We were working on a film, Pee Wee Reese, his son Mark and myself, five years ago, and we were trying to get one memorable story right. The film was a one-hour documentary on the old Dodger captain and shortstop, which Mark had titled, "The Quiet Ambassador."
The story we sought recounted a single brief, moving deed. But it had been told and retold and mistold so many times, we had a hard time reconstructing the scene. Was it Boston, that old abolitionist center, where the Red Sox practiced apartheid baseball until 1959? Was it St. Louis, the old major league city that was closest to the heart of the Confederacy?
In the end it turned out to be neither. The place was the river town, Cincinnati, and that made the story all the stronger.
Pee Wee Reese grew up in the Louisville area, when segregation reigned, and whenever the Dodgers traveled to play the Reds some of his old ball-playing friends from Kentucky made the easy drive up the Ohio River valley to watch Reese work his trade at Crosley Field. The year 1947 was different from what had gone before. The Dodgers were starting a black man at first base, the first to play in the major leagues since 1884. Now after 60 years, the Cotton Curtain was coming down. That was not to everyone's satisfaction.
As the Dodgers moved into infield practice, taunts began. Fans started calling Jackie Robinson names: "Snowflake," "Jungle Bunny," and worse. Very much worse. Some Cincinnati players picked that up and began shouting obscenities at Robinson from their dugout. There Jackie stood, one solitary black man, trying to warm up and catching hell.
Reese raised a hand and stopped the practice. Then he walked from shortstop to first base and put an arm around Jackie Robinson's shoulders. He stood there and looked into the dugout and into the stands, stared into the torrents of hate, a slim, white Southerner, who wore No. 1, and just happened to have an arm draped in friendship around a black man, who wore No. 42.
Reese did not say a word. The deed was beyond words.
"After Pee Wee came over like that," Robinson said years afterward, "I never felt alone on a baseball field again."
Reese detested bigotry, hatred against blacks or Jews or Latinos, whatever. I never knew anyone whose life was a more towering example of decency.
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right. . . ." The words are Lincoln's. The character that comes to mind is that of Harold Henry Reese, who died Saturday at 81. A funeral service was held for Reese on Wednesday in Louisville.
After starring in a Presbyterian church league, Reese turned professional in 1938, when he was 20. He had to quit his job as a line splicer for the telephone company and the foreman said sternly that the phone company would always be there, that by leaving it, Pee Wee was making a terrible mistake.
"I'm young, sir," Reese said. "I can afford to take a chance."
Recounting this, he gave me a gentle smile before he added, "Where that foreman might be today I do not know."
He joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940, when Larry MacPhail was restoring a ballclub that had been more famous for gag lines than base hits. The Dodgers had not won a pennant since 1920 and John Lardner wrote of one star slugger: "Floyd Caves Herman, known as Babe, did not always catch fly balls on the top of his head, but he could do it in a pinch."
Another Dodger outfielder, Frenchy Bordagaray, came home standing up one afternoon and was tagged out.
"Why the hell didn't you slide?" asked the manager, Casey Stengel.
"I was gonna, Case," Bordagaray said, "but I was afraid I'd crush my cigars."
Reese was droll and often very funny, but after he moved in as Dodger shortstop in 1940, comedy came only after winning. The Dodgers beat a fine Cardinal team for the pennant in 1941 and, after World War II, Branch Rickey picked up from MacPhail and assembled the team I called "The Boys of Summer." Reese was a very fine shortstop, a great baserunner, and a superb clutch hitter. He played every inning of every game in seven Dodger World Series. He was a captain who led by civility, however difficult the circumstances.
Panama City, Fla., 1947. Spring training was winding down and Rickey was about to promote Robinson from the triple-A Montreal Royals. Some veteran Dodgers--Hugh Casey, Dixie Walker--prepared a petition that said, in effect, "If you promote the black man, trade us. We won't play."
Walker brought the document to Reese confident that, Southerner to Southerner, Pee Wee would sign. Reese refused. Five or six older players pressed him. Was he gonna let Rickey make him play with one of them?
"I'm not signing," Reese said, and the petition died.