Discovering a National Pastime

June 2017
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel

The ecological and historical tour at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center celebrates wildlife, baseball and the life of a man who loved them both

Not even an hour into our four-hour bus tour of the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center and our guide, Jim Lee, the center’s Education and Outreach Coordinator (and bus driver extraordinaire), makes good on his earlier promise.

“This is not Disney world,” he’d said after he ferried 12 of us in a pontoon boat from the mainland to Cat Island, where the tour begins. “It’s actually much more fun. We don’t know when things are going to happen, when you might get a little dose of Yawkey magic instead of Disney magic, as we say. You’ve got keep your eyes open.”

What’s magical, it turns out, is that we get to see the rarest plant in the world, which just so happens to be in bloom on this cool November day. It is the Carolina hedge nettle—a small white flowering plant that the casual observer would undoubtedly miss. Fortunately, however, Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center has become one of the state’s best resources for wetland and wildlife research, and two biologists recently discovered the plant while out walking the 24,000-acre property.

And like almost everything we see on the tour, Jim Lee is able to connect the flower to the history of this place.

The best place to begin, perhaps, is way, way back—in the Pleistocene Epoch and the last Ice Age when the island formed in a stripe-like pattern of sand dunes and low interdune swales that filled up with organic material and became, in time, the cypress swamps so revered in the Lowcountry. Fast forward many thousands of years to the Civil War, when William C. Yawkey, of Michigan, bought up land warrants from returning serviceman for pennies on the dollar and became a successful lumber, mining and transportation tycoon.

His son, Bill Yawkey, would go on to purchase the Detroit Tigers and this land south of Georgetown in order to escape the Motor City’s brutal winters. Over the years, Cat Island had been inhabited by many communities—Native American tribes, colonial shipbuilders, rice planters and slaves, logging companies—as well as teeming wildlife populations of waterfowl, shorebirds, alligators, wild turkeys, deer, fish, shellfish, you name it.

“It’s hard to imagine how much commerce was going on here over a long period of time,” Lee says. “You might see five or six people today, if you’re lucky.”

But back then, during the major league offseason, Bill Yawkey would bring down famous Detroit Tiger players, among them Ty Cobb, as well as his nephew Tom.

“Now think about going on a trip with your uncle,” Jim Lee says. “Now how cool is that? Where you can hunt, you can fish, you can trap and shoot skeet. Hang out with these great baseball players who probably told dirty jokes and stuff. It’s kind of a boy’s dream come true, I think. So young Tom falls in love with this place at an early age.”

Tragically, when Tom Yawkey was 15 years old, his mother died, leaving him orphaned until Uncle Bill adopted him. Then, six months after the adoption, in 1918, Uncle Bill died of the Spanish flu, leaving young Tom with a 1/15 undivided interest in the property. After graduating cum laude in engineering from Yale, Tom bought up the rest of the shares and, a few years later, the Boston Red Sox.

“He wanted to follow in Uncle Bill’s footsteps, and he looked to buy the Tigers,” Lee says. “Then he sets his sights on the New York Yankees. Don’t you think that would have changed the entire planetary orbit, if Yawkey had bought the Yankees? But he gets a better deal for the Boston Red Sox—they were available for a lot less money—and he ends up spending half his time in Boston, and half his time down here on Cat Island and South Island.”

And one of his favorite places to spend time was where we stop beside the rare Carolina hedge nettle—a fishing pond that he created after Santee Cooper completed Lakes Marion and Moultrie, diverting water from the Santee River into the Cooper River and changing the salinity of the inland waters.

And that’s the beauty of this tour—the way Jim Lee can connect it all together, and you see that you are standing here because, in a roundabout way, the owner of the Boston Red Sox made sure to conserve it for you. And you realize that the property’s beauty comes, in part, from drastic changes of weather over the course of millions of years.

Still, the primary goal is not tourism at Yawkey Wildlife Center—it’s conservation. That is the real reason Tom Yawkey established the Yawkey Foundation, which, in an interesting collaboration, works with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to fund and manage the place.

“The way they engineered this thing is everybody who works here works for DNR,” Lee explains. “DNR signs our paychecks each week. DNR issues uniforms, buys vehicles, pays for fuel, pays for utilities, pays for materials to build bridges and structures. But each month, the manager here, Jamie Dozier, creates an invoice and sends it up to Boston, and we get reimbursed.

“The way they do things is kind of slow and methodical—in other words, just like Tom Yawkey did.”

The secondary goal, however, is wildlife research. As we cruise along in the bus beside salt marshes and through longleaf pine forests and under canopies of live oaks and past alligators and all kinds of birds, Jim Lee tells us about the researchers who come here from near and far to work.

“We have a golden opportunity not just to do wildlife research that has local implications, but to do waterfowl and wildlife research that has global implications. It opens the door to a lot more grad students and doctoral candidates to come over here and use these natural resources and these landscapes to further their education and further our understanding.”

Our tour concludes on South Island, in a modest little modular home that, we come to find out when we step inside, is where the Boston Red Sox office was essentially located whenever Tom Yawkey spent his time away from Boston. Autographed and inscribed pictures of Ted Williams and Ty Cobb are hung about the walls, among photographs of Yawkey hunting big game out West. Lee shows us the scuff marks on the floor from where Yawkey would wheel his chair while listening to his team on the radio, keeping stats as he always did.

The room has a sacred, even solemn, air about it. For it’s not hard to understand that we are standing on local ground, but also in a part of American history.

On the way back to the pontoon, before we cross the canal and head back to the mainland and the business of our lives, Lee has a final message for us.

“If you go spend time—appreciable, measurable time—outside,” he says, “it ignites a little spark in you. And once you light that fire, good things will happen for you. It’s clinical science now, but it was just a notion back then.

“We’re just not made to stay indoors. And long before people spent too much time watching television or on the computer or on their phone, long before all that, Yawkey realized how important it was for people to spend time outside.”


Photography by Charles Slate and Courtesy of Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center; Illustrations by Jude Shiflett