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Reese, Harold Henry ("Pee Wee")

REESE, Harold Henry ("Pee Wee")

(b. 23 July 1918 near Ekron, Kentucky; d. 14 August 1999 in Louisville, Kentucky), Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop who captained the "Boys of Summer"–era Brooklyn Dodgers and helped ease Jackie Robinson's integration in the major leagues.

Reese was born on a farm in Meade County, Kentucky, between the towns of Ekron and Brandenburg, to Carl and Emma Reese. When he was three years old, his father moved the family forty miles northeast to Louisville, where Carl Reese took a job as a detective with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.

Though just five feet, four inches and 110 pounds as a high school senior, Reese reportedly was nicknamed "Pee Wee" because of his skill at shooting marbles, a "pee wee" being a common type of marble.

As a senior at Louisville's Du Pont Manual High School, Reese did not appear to have much of a future in baseball, playing just five games at second base. After graduating in 1936 he took an $18-per-week job splicing cables for the Kentucky Telephone Company.

Reese continued to play baseball on weekends for a church league, from which he was signed as a shortstop to the Louisville Colonels, a minor league team, in 1938. In 1939, during his second season, he led the American Association in triples and stolen bases, swiping thirty-five bases in thirty-six attempts.

That year the American League's Boston Red Sox purchased the Colonels, and the following winter it sold Reese to the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers for a reported $150,000—a less famous variation of the team's 1919 sale of a young Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Reese would play shortstop for the Dodgers for the next eighteen years.

Called up to Brooklyn in 1940, Reese spent much of his rookie season injured. He became a regular the following season, playing 151 games at shortstop on a Brooklyn team that won its first pennant in twenty-one years.

Reese credited Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher with getting his career off to the right start, and Durocher, who also played shortstop, told of taking Reese aside in August 1941, when the young player was on his way to leading the league with forty-seven errors.

"He was down, and hoping I would take him out and play myself," Durocher recalled. "I said, 'Pee Wee. If you think I'm going in there to bail you out, you're nuts. You're playing even if you make twelve errors a day.'" In his 1984 Hall of Fame induction speech, Reese said, "If it wasn't for Leo, I doubt I would be up here today."

Reese also enjoyed a special relationship with Jackie Robinson, the African-American infielder the Dodgers signed after World War II to break baseball's color barrier. Reese, who had missed three seasons while serving in the U.S. Navy, was coming home from Guam on a transport ship when he heard the Dodgers had signed Robinson. Initially worried at possibly losing his job to an African American, Reese said he tried to place himself in Robinson's position.

"I mean, if they said to me, 'Reese, you got to go over and play in the colored guys' league,' how would I feel? Scared. The only white. Lonely. But I'm a good shortstop and that's what I'd want them to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game," he told Roger Kahn for the book The Boys of Summer (1972). "And that's how I've got to look at Robinson. If he's man enough to take my job, I'm not going to like it, but damn it, black or white, he deserves it."

When the Dodgers prepared to bring Robinson to its big league team in the spring of 1947, Reese's fellow Southerner, Dixie Walker of Georgia, gathered signatures for a petition threatening a boycott. Reese refused to sign, and the petition failed.

During the Dodgers' first road trip, the players visited Cincinnati, just up the Ohio River from Reese's hometown. There, on the edge of the still-segregated South, Robinson took torrents of abuse from fans and Cincinnati players. Finally, Reese went to Robinson at first base and put his arm around his teammate. Dodger pitcher Rex Barney later described the gesture as one that said "This is my boy. This is the guy. We're gonna win with him." "After Pee Wee came over like that," Robinson recalled later, "I never felt alone on a baseball field again."

With Reese at shortstop, the Dodgers never finished lower than third in the National League. The team played in seven World Series. It was Reese who fielded the ground ball that was the final out of the 1955 World Series, in which the Dodgers defeated the hated Yankees and won what would be their only title in Brooklyn. Reese was the unchallenged leader of that era's Dodgers, the only member of the team with an armchair in front of his locker instead of a stool.

Reese went west with the team to Los Angeles in 1958, but played only fifty-nine games that season before retiring with 2,170 hits, a .269 career batting average, and 232 stolen bases. These were impressive totals in an era in which shortstops were valued more for their fielding than for offense. Reese's leadership of one of baseball's most storied teams helped secure his 1984 selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Reese married Dorothy "Dottie" Walton on 29 March 1942; they had a son and a daughter.

Reese worked as a coach for the Dodgers in 1959, then began a career as a broadcaster, first with CBS and NBC, and later with the Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos. (He broadcasted a few times with baseball great Jay "Dizzy" Dean.) In 1971 Reese joined the Louisville-based company Hillerich and Bradsby, maker of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, working in sales and promotions. Reese also owned a Louisville bowling alley, Pee Wee Reese Lanes, for many years.

Reese was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997. He had surgery to remove a malignant tumor, then underwent radiation treatment. He also suffered from cancer in his left leg and from prostate cancer. He died at his home in Louisville and was buried at Resthaven Memorial Park.

On Reese's Hall of Fame plaque, the first accomplishments listed are "Intangible qualities of subtle leadership on and off field, competitive fire and professional pride." It is for these qualities—even more than for his steady play in the field, his intelligent baserunning, and his timely hits—that Reese is remembered in baseball history.

Though there are no full-length biographies of Reese, he figures prominently in Roger Kahn's seminal memoir/history of the 1950s-era Dodgers, The Boys of Summer (1972), and in Peter Golenbock, Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers (1984). A tribute to Reese, written by Kahn, appears in the Los Angeles Times (19 Aug. 1999). The friendship that developed between Reese and Robinson is the subject of Teammates (1990), a children's book written by Golenbock and illustrated by Paul Bacon. Obituaries of Reese are in the New York Times and the Courier-Journal (Louisville) (both 15 Aug. 1999). Reese was the subject of the documentary film The Quiet Ambassador (1993).

Tim Whitmire

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