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.
All Star voting is over and the starters for the Mid-Summer Classic are set. On July 9th, Cleveland hosts the 90th MLB All Star Game with the best players taking the field, in theory. Baseball altered the election process this year for All Star starters. It is an important step towards ensuring the best players are All Stars each season.
MLB continues the mass voting fans are accustomed to, giving every player the opportunity to be elected. This year however the top three vote getters at each position faced a runoff for the right to start the All Star Game. This extra layer of voting helps guard against a pure popularity contest, forcing voters to reexamine players a second time. While it is not a perfect system, it is a step in the right direction. Players still need fan support, but the second round of voting helps prevent players like Aaron Judge from starting the All Star Game with just 32 games played for the Yankees this season. Judge is talented, but he is not an All Star this season; he finished fourth, just missing an undeserved All Star Game. Houston’s Carlos Correa finished third among American League Shortstops. He has placed 50 games this season, more than Judge, but not enough to earn the honor of starting the All Star Game. MLB ought to establish a minimum games played threshold for All Star voting eligibility.
Judge and Correa should play in many future All Star Games, just not this season. If the idea of the All Star Game is to have the best players on the field, some high priced talent will miss out. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper were not voted into the All Star Game by the fans. Big free agent contracts do not guarantee All Star Games. The fans elect who they want to play, but even this idea has been an issue in the past.
Tommy Pham raised a good point that All Star voting is unfair. MLB changed the voting process this season, but more may need to be done. (www.calltothepen.com)
Before the Big Red Machine began dominating baseball, it was the Cincinnati fans causing havoc. In 1957, Cincinnati fans so over stuffed the ballot box that seven Reds were elected to the All Star Game in St. Louis. Stan Musial was the only non-Reds starter. The farce forced Commissioner Ford Frick to step in, replacing two Reds players, Wally Post and Gus Bell, with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Frick went further, revoking the fan All Star vote until 1970.
Ballot stuffing continued in the computer age. In 1999 a computer programmer electronically stuffed the ballot for Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra. When discovered, Garciaparra lost 25,259 ill gotten votes, though he still started the All Star Game at Fenway Park over Derek Jeter.
The 2015 Kansas City Royals brought back memories of the 1957 Reds. Leading up to the All Star Game, fittingly played in Cincinnati. Eight Royals led at their respective positions. There was not a repeat of 1957, as Kansas City ultimately had four All Star starters. A single team having a stranglehold on the All Star Game may not be in the best interest of baseball, even if they win the World Series like the Royals in 2015.
The Mid-Summer Classic returns to Cleveland for the first time since 1997 and to an American League ballpark for the first time since Minnesota hosted in 2014. The All Star Game is an exhibition. Yes the winning league gets home field advantage in the World Series, but this only impacts two teams. I doubt the Orioles and Marlins representatives will fight with extra vigor to secure home field advantage should their team have a miraculous second half turn around. The All Star Game is about seeing the best in the game play together one night a year. Interleague play has somewhat diluted the intrigue of the All Star Game. National League fans can see Mike Trout and American League fans can see Nolan Arenado more than one night a year. Despite the waning of the All Star Game’s novelty, the game is still important for growing the game and the enjoyment of the fans.
MLB is right to tweak the All Star Game voting process. It will never be perfect. Some deserving players are snubbed each year, but this is better than a return to fans are having no vote. Baseball must keep the fans involved, but there are limits. A small portion of fans in the past ruined the fun of voting. MLB should continue to tweak the process from year to year. There will never be a perfect All Star Game, but the change to two rounds of voting is a good first step.
Ozzie Smith was a wizard with the glove, he could do everything on the field defensively. The same could be said for Omar Vizquel. If it was possible defensively, one or both of these men could do it on a baseball diamond. The impossible dive, catch, or throw; they could do it all. Andrelton Simmons seems to have taken up their torch. Simmons is only in his sixth season, yet he is already drawing comparisons to these legendary players.
Omar Vizquel played for six teams during his 24 year career, all in the American League except a four year stint with the Giants. A magician with the glove, Vizquel ranks first in career games played at shortstop, fourth in career dWAR, appeared in three All Star games, and won 11 Gold Gloves. Beginning in 1993, Vizquel won the American League Gold Glove for shortstop every year until 2001. His defensive dominance continued late into his career, as he won his 11th and final Gold Glove as a 39 year old shortstop for the Giants in 2006.
Ozzie Smith was fearless with a glove in his hand. (www.si.com)
Ozzie Smith played for the Padres and the Cardinals during his 19 year career. The Wizard ranks fourth in career games at shortstop, first in career dWAR, appeared in 15 All Star games, and won consecutive 13 Gold Gloves. He is the only player to win a National League Gold Glove at shortstop in the 1980s, winning every year from 1980 until 1992.
Vizquel and Smith were the premier defensive shortstops from 1989 to 1996; collectively winning eight of the 16 Gold Gloves awarded by Major League Baseball. Two men, two leagues, winning half of all Gold Gloves.
Omar Vizquel could do it all with the glove. (www.mlb.com/indians)
The absurd defensive capabilities of both Vizquel and Smith did not translate into hitting prowess. They each hit .300 or better only once in their careers. Vizquel and Smith were the traditional light hitting shortstop that rarely exists in baseball today. Every player is expected to help the team offensively, even defensive legends. The offensive ability of Andrelton Simmons could be what separates him from the two legends he resembles defensively.
Watching Simmons play shortstop is like watching an unscripted ballet. Every night he does something amazing. A throw that catches a sleeping runner. A dive to stop a ball getting to the outfield, thus stopping a runner from grabbing another bag. A catch that normally would fall in for a base hit. Every batter knows they have to hustle on any ball in the infield because Simmons can appear out of nowhere to field the ball and unleash his cannon arm to take another hit away. If Omar Vizquel was a magician and Ozzie Smith was the Wizard, let’s call Andrelton Simmons a sorcerer.
Andrelton Simmons will leave you speechless with his glove every night, and could become the greatest shortstop ever. (AP/ Mark J. Terrill)
Simmons is only 27 years old, his peak years should be ahead of him. This season he is breaking out offensively, as he is on pace to set career highs in Plate Appearances, Home Runs, Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, On-Base Plus Slugging, Total Bases, Defensive Innings and Errors. (Defensive errors can be a sign of greater range or instincts, thus reaching more balls and creating more chances to make a play. The more chances the more opportunity for mistakes. More aggressive defense does have ceiling however.) He has already set career highs in Hits, Doubles, Walks, RBI, Stolen Bases, and Sacrifice Flies, and we have a few more weeks left in the season.
No one is under any illusion that Simmons is the next slugging shortstop, like Alex Rodriguez or Cal Ripken Jr. He is rather a once in a generation defensive player. If he continues to improve offensively, while retaining his defensive skills, he should enjoy a long career. He has the skills with the glove to become the greatest shortstop to ever field the position. Improving his ability with the bat could put Andrelton Simmons in the conversation for the greatest shortstop ever.