Peter Gammons: The Matisse Chapel, Fenway, Houston, and creating what’s right

On a hill in the town of Vence in the South of France sits a building that during World War II was a small garage, rebuilt into the Matisse Chapel over a four year period, finished in 1951. Inside, it’s stark, simple, stunning beauty takes one to a feeling of a frozen motion, one that takes one to a place where all that matters is what is good.

Henri Matisse lived in nearby Nice in 1941, when he underwent surgery for cancer, when war broke out, as the French appreciate artists as national treasures, he was taken to the safer, higher ground in Vence, cared for by Dominican nuns, and out of thanks, already near 80 years old,  he promised to design a chapel.

The stained glass, the architecture, the clergy garments that could hang in thousands of museums, the altar and cross create a chilling experience. Understand, Matisse was in his late Eighties as he completed his crowning achievement, working from a wheelchair, painting with a brush at the end of a pole, creating perfect, symmetrical art on the chapel walls.

But what remains with everyone fortunate enough to experience his chapel is a panel that explains an essence of the technique used in the interior furnishings: that Matisse studied subjects, studied those white walls and palettes, and then closed his eyes to retain objects to his subjectivity and work from his soul, because, as he said, “I can draw with my eyes closed.”

To create what he saw and took it to what he imagined.

In a sense, Steve Bannon was going there when he wrote of the difference between narrative truth and factual truth. One may find Bannon’s obsession with racial nationalism may run away from anything from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but there is an intellectual concept the window-washers in the White House misread as “alternative facts;” there are concepts that have to remain free from fact-checkers and M.I.T. analytical midterms.

But in the Matisse Chapel and some of the complicated concepts that run through Bannon’s head that are above and beyond data. What the 2017 Astros can mean to the painful realities of that great city’s recovery cannot be measured, and we who lived the shocks and aftershocks of the 2013 Marathon bombings in Boston cannot quantify what that World Champion Red Sox team meant to us, nor can New Yorkers offer proof of how much Mike Piazza’s home run, George W. Bush’s charge to the Yankee Stadium mound or Derek Jeter’s unforgettable Mr. November shot in the Bronx night offered moments that helped millions move on from the devastation of the September 11 attacks.

It is, of course, not just baseball; millions of Americans watched J.J. Watt Sunday and wanted to chip in beside him. It doesn’t have to be sports; on my phone last week in Nice, images of Texans of all races and backgrounds standing in line to volunteer their hands to the restoration of their fellow man’s lives were inspirational. When I got home and read A.J. Hinch’s speech upon the Astros return home, there was an afternoon when a man accepted the responsibility of leadership, which is about mobilization to good, not division to what is base.

The Astros cannot create the billions of dollars for the needy, but they can close their eyes and create an imaginative reality, a narrative hope. Some, like George Springer, know why, twenty years from now, David Ortiz’s “this is our (—ing) city” will echo, and re-echo.

John Henry, Tom Werner and Sam Kennedy cannot change the fact that their Red Sox were the last original major league franchise to have a minority player. I get that. I knew Tom Yawkey from the time I began covering the Red Sox in 1969 until he died in 1976. He had stopped drinking. There was a clear sense in our talks that what happened up to the arrival of Pumpsie Green—after Willie O’Ree had debuted with the Bruins—was a regret that weighed on him.

Yawkey himself was not a racist. He was raised in Tarrytown, New York. Bill Nowlin’s upcoming book on him delves on this, and Nowlin quotes Reggie Smith and other African-Americans who got to Fenway in the late Sixties—remember, Smith, Joe Foy, George Scott and Elston Howard were starting on that pennant-winning Impossible Dream team 50 years ago—as not sensing racism in the man.

Yawkey in his past offered power to Edward Collins as general manager, Mike Higgins as manager and general manager and folks like that. He was not a racist, but his ignorance of those people effectively enabled racist and shouted Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe off the Fenway workout field and forced the great scout George Digby to reneg on the deal he had to acquire Willie Mays. And many other such events.

Yawkey did a great deal for Boston, and baseball, flawed by loyalty to people who didn’t deserve loyalty to disgrace the history of the franchise. In the Eighties and Nineties, Yawkey’s widow Jean, along with a saint of a man named John Harrington, did all within the power of the Yawkey Foundation to right what so many felt were wrongs; when I moved into The South End in 1978, the hard feelings towards the Red Sox were stifling,

So when Henry, Werner and Kennedy think out renaming Yawkey Way with Mayor Walsh, it is not about disgracing the Yawkey name. They don’t need to name it David Ortiz Way. They need it to be a passage named something like The Street of the Rings, with plaques or remembrances of people who made the franchise what it is: John I. Taylor, who built Fenway Park, found players that eventually won four World Series from 1912-18 and whose family maintained an independent voice for New England in The Globe. Babe Ruth. Ted Williams (who chafed at the failed opportunity to play with Mays, and, as one who perceived himself as a Mexican minority, made the most important acceptance speech in the history of the Hall of Fame), Pumpsie Green, Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Tiant, Jim Rice, Tommy Harper, Pedro Martinez, Ortiz, Theo Epstein…For those who have covered the Olde Towne Teame for close to 50 years, we know that Yaz changed history with the most important season in the franchise history, that Luis Tiant brought an entire generation of fans, that Pedro Martinez changed the audience even more than Ortiz…

It is Henry, Werner and Kennedy closing their eyes and painting what they want the Red Sox to represent to all people across New England when they leave the team to the next custodian. It is about a narrative, not daily specifics and data.

One of the striking aspects of the stewardship of Rob Manfred and Tony Petitti is that their narrative is laced with good, of the education-based inner city complexes like the Compton Acadamy, Boston’s BASE, the new complex in Kansas City, as well as initiatives on cancer and a myriad of issues.

It’s not about role models. It’s about closing our eyes, taking this game we love and creating what’s right, and good, and as the Houston Astros players showed us this week, the people who play this game get it.


  1. No one writes about the baseball people like Peter Gammons. His stories and insights show such warmth and caring. To the new reporters on the baseball beat, set the stat sheets aside and start telling us stories about the people in baseball and how they stand for what’s right and good.