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.
Major League Baseball is roughly two years away from welcoming its 20,000th player. The overwhelming majority of players are not Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, or Mike Trout. They are players like Virgil Jester. While they do not have the accolades of those in Cooperstown, players like Jester helped build baseball into the game it is today.
Fooling your opponent is part of baseball. Deceiving a batter with a curveball. Catching the defense sleeping by stealing second base. These are fundamental parts of baseball. On April Fool’s Day it seems fitting to highlight one of the players who despite not having a long, distinguished career deserves recognition for his contribution to the game. The only Jester in Major League history, Virgil Jester.
Virgil Jester was a star high school and college pitcher in Denver when he signed with the Boston Braves in 1947. He worked his way through the Minor Leagues before debuting with the Braves on June 18, 1952. Jester entered the game against the Cincinnati Reds in the top of the 7th inning with the score tied at 5. He struck out his first batter, Cal Abrams. The next batter, Andy Seminick, was not as kind, smacking a solo home run to give the Reds a 6-5 lead. In the 8th inning, Jester walked Bobby Adams before allowing a RBI double to Willard Marshall, extending the Reds lead to 7-5. The Braves scored a run in the bottom of the 8th, making it 7-6, but would get no closer. Jester pitched 2 innings, allowing 2 hits, 2 runs, walking 2, struck out 3, with a 9.00 ERA, and took the loss.
Virgil Jester was the winning pitcher in the Boston Braves’ final victory before moving to Milwaukee. (www.baseball-reference.com)
The Braves final season in Boston was Virgil Jester’s best. In 1952, he went 3-5 with a 3.33 ERA and 1.411 WHIP. He appeared in 19 games, starting 8, throwing 4 complete games, and 1 shutout. Jester pitched 73 innings allowing 80 hits, 31 runs, 27 earned runs, 5 home runs, walking 23 , striking out 25, and hitting 1 batter. Jester’s season was capped with a complete game victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers on September 27th, the final Braves victory in Boston.
In 1953, the Braves moved to Milwaukee and Virgil Jester concluded his brief Major League career. He appeared in just two games. He pitched 2 innings, allowing 4 hits, 5 runs, a home run, 4 walks, no strikeouts, with a 22.50 ERA and 4.000 WHIP. Jester finished his career with a 3-5 record, 3.84 ERA, 1.480 WHIP, appearing in 21 games, 8 starts, 4 complete games, 1 shut out, pitching 75 innings, allowing 84 hits, 32 earned runs, 6 home runs, 27 walks, 25 strikeouts, and 1 hit batter.
Pitching got Virgil Jester to the Majors, however he was also a good hitting pitcher. In 22 plate appearances, he collected 4 hits, including a triple, scored 3 runs, 2 RBI, drew 1 walk, struck out 4 times, and posted a .211 BA, .250 OBP, .316 SLG, and .566 OPS.
Virgil Jester’s career did not lead to enshrinement in Cooperstown. However he joined the elite group of players who have played baseball at the highest level. Fewer than 20,000 people have played in the Major Leagues. Virgil Jester played alongside the giants of the game. Only a select few have that opportunity, and Virgil Jester was among those who rose to the top. Even a fool can understand that.
The beautiful thing about baseball is there is no clock. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver said it best, “In baseball, you can’t kill the clock. You’ve got to give the other man his chance.” There are no clocks counting down the end of a game, just the anticipation of the final out.
Baseball, and the lack of a clock, does from time to time does go a little crazy. The 26 inning marathon on May 1, 1920 between the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Robins ended in a 1-1 tie, called due to darkness. The 25 inning game on May 8 and 9, 1984 between the Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers lasted 8 hours and 6 minutes. Newly elected Hall of Famer Harold Baines mercifully hit a walk off home run to give Chicago a 7-6 victory. A day at the ballpark is far from predictable.
Then there was the April 18, 1981 Triple A game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings. The longest game in professional baseball history and the subject of Dan Barry’s book, Bottom of the 33rd. The start of the game was delayed a half hour due to malfunctioning lights at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. The cold New England air and Easter church services the next morning kept many fans away, as paid attendance that fateful night did not total 2,000, yet many later claimed to have attended.
The game plotted along with Rochester leading 1-0 as the bottom of the 9th began. The Red Sox needed one run to force extra innings. Be careful what you wish for. Chico Walker scored on a Russ Laribee sac fly to left field, sending the game into the great unknown that is free baseball. Normally, extra inning games are quickly resolved allowing the fans and players go on about their lives. This game was different. What followed was a struggle for survival between two teams, a cold New England night, a missing page in the rule book, and a League President gone missing.
Even Pawtucket Red Sox Manager Joe Morgan was pleading for the game to be over. (Bottom of the 33rd/ Harper Collins)
I will stop here to not ruin the rest of the story. I can say Dan Barry’s writing is magnificent. Bottom of the 33rd reads like a radio broadcast. However, the book’s advantage over radio is Barry ability to take side trips about the people involved with the game. Humanizing those trapped in the game heightens the excitement of the story.
The account of the longest baseball game goes beyond the diamond and into the lives of the people. Two future Hall of Famer players, Wade Boggs for Pawtucket and Cal Ripken Jr. for Rochester, are well chronicled. However, the most poignant and painful parts of the book are the destinies of the players who never made it to the Majors.
Triple A is one step away from the top of the sport, yet many players never take that final step. They are so close to the summit, yet they continue to struggle to survive in the Minors. The life of a Minor League player is not glamorous. Long bus rides, cramped living and working conditions, a long season with few off days, low pay, and knowing your dream of playing in the Majors can disappear in a flash. Despite the long odds, every year players attempt to do the improbable and make it to the Majors. Their struggles were on full display that night in Pawtucket. Bottom of the 33rd is a microcosm of the cruelty that is baseball.
Spring Training and the first few weeks of the regular season are always a time of double takes for baseball fans. Every off season players change teams, by trade or free agency, and it takes some getting use to. This season is no different.
There are three types of reactions to players in a new uniform in the early weeks and months of baseball. First is the big free agent signings. Second are the forgotten players that moved teams. Third are the players who will forever be linked to their old team.
There are the big names that changed teams, and while you know it happened it is still strange when you see it in real life. We all know Giancarlo Stanton was traded to the Yankees, yet it will take some time getting use to seeing him in pinstripes instead of the bright orange of Miami. The buzz around the damage he and Aaron Judge can do together is about all Yankee fans have talked about since the trade happened. Likewise, the signing of Yu Darvish was a major victory for the Cubs. His arrival in Chicago will help the Cubs remain the team to beat in the National League Central and in contention for the World Series for years to come. However, seeing Darvish in a Cubs uniform is weird.
Giancarlo Stanton in Yankee pinstripes still looks odd. (Newsday/ Thomas A. Ferrara)
The forgotten free agents and traded players are often the difference makers for their new team. The Marlins trading Stanton meant many people stopped watching Miami and all but forgot Christian Yelich begged to leave South Florida and was traded to the Brewers. So much drama in Miami means the Marlins trading Dee Gordon to the Mariners early in the off season was forgotten by most. The Brewers have relatively quietly built one of the great outfields in baseball when they signed free agent Lorenzo Cain. The breakup of the Royals seemed to grab the headlines instead of where the majority of those players went. The Phillies signing Carlos Santana away from the Indians could be the jump start that franchise needs to return to relevancy, much in the way the Nationals began their rise after signing Jayson Werth. In Queens, the Mets signing Todd Frazier away from the Yankees gives the Mets flexibility at first and third, by protecting the team if David Wright and Adrian Gonzalez are unable to return to form. The Twins, like the Brewers, have quietly amassed talent and look to be ready to be serious threats in 2018. Minnesota signed Michael Pineda, who when healthy will be a major asset to the Twins pitching staff.
The final group of players forever linked to their old team. Andrew McCutchen will forever wear the black and gold of the Pirates. His arrival in San Francisco was the logical choice for a rebuilding Pittsburgh team and for the Giants who want to win now. McCutchen is 31 years old and should have several good years left. Evan Longoria is the first Rays player to have a lasting impact in franchise history. Yes David Price, Melvin (B.J.) Upton, and Carl Crawford were tremendous players for Tampa, but there should be no argument that Longoria is the player the Rays build their team around for years. Trading him to the Giants does not change the fact that he will forever be thought of as a Tampa Bay Rays.
Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria in a Giants uniform is, in a word, weird. (Ben Margot, Associated Press)
Eric Hosmer and Adrian Gonzalez leaving the Royals and Dodgers respectively will forever be linked to those franchises because they led the charge in their revivals. Hosmer signing with the Padres mean Kansas City lost their leader, among others, and it is time to rebuild. When the Dodgers traded Adrian Gonzalez to Atlanta, only for the Braves to release him two days later, marked the end of a chapter in Dodgers history. Los Angeles traded for Gonzalez from Boston when they were rebuilding after the disaster that was the Frank McCourt ownership. Gonzalez helped bring the fans back and show the team was serious about winning. Gonzalez gave Los Angeles most of his best baseball, his arrival in Queens should help the Mets, however he will be remembered for his time in Dodger blue.
Certain players should only wear certain uniforms. The early stages of each baseball season are when we all adjust to seeing players in new uniforms. Like seeing Babe Ruth in a Boston Braves uniform or Willie Mays in a Mets uniform, players are remembered with certain uniforms on. Every off season players change cities and uniforms. It always takes some getting use to, but eventually we adjust and return our focus to the game instead of the player in an odd uniform.
Jackie Robinson Day is a day to celebrate both the man and the obstacles he overcame to have a lasting impact both on baseball and American society. April 15, 1947 was the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson and the Dodgers hosted the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. The game itself is not what is important about that day; rather it is the change to American society on that day on a baseball diamond in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
Over the next 10 seasons, all spent with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson displayed what it meant to be a man. Robinson deserves a place in the National baseball Hall of fame simply for his contributions to the game. The Hall of Fame worthy numbers he amassed during his career only push him further up the list of greatest baseball players of all time. Robinson’s importance has nothing to do with his statistical accomplishments; greatness does not always show up in the box score. Greatness is facing your challenges head on and overcoming them with grace.
Robinson faced the worst that society had to offer; the derogatory remarks, the threats of physical violence, the constant verbal and psychological abuse came from fans in the stands and opposing players and coaches. The task of playing professional baseball is difficult enough, without the constant barrage of hostility from those who could not see past their own racism. Yet, through it all, Robinson remained professional and committed to the game he loved. Robinson showed baseball the error of its ways, that barring African-Americans from playing in the Major Leagues had been a colossal mistake. Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues during his brief time there; rather he was a prime example of the talent that was excluded from Major League rosters because of people who thought a person’s skin color mattered more than their ability.
Jackie Robinson, like so many African-Americans, served his country admirably during World War II. They fought, and died, to defend the freedoms of people in Europe and Asia, while at home they were treated as second-class citizens. Robinson defended his country but was forced to defend himself against trumped up charges in a court-martial based on the bigoted ideas of other soldiers. He was ultimately cleared of all charges, but this experience in the Army served as an introduction for what Robinson would later face in the Major Leagues.
The abuse, verbal and psychological, that Robinson, along with the other early African-American players, sought to strip them of their humanity. The United States is better off because of Jackie Robinson. His contributions continue to reverberate nearly seven decades after he first stepped on to a Major League field. He showed that the color of a person’s skin was not relate to their worth as a person. The Civil Rights Movement built upon Robinson’s legacy and pushed for equal rights for all. The drive for equality continues today. The end of the segregation in baseball and the signing of bills into law does not mean the fight for equality is over. Rather it means attention is being paid to the problem. Change happens a little at a time, and it requires those who are suffering to behave with the same steadfastness and grace that Jackie Robinson did. Changing people’s misconceptions is difficult, and these beliefs are reinforced when they are ridiculed. Jackie Robinson did not lash out at those who challenged him. He maintained his dignity, and proved that the color of his skin did not make him better or worse than anyone else. Robinson probably had his private moments of doubt, like we all do, but he was strong enough and willed himself to greatness. Greatness that does not appear in a box score. The type of greatness that continues to have an impact almost 70 years later.