Reese, Harold "Pee Wee"
Harold "Pee Wee" Reese
American baseball player
Major League Baseball player Harold "Pee Wee" Reese was considered one of the greatest of all Brooklyn Dodger players. A superb defensive shortstop,
a capable hitter, and a student of baseball who used his intelligence as much as his athletic abilities to beat opponents, Reese, however, earned his place in baseball history for far more than his ball playing talent. Ultimately he will be remembered as the man whose courage, and sense of justice and fair play greatly helped smooth the entry of Jackie Robinson onto the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. Reese's support of Robinson hastened the integration of African-Americans into major league baseball at a time when it was still pervaded by racism.
Youth in Kentucky
Harold Henry Reese was born on July 23, 1918 in Ekron, Kentucky. His father, Carl, was a railroad detective, and his family lived for the most part in Louisville. Harold was a small boy growing up, but it was not his stature that brought him his famous nickname. Folks started calling him "Pee Wee" when the fourteen-year old Reese won a national marbles tournament. A "pee wee" is a kind of marble.
Despite providing Reese with the trappings of a normal boyhood, Louisville was still a segregated city in the American South. "When I was growing up, we never played ball with blacks because they weren't allowed in the parks," Reese told Ira Berkow of the New York Times. "And the schools were segregated, so we didn't go to school with them." Reese later admitted he had never shaken the hand of a black man until he greeted Jackie Robinson on the first day of the Dodger's 1947 spring training. Kentucky had much darker secrets than segregation. When Reese was about ten-years-old, his father took him to a tree and solemnly told the boy that black men had been lynched on the tree. The story impressed Reese deeply, and when he became a father himself, Reese showed his own sons the same tree.
Reese did not play on his high school baseball team, probably because of his size. After he graduated and took a job as a cable splicer for the local phone company, however, Reese joined the New Covenant Presbyterian Church team. In the church league, Reese proved to be a talented shortstop and at the end of the 1937 season he was signed by the Louisville Colonels of the minor league American Association (AA). By the end of his second season with the Colonels, Reese had become the star of the team. He was a sterling infielder, with a fielding average of .943 whose speed and smarts enabled him to lead the league in both triples and stolen bases. In 1939 Reese was acquired by the Boston Red Sox who, unable to find a place for him in their line-up, sold him the following year to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League (NL) for $75,000. He joined the team for the 1940 season. He had an unremarkable rookie season, but Reese came into his own in 1941, and under his field leadership, the Dodgers won the National League pennant.
In 1942 Reese married Dorothy Walton, with whom he would have two children, a daughter Barbara and a son Mark. Shortly after their marriage, Reese enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and shipped out to fight in the Pacific theater of the Second World War. Like many another ball-players in the early 1940s, Reese lost some of the best years of his playing life in the service of his country in the Second World War. Sailing home from Guam in 1945, a shipmate brought Reese the news that the Dodgers had just become the first team in the major leagues to sign a black player, Jackie Robinson. Reese was unfazed, till he learned that Robinson was a shortstop. "My God, just my luck, Robinson has to play my position!" Reese told Berkow of the New York Times. "But I had confidence in my abilities, and I thought, well, if he can beat me out, more power to him. That's exactly how I felt." Reese held onto his shortstop position. Robinson was used at first base, and later moved to second.
Playing with Jackie Robinson
In spring 1947, when Brooklyn brought Robinson up from its Montreal farm club, tensions were high at the Dodger training camp. Reese took the lead in making a place for Robinson on the team despite resentments. Reese was the first to shake Robinson's hand and the first to play cards with him in the clubhouse. Not long after spring training began, a group of southern players, led by Dixie Walker, circulated a petition stating that they would not play if Robinson were allowed on the team. Reese, the team captain and a Southerner himself, bluntly refused to sign it. That action, many believe, effectively put an end to the uprising.
That was not the end of attacks on Robinson however. Once the season began, Robinson's presence gave rise to virulent racist provocation at ball parks throughout the United States. Witnessing a particularly violent eruption of racist heckling against Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio, Reese walked onto the field and put his hand on Robinson's shoulder, a powerful expression of solidarity. "Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while," Robinson is quoted in Arnold Rampersad's biography Jackie Robinson. "He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me … and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that. I will never forget it."
|1918||Born July 23 in Ekron, Kentucky|
|1937||Plays for New Covenant Presbyterian Church team|
|1938-39||Plays for Louisville Colonels of American Association|
|1939||Acquired by Boston Red Sox|
|1940||Sold to Brooklyn Dodgers|
|1941||Plays in first World Series|
|1942, 1947-54||National League All-Star|
|1943-45||Serves in U.S. Navy|
|1947||Jackie Robinson joins Brooklyn Dodges as first African American in major league baseball|
|1949, 1952-53, 1955-56||Plays in World Series|
|1954||Bats career high .309|
|1955||Brooklyn celebrates "Pee Wee Reese Night"|
|1958||Retires from baseball|
|1959||Coach for Los Angeles Dodgers|
|1984||Elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown|
|1984||Elected to Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball Hall of Fame|
|1997||Diagnosed with lung cancer|
|1999||Dies in Louisville|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1932||National Marbles Champion|
|1943, 1947-54||National League All-Star|
|1947||Leads National League with 104 bases on balls|
|1949||Leads National League with 132 runs scored|
|1952||Leads National League with 30 stolen bases|
|1952||Reaches base safely three times in one inning, a National League record|
|1953||Leads National League with 15 sacrifice hits|
|1984||Elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame and Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball Hall of Fame|
Reese became Robinson's closest friend on the Dodgers, as well as his mate in a deadly double-play tandem after Robinson was switched to second base. Playing next to Jackie Robinson seems to have spurred Reese to the finest performances of his career. Beginning in 1947, Reese appeared in eight consecutive All-Star games. He had his best all-around season in 1949, batting .279 and leading the National League in runs scored. In 1954, he batted for a career high average of.309. Under Reese's captainship, the Dodgers won five National League pennants between 1949 and 1956. It wasn't until 1955 that Brooklyn finally managed to win the World Series, thanks in great measure to a spectacular play in the deciding game, in which Reese cut off a throw from the outfield after a fly out, spun blind and fired the ball to first to double off a runner there. The play helped preserve the Dodger's lead.
Reese hung up his spikes at the close of the 1958 season. When he retired, the Dodgers offered him the job of manager, a position he had already turned down twice as a player. He declined the job a third time, preferring to work with the team as a coach, a position he held for a single season. He subsequently worked as a baseball broadcaster for NBC and CBS, and as a representative for Louisville Slugger, the country's most respected maker of baseball bats. Reese underwent surgery for prostate cancer in the 1980s and in 1997 was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on August 14, 1999 at his Louisville home.
|BRO: Brooklyn Dodgers; LA: Los Angeles Dodgers.|
As an eight-time All Star who led the Dodgers to seven pennants and one World Series victory, Pee Wee Reese would have won a place in the hearts of Brooklyn Dodger fans whatever else he had done. His courageous public support of Jackie Robinson earned him a more important spot not just in the history of baseball but in the history of the civil rights movement of the mid-century. Joe Black, a black pitcher who joined the Dodgers a couple years after Robinson, told Jet magazine, "When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, 'Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.' With Pee Wee, it was No. 1 on his uniform and No. 1 in our hearts."
Golenbock, Peter. Teammates. Gulliver Books, 1990.
"Harold "Pee Wee" Reese." Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book IV. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.
Kahn, Roger. The Boys of Summer. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Schoor, Gene. The Pee Wee Reese Story. New York: J. Messner, 1956.
Berkow, Ira. "A Baseball Celebration—Standing Beside Jackie Robinson; Reese Helped Change Baseball." New York Times (March 31, 1997): C1.
Block, Hal. "Pee Wee Reese remembers the start of a baseball revolution." Associated Press (March 30, 1997).
Independent (August 19, 1999): 6.
Kindred, Dave. "An artist at life." Sporting News (August 30, 1999): 62.
"Pee Wee Reese Has Lung Cancer." Newsday (March 9, 1997): B12.
Weil, Martin. "Shortstop Pee Wee Reese Dies; Brooklyn Dodger Admired for His Support of Jackie Robinson." Washington Post (August 15, 1999): C6.
Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan