By Marty Appel
It’s been more than half a century since Pee Wee Reese played his last game for the Dodgers, but his legacy endures.
The dedication of a statue in Brooklyn several years ago showing Pee Wee with a symbolic hand on Jackie Robinson’s shoulder spoke well of how a small gesture can help change social history.
Jackie had come to the Dodgers in 1947, and as part of Branch Rickey’s grand scheme, Rickey wanted Pee Wee in on the action.
Baseball was about to be desegregated, and Rickey knew that Robinson would need allies in this moment. So he turned to his shortstop, the beloved Reese, for assistance.
Pee Wee, a one-time marbles champ from Louisville, Kentucky, was a southern gentleman, who did not have to overcome deep prejudices. He was a gentle man as much as a gentleman, and extending a helping hand came naturally to him.
“It’s why he became the captain,” said his teammate Carl Erskine. “Everyone could go to Pee Wee. We were all family, but he was the one you sought out if you were in a tight spot.”
Robinson would win over the hearts of Brooklyn fans with performance, which he quickly showed in putting together a “Rookie of the Year” season. (The award, which now bears his name, was created that very year).
But on road trips, it would be a different story. Fans naturally booed visiting players. Robinson would have to differentiate those boos from racial taunts, and even then, turn the other cheek. It was his agreement with Rickey, who saw it as the only way to conquer the demands of this “Great Experiment.”
Cincinnati, the town farthest south in the National League, was going to be a real test. And sure enough, Robinson heard boos and catcalls and epithets, and it was worse than expected. As the cries rang out from Crosley Field, the gracious Reese ambled over the Robinson and put his hand on his shoulder as a gesture of friendship and of solidarity.
“The history of baseball changed,” said Erskine.
There are no photos, only the memory of it. Over the years, the story was told in different forms by different people; maybe the ballpark was different, maybe it was in the second season. But it was a story whose symbolism rose above the particulars. And it silenced the fans, who respected Reese, and who realized he was one of their own, being from Kentucky.
The simple embrace, now preserved in the statue, was not an out-of-character gesture for Reese. He was man with a great heart, and when he lived “in the community” near Ebbets Field, he was at one with the neighborhood, always available to the locals to lend a hand for a community need, a charity, a boost for a project, a kind word to a sick child. This all came easily to the man, who is remembered today not only for his Hall of Fame playing career (seven World Series in 16 seasons), but for his joyful broadcasting days on the CBS Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean.
Pee Wee was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, and died at 81 in 1999 – just the same common man with uncommon goodness in his heart, the captain of the Boys of Summer, and the man whose sportsmanship and ethics would have played well in any era.