This Red Sox season has seen plenty of dramatic moments on the path to the American League Division Series, which starts Friday against the New York Yankees. But the season began with some drama just outside Fenway Park. After a heated debate, the city’s Public Improvement Commission chose to rename Yawkey Way because of the troubled racial legacy of the team’s former owner, Tom Yawkey.
At a commission meeting on the subject in April, that discussion led to another idea.
“The problem’s not on Yawkey Way,” said 64-year-old lifelong Red Sox fan Joe Vignolo. “It's on Van Ness street with those statues down there.”
Those statues are of some of history’s greatest Red Sox players. They stand along a stretch of sidewalk on what’s kind of the back side of Fenway Park. Vignolo said he’d noticed something troubling about them. “There are no African-American or Latino ballplayers who have statues there,” he said. “That statuary display is segregated still.”
When Vignolo first noticed that last fall, he said he wrote a letter to the team asking them to diversify the statues by adding a few players — and he had some suggestions of who to honor.
“And to get it started I sent them two dollars — one for Jim Rice and one for Pedro Martinez,” he testified at the meeting. “Now they took my two dollars and I haven't heard anything from them. They still got my money! And so in case they lost it, here's two more dollars so we can get those statues put up over there.”
Five months and one remarkable baseball season later, Vignolo stood on Van Ness Street before a game and looked at the statues. Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio stand together with Ted Williams in a collection entitled “Teammates.” Steps away is Carl Yastrzemski and another statue of Ted Williams putting his baseball hat on a child.
While these players go back generations with the team, their statues do not. The first one went up in 2004 and the most recent was the statue of Yastrzemski, put up in 2013.
After Vignolo sent his first letter, he did wind up getting a reply from the team.
“It said basically that they thought it was a worthwhile idea,” he said. “But they mention two obstacles: one was getting the permits from the city of Boston, which ironically had to come from that same committee that the hearings about the street name were at. And the other thing was the cost of the statues. These statues are extremely expensive.”
The letter says the statues currently on display cost about $1 million each. In an email to WGBH News, a Red Sox spokesperson said the cost of the statues is not a barrier and that the team expects to “include players in the future that represent the array of talent and the range of nationalities and ethnicities that have been reflected on our rosters.”
For Vignolo, who is white, adding statues of people of color is an issue of fairness. And he says it’s worth the money. “In a year or two no one's going to remember that the name of the street got changed, but [if] those statues get put here, those statues will be here probably forever.”
“I think it would be a very dramatic statement of how things have changed,” said Walter Carrington, who investigated the team's racism in the late 1950s on behalf of Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Carrington said the team is now dedicated to diversity and inclusiveness. And he’s got his own suggestion for a statue — Pumpsie Green.
“He's not up there in the pantheon with the great players, but he's the one who broke the color bar, and I think that's important,” he said.
Some Sox fans say race shouldn’t have anything to do with the decision to put up a statue of someone.
“That does not matter,” said Joseph Kenny before a recent game. “Their stature, their accomplishments, everything — that matters. And yes, maybe they should have something here, but you can only put so many.”
Others see it differently. “They should add more,” said fan Siyana Cater. “They should add blacks and Latinos to it.”
“I guess it would invite more people of color to come watch baseball games to see people like them in stadiums playing for the game that people love,” said her son Kai.
As he stood on Van Ness Street, Vignolo knew exactly what he’d like those statues to look like.
“Jim Rice in the middle of a swing hitting the baseball,” he said. “He terrorized the American League pitchers for a lot, and I saw a lot of that. And Pedro, rearing back to throw a 100 mile-an-hour fastball.”
And as the 2018 post-season starts, the team’s hoping a diverse collection of their current stars might show the kind of heroics that earn them a permanent spot on the sidewalk, just outside Fenway Park.