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Scott Ostler

For 55 Years, It's Been Life of Fun, Fungoes

March 28, 1985|SCOTT OSTLER

PALM SPRINGS — Fifty-five spring trainings ago, the manager of the New York Yankees, Bob Shawkey, went to his rookie second baseman to ask a favor.

The second baseman was James Reese, just up from the Pacific Coast League.

"Shawkey said to me, 'You'd be a good influence on the Babe, why not room with him?' " Reese says now.

"They were dreamin'."

Reese accepted the assignment, though. They got to be good pals, Jimmie Reese and Babe Ruth, although Reese didn't much slow down the Babe socially.

Fifty-five spring trainings later, people still come to Jimmie Reese for favors, and he's still trying to be a good influence.

Need some vitamins, some nuts? See Jimmie, the health fanatic. Need some extra conditioning or fielding work? See Jimmie, baseball's fungo bat virtuoso.

Maybe you just want someone to talk to? A cheerful word? Look up Jimmie, No. 50 in your Angel program. His next grumpy day will be his first in eight decades of baseball.

Jimmie Reese has had a pro baseball uniform on his back and a bat in his hands since 1917.

This particular boy of summer will be 80 in October.

That number seems irrelevant. In the seven years I've been around the Angels, I've never heard any player mention Reese's age.

Still, his age may lead baseball fans to believe he is merely a living relic the Angels keep around for sentimental reasons.

Try to tell that to Gary Pettis, who credits a good part of his spectacular play in center field last season to a rigorous daily pregame fungo session with Reese.

Try to tell that to Nolan Ryan, who joined the Angels the same season as Reese and kept his legs in shape chasing Reese's fungoes around the outfield.

How good is Reese with his customized fungo bat?

As a novelty, he used to "pitch" batting practice standing on the mound and hitting balls over the plate.

Now he does his fungo hitting in the outfield before games, running the pitchers, and he charts pitches during games.

One recent spring morning, he took time out to sit in a dugout and remember back.

"I became batboy for the Los Angeles Angels in 1917," he said. "I lived in Hollywood, and I would go to Wrigley Field every day and sneak into the games.

"Finally, Frank Chance (of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance fame), the manager, made me batboy. Every Sunday, Frank Chance gave me a dollar and a baseball."

Reese played baseball at San Pedro High and signed with the Oakland Oaks in 1924. The Yankees bought his contract in '27, but they kept Jimmie in Oakland until '30.

He played for the Yankees in '30 and '31, rooming with Ruth both springs.

"Babe was a wonderful man," Reese said. "He loved social activities. He would get 15 calls or more every day. Everyone would call.

"This was during prohibition, and Babe would take me with him to speakeasies in New York. They were brownstones with peepholes in the door, and when they saw it was Babe, they'd open up. We'd go in and have the finest dinner you can imagine for $1.50.

"I'd go to his home often. He and his wife had the entire floor of a big hotel, with their own elevator.

"One room was the pool room, and Babe hated to lose. One day we were playing, and Mrs. Ruth called out that dinner was ready.

"We were playing for a dime a game, and I had him beat for 20 cents. He said, 'I'm not quittin' until I'm even.'

"I don't remember if I lost on purpose, but he finally got even. He said, 'Now we'll eat.' Then the next day he'd go out and spend hundreds of dollars like it was nothing.

"He hated to lose at anything. One night on a train trip, on the way to an exhibition game, we were playing bridge, Babe and Harry Rice against me and (Lou) Gehrig.

"At about 11:30, Gehrig, who was a stickler for conditioning, said 'I gotta go to bed.' We were up $1.25 and Babe said, 'It's only an exhibition game, Lou.'

"Lou said, 'I need my sleep.' Babe said, 'If you go to bed now, I'll tear the (score) sheet up.'

"Gehrig stayed and we won the next hand and now Babe owes us $2.50. Lou says, 'I'm going to bed.' Babe got mad and tore the paper up. He still owes me $2.50.

"It wasn't the money. We'd walk down the street and Babe would meet people he'd never seen before and give 'em $10, $20. He never refused anyone. He said to me, 'I don't want you to ever put this in the papers. People would think I do it for the publicity.'

"And he never turned down an autograph. He invited me to dinner one Sunday after a game at the Stadium. When we walked out, there must've been 1,000 kids waiting for him. He said, 'You wait in the car.'

"He had a 16-cylinder Cadillac and I sat in it over an hour while he signed for every kid.

"When we were playing in Washington, he took some of us to Baltimore, where he grew up. He took us to his old school and showed us the leather straps this thick (about four inches wide) hanging from the ceiling that they used to beat him with.

"He was wearing a silk shirt, he was beautifully dressed, but the kids wanted him to hit. So he stood out there in the hot sun 20 minutes hitting balls, sweating. He loved kids."

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