Ex-players remember Jean Yawkey's role in Red Sox tradition


WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- We made the call we never wanted to make. The line was busy the first few times we dialed. No doubt Ted Williams was on the phone, talking with someone about the death of his dear friend, Jean Yawkey.

Finally, we got a ring. On the third ring, a man picked up the phone and softly said, "Hello?"

The voice was weak and sad, but Ted's vocal print is unmistakable. We identified ourselves, apologized for bothering him at a time like this, but asked if he'd like to make a comment on the death of the Boston Red Sox owner.

"I really don't want to say very much," Williams started. "I'm extremely sorrowed by it all. I know it was expected for the last four or five days."

There was a slight pause. Then he said, "You know, I can go over 35 or 40 years with her, about how I always appreciated what a terrific gal she was. But I just want to say one thing."

Another pause.

"The single thing I appreciated most was what a terrific gal she was for Tom Yawkey. That was the strongest feeling I had for her. She's carried on now with the baseball tradition of Tom Yawkey. She's carried on with the charities and the way he did things, and I can't think of a nicer tribute than that."

A longer pause, while we scribbled the words.

"Have you got it?" he asked.

We got it. We thanked him and said goodbye.

It was the most unusual conversation we've ever had with Williams. There was no growl. He didn't bellow, "Where'd you get this number?" There was no John Wayne on the other end of this phone line. There was just a sad man speaking from his heart about a woman none of us ever really knew.

The names "Yawkey" and "Williams" are the most magical and lasting in Red Sox lore. And they are permanently intertwined. The Yawkey family has owned Fenway Park and the Red Sox for the last 59 seasons, and in that time, Ted Williams established himself as the greatest player in franchise history -- the hitter against whom all other hitters are measured.

It was the Yawkeys and Williams who created the lasting identity of this Boston baseball club. Tom and, later, Jean Yawkey were good-hearted millionaires who loved their ballplayers. Williams was the big-time slugger who was able to deliver every thrill an owner could want . . . everything except a World Series championship.

Tom Yawkey bought the Red Sox on Feb. 25, 1933, four days after his 30th birthday. Williams burst on the scene in 1939, and Jean Hollander married Tom Yawkey on Christmas Eve, 1944. Williams took the Red Sox to the World Series two years later, but Boston lost in seven games.

Tom Yawkey died in 1976, a decade after he saw Williams inducted into the Hall of Fame. His favorite charity was the Jimmy Fund, and of course, that was the charity supported by Williams and Jean Yawkey. In the years after Tom Yawkey's death, Jean Yawkey was the only one who could get Williams to come back to Boston for a ceremony or a fund-raiser. As long as Jean Yawkey lived, Williams felt part of the Boston ball club.

Williams always said that his biggest regret was that he didn't win a World Series for Tom Yawkey. It was a mantra picked up by other Red Sox players, and in recent years, there has been the desperate thirst to win one for Jean Yawkey.

"She was a real lovely lady," catcher Tony Pena said yesterday. "It's a shame, and the worst part about it is that she's been so close for so long and didn't think she'd ever see her ball club win the World Series."

Red Sox coach Rick Burleson said, "It's sad for me because this is my first year back here and this happens to Mrs. Yawkey. In all this time, they've never had the World Series victory that she would have liked to have seen, and I think this club has a chance to be that type of team."

Red Sox scout Frank Malzone said, "After I heard the news, I was thinking how strange it is just to think about what it's going to be like now without the Yawkey influence. There's no family name left."

Winter Haven is a sleepy town. The Red Sox, for one final spring, are still family, and last night in The Have, it felt as if there had been a death in the family. Conversations were hushed. Pleasantries were exchanged as normal, then someone would ask, "Did you hear the news?"

Clif Keane, who covered the Red Sox for the Boston Globe for more than 30 years, said, "They were a strange couple, very private. You never saw them out at a play or a restaurant. They'd go from the ballpark right back to the hotel. He was kind of a Howard Hughes type. I was around her for 35 years and I think I had one conversation with her. But I'll say this; she saved us from losing the ballclub to people we didn't know much about. She kept the team intact, spent money and kept the Yawkey tradition going."

Tom Yawkey passed away 15 years ago. Now Jean Yawkey, the last Yawkey, is gone. The Yawkey name stayed atop the Red Sox masthead for 59 years and one day. Much has been left behind, including several charitable foundations, a wing at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and a unique ballclub steeped in the Yawkey tradition.

In Boston, the Yawkey name is forever. Fenway Park is located on 4 Yawkey Way . . . just around the block from Ted Williams Way.

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