Every year baseball remembers Jackie Robinson and his herculean task of breaking baseball’s color barrier. Nothing can sufficiently repay Robinson for the abuse he endured. While he was the focal point of baseball’s integration he was not alone, other trail blazers followed him to integrate every team. Collectively they changed baseball and America forever. They shouldered the weight of integration with some help along the way.
Branch Rickey believed Jackie Robinson could handle the abuse the first African American player would face. Robinson endured abuse from fans and opposing players. Even the Dodger locker room was not a safe haven. When he arrived in Brooklyn several players began a petition stating their desire to be traded rather than play with Robinson. The petition sought to force Branch Rickey to end his attempt to integrate baseball. Several players signed the petition, but it was critical that the de facto team captain sign to show a united front against Robinson. There was little doubt he would sign, having grown up in Louisville, Kentucky, surely a southern man would refuse to play alongside Robinson.
Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese was a southern man, but he held no animosity towards anyone based upon their skin color. When approached by his teammates Reese refused to sign, killing the petition. The other Dodgers may not have liked Robinson, but the locker room was now free from the abuse raining down on the field.
Pee Wee Reese was a Hall of Fame Shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers and friend to Jackie Robinson. (National Baseball Library and Archives, Cooperstown, NY)
Reese was called up to Brooklyn in 1940 and remained with the Dodgers for his entire career, retiring after the Dodgers first season in Los Angeles in 1958. He served in the Navy during World War II, missing three seasons from 1943 to 1945. Upon returning from the Navy, Reese began his career in earnest. His greatest season was 1949. In 155 Games, Reese led the National League with 132 Runs scored, collected 172 Hits including 27 Doubles, 3 Triples, and 16 Home Runs. He had 73 RBI and stole 26 Bases. Reese walked 116 times with just 59 Strikeouts. He hit .279, with an .396 OBP, .410 SLG, .806 OPS, and an 113 OPS+. Reese was named team captain before the following season.
Reese played 2,166 Games. He scored 1,338 Runs, collected 2,170 Hits including 330 Doubles, 80 Triples, and 126 Home Runs with 885 RBI. He stole 232 Bases, drew 1,210 Walks with 890 Strikeouts. He hit .269, with an .366 OBP, .377 SLG, .743 OPS, and an 99 OPS+. Shortstops were supposed to focus their attention on defense, but Reese was an elite offensive Shortstop.
Reese played more than 2,000 games at Shortstop. He led National League Shortstops in Putouts in four seasons. Over 60 years after his retirement, Reese still has the 12th most Putous and 13th most Double Plays for Shortstops. He was a solid defender even using modern metrics having led all National League players in dWAR in 1942, 1947, 1948, and 1949. His 25.6 career dWAR is the 17th highest of all time, regardless of position.
Pee Wee Reese was selected to 10 All Star Games and finished in the top 10 for MVP voting eight times. He led the Dodgers to seven World Series, all against the Yankees. Reese has the most World Series appearances with one team for a non-Yankee. Despite their success the Dodgers won only one World Series. Brooklyn lost in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, and 1956. Reese and Elston Howard have the most World Series defeats, six. Brooklyn won their lone World Series in 1955. Failure was not Reese’s fault. In 44 World Series Games, he scored 20 Runs, collected 46 Hits including 4 Doubles, 2 Triples, and 2 Home Runs with 16 RBI. He Stole 5 Bases, drew 18 Walks with 17 Strikeouts. He hit .272, with an .346 OBP, .349 SLG, and an .695 OPS.
In 1984, the Veteran’s Committee selected Reese for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The committee referenced his play and support of Jackie Robinson in their reasoning for his selection. No moment better underscores the support Reese gave Robinson than at Crosley Field in Cincinnati in 1947. Amid a deluge of abuse Reese put his arm around Robinson. The show of support told the crowd and opposing players that Reese supported his teammate and would defend his friend against the abuse. Some claim the event occurred in Boston against the Braves at Braves Field in 1948. Regardless where and when it occurred Reese helped ease the chaos surrounding baseball’s integration.
Pee Wee Reese showing his support for Jackie Robinson was critical in helping Robinson and other African American players successfully integrate baseball. (Ron Cervenka)
Reese standing with his arm around Robinson is immortalized in bronze and granite outside MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. Reese could not deflect all the abuse directed at Robinson, but he could support him in public and private. A white player standing with Jackie Robinson was critical. The support coming from a southern man was monumental. Reese did not care what color Robinson was, they were teammates. Reese was asked if he was worried about losing his job prior to Robinson joining the Dodgers, “If he’s man enough to take my job, I’m not gonna like it, but, dammit, black or white, he deserves it.” Instead of replacing him, Robinson and Reese formed a dynamic Double Play combination. Reese joked with Robinson to ease some of the tension, he cared about Robinson the man beyond baseball. Their friendship lasted a lifetime, as Reese was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral.
People are rarely successful on their own, they receive support along the way. Jackie Robinson faced unfathomable abuse as he integrated baseball. No one could shield him from the onslaught. However, people like Pee Wee Reese helped lighten the burden. On this Jackie Robinson Day let us remember Robinson’s great courage and sacrifice to improve baseball and America. Let us also not forget those who helped him achieve success, including his teammate and friend Pee Wee Reese. Small gestures can change history.