Sports’ longest charitable partnership sets standard
When a few dozen teenage patients from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute visited Fenway Park for July’s Jimmy Fund Clinic Teen Weekend, they encountered a familiar face in the dugout. The Boston Red Sox’s Brock Holt already knew most of their first names. He already knew what cancer treatments most were undergoing.
The Red Sox claim their partnership with the Jimmy Fund — the two work together to raise money for cancer research and care at nearby Dana-Farber — is the longest-standing partnership between an American sports team and a charity. As corporate social responsibility becomes an area of increasing focus in sports, it is a relationship that other teams and leagues frequently try to emulate.
The relationship’s lifeblood is the personal bond between players and patients, a connection evident when Ted Williams visited patients and one that continues today with Holt assuming the leading role as the Jimmy Fund Captain.
“It is absolutely a credit to the players,” said Sam Kennedy, Red Sox president and CEO. “The authentic, real connection the players have had with the patients and staff down at the Jimmy Fund, it seems like the torch has always been passed from one generation to the next. … The Jimmy Fund is synonymous with the Red Sox, and vice versa.”
The partnership dates to April 1953, when Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey announced that his team would adopt the Jimmy Fund as its official charity, continuing a tradition started five years earlier by the Boston Braves before they moved to Milwaukee. The two baseball teams celebrated the occasion by playing a benefit exhibition for the Jimmy Fund.
When John Henry and partner Tom Werner bought the Red Sox in 2002, they worked — along with Larry Lucchino, now chairman of the Jimmy Fund — to grow the relationship further. If there is a corporate social responsibility hierarchy for the Red Sox, the Jimmy Fund remains at the top.
“I have people call me all the time who have ballparks in their town and they say, ‘What can we do?’” said Suzanne Fountain, vice president of the Jimmy Fund. “You need 60 or 70 years — it evolves over time. You have new ownership come in and it’s been fabulous. It works in so many different ways.”
Among the most significant fundraisers: The WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon presented by Arbella Insurance Foundation at Fenway Park, which supports adult and pediatric cancer care and research at Dana-Farber, has raised more than $55 million for the Jimmy Fund since its inception in 2002. The two-day, 36-hour event features interviews with doctors, nurses and patients sharing inspirational stories.
And the Pan-Mass Challenge, presented by the Red Sox Foundation and New Balance, is the nation’s original fundraising bike-a-thon, raising more money for charity than any other athletic fundraising event in the nation. Since its inception in 1980, the PMC has contributed $654 million to lifesaving cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber.
The relationship’s presence is felt throughout the organization — the Red Sox/Jimmy Fund logo is even visible on the Green Monster.
“It has really transcended into where they are not just a partner with us, but they are really joined with us,” said Lisa Scherber, the director of patient and family programs at Dana-Farber who has spent the last 28 years with the Jimmy Fund. “They’ve gotten to know our patients. They’ve gotten to know our families. They’ve invested their emotions and their hearts into our families.”
Among the most prominent stories is one of teenager Maddie LeClair, a free-spirited and witty non-baseball fan who developed a strong connection with Holt. He would FaceTime her after her surgery. She’d tell him about her trips to Sephora to buy makeup. In 2017, LeClair, 15, passed away after her battle with cancer, but her legacy lives on within Holt and the Red Sox franchise.
“The days that were really dark for Maddie, the Jimmy Fund and their collaboration with the Red Sox would just brighten her day,” said her mother, Dawn LeClair. “Every time we saw Brock, it was on some of those tougher days. And it made them brighter. I can’t even explain the emotion of it.”
Kennedy said the depth and strength of the Jimmy Fund-Red Sox relationship have helped shape other relationships they seek while taking part in charitable initiatives or philanthropic endeavors. What the Red Sox aim for, Kennedy said, are measurable outcomes, which is also the core concept in two of their other pillar programs.
The Red Sox Scholars, a college scholarship and enrichment program managed by the Red Sox Foundation, was recognized in 2010 with MLB’s first-ever Commissioner’s Award for Philanthropic Excellence. In addition, Home Base, a partnership between the Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital, works with a team of experts to help service members, veterans and their families on issues related to traumatic brain injures and post-traumatic stress.
“Looking at the standard of the Jimmy Fund and the measurable outcomes of saving people’s lives and improving people’s lives,” Kennedy said, “it is something that we have been able to carry over to other programs that we work with.”
Next spring will mark the 18th year that Dana-Farber teenagers will visit the Red Sox in Florida during spring training. Twelve nurses, six doctors and clinic staff accompany them. The weekend trip includes a game and a boys versus girls batting practice competition. Those memories, Scherber said, will resonate with them forever.
“It’s our job to provide moments for these kids,” she said, “because we don’t know who is going to graduate high school, who is going to get married one day, who is going to do well and who is going to pass away in a couple months.
“I can always count on the Red Sox to bring one of our kids a smile. They are just always there. The heartbeat in the [Jimmy Fund-Red Sox] relationship, it doesn’t seem to beat without the other.”