacy is a racist one. Yawkey, who was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1980s, oversaw the 12-season stretch from 1947–1958 in which the Red Sox watched every other team in Major League Baseball integrate before they became the last club to do so in 1959. The second-to-last team to integrate was the Detroit Tigers, which were owned for a brief period starting in 1903 by Tom Yawkey’s uncle.

But the street is not the only thing named after Tom Yawkey. The Yawkey family fortune was made and given away during a time when naming opportunities were the ultimate philanthropic status symbol for both the donor and the nonprofit beneficiary. After the family gave away nearly half a billion dollars up and down the East Coast, nonprofits from island wildlife refuges to modern hospitals all sport the familial name. The Heights, the independent student newspaper of Boston College, reported that Yawkey Athletics Center, which opened in March 2005, was built entirely by private donations, according to a Boston College Athletics webpage.

Before anyone gets any ideas, the college released a statement that there won’t be any renaming opportunities for the athletic center.

“The ongoing discussion by current Red Sox ownership to rename a public street, which was named after former owner Tom Yawkey, does not involve the recipients of Yawkey Foundation grants, who are required by agreement to bear the Yawkey name,” representatives said in a statement to The Heights. “The University remains grateful to the Yawkey Foundation for their generosity in support of Boston College.”

As NPQ has covered, it is not unheard of for donation recipients to remove donors’ names when circumstances warrant:

In 2004, Bill and Nancy Laurie—Nancy is the heiress to a portion of the Wal-Mart fortune—donated $25 million to the University of Missouri–Columbia. The sports facility was to be named after their daughter Paige, who attended the University of Southern California. Paige was accused of academic misconduct and ultimately returned her diploma to USC… the university renamed the building the Mizzou Arena.

Last month, writing for the Guardian, NPQ’s Steve Dubb and Amy Costello noted that universities may face increasing pressures to rename buildings bearing the name of the Sackler family because the family made their fortune from OxyContin. Since 1999, more than 200,000 Americans have died from overdoses connected to OxyContin and similar prescription opioids.

The question of rejecting a donor’s name is complicated and relies on the terms of the donation. John K. Eason at the University of California-Davis explains that there are three categories of gift that are relevant here:

  • An unconditional gift, in which case the Yawkey foundation would have given the money with no strings attached, and BC could call the building anything it likes.
  • A conditional gift, where the receipt of the money is contingent on the name of the building, and BC would need to return the money if it changed the name.
  • A gift in charitable trust status, which is a type of conditional gift that allows for the invocation of the cy pres doctrine.

Cornell Law School defines “cy pres” as follows:

If it becomes unlawful, impossible or impracticable to carry out the purpose of the designated charitable trust or becomes wasteful to apply all the property to the designated purpose, the trust will not fail but instead the court will direct the application of the property (or a portion of the property) to a charitable purpose that reasonably approximates the designated purpose. The cy pres doctrine means “as near as possible”—practically, this means that the court rewrites the charitable gift or trust so that it is no longer impossible or impracticable to carry out.

In the last case, if BC were to determine that keeping the Yawkey name on the building was detrimental to its interests (say, because it discouraged students of color from applying, or because it turned other potential donors away), they could find another way to honor the foundation, change the name, and keep the gift. This route is often subject to individual discretion; NPQ covered another story in which a judge ruled that a college could not change the name of a building for reasons of financial viability.

Since the facility has already been built, BC will likely try to find a way to keep the money. Neither the school’s website nor the foundation’s state the conditions of the donation, so we cannot know whether BC has the legal opportunity to fight to change the name without paying back the gift.

For its part, the Yawkey Foundation has sought to defend the family name. They released a statement last summer when the Red Sox first proposed a name change for Yawkey Way.

Jean and Tom Yawkey’s philanthropy has always been color blind,” the statement said. “Their extraordinary generosity has made a significant impact on Massachusetts and the Greater Boston community, contributing more than $450 million to hundreds of non-profit organizations and helping improve the lives of thousands of disadvantaged children of all backgrounds. We are honored to have the Yawkey name on so many organizations and institutions that benefit Bostonians of all races—and disheartened by any effort to embroil the Yawkeys in today’s political controversy.

The foundation also sought to refute claims of racism made against Yawkey, citing attempts at signing several black players and prospects, and the signing of black players to the organization’s minor league teams. However, to baseball historians some of the proof of the intentional segregation lies in Yawkey’s failure to promote black players from the minor leagues to take the field with a Red Sox uniform. Eventually, the total integration of baseball was a triumph. Teams like Detroit and Boston were slipping in the win-loss column. Other major league teams had moved on, signing Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and other Black stars, and they had the pennants to show for their diverse talent.—Carrie Collins-Fadell