Brooklyn, NY sculpture of Pee Wee Reese left and Jackie Robinson, commemorating Reese’s May 1947 "arm-around-the-shoulders" support of Robinson during racial heckling by fans at a Cincinnati Reds game. Photo: MLB.com.
On May 13, 1947 a professional baseball game was about to be played at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. A new ball player for the Dodgers named Jackie Robinson was taking infield practice with the rest of his mates before the game was about to start. Robinson, however, wasn’t just any player. He was the first African American to play on a professional baseball team. Baseball then was still an all-white affair, as black ballplayers played in the “separate and apart” Negro League, as it was called. Robinson, however, was chosen by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey, to be the first black player to play for a professional team in Major League baseball. Robinson had been signed by the Dodgers in 1945 and had played for the Dodger’s minor league team a year earlier in Montreal, Canada. He had made his major league debut with the Dodgers at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on April 15th, 1947. So this game in Cincinnati was among the earliest of the Dodgers’ road games that year, with Robinson being introduced for the first time to fans beyond Brooklyn. In Cincinnati that day, however, they were not particularly welcoming of Robinson.
The Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson monument is a work by sculptor William Behrends. Photo, Ted Levin.
During the pre-game infield practice, the fans were heckling and taunting Robinson, who was then playing first base. Robinson had also received death threats prior to the game, as he had elsewhere; threats that would continue to dog him for several years. But Reese on this day walked diagonally across the field and joined Robinson, engaging him in conversation and putting his arm around Robinson’s shoulders as he did. Reese then, according to sportswriter Roger Kahn, “looked into the Cincinnati dugout and the grandstands beyond,” as the slurs and heckling were coming both from the Cincinnati ballplayers and fans. Some of the players and fans were taunting Robinson, shouting out terms like “shoeshine boy” and “snowflake” and worse. Reese, however, did not call out at the taunters or the Cincinnati dugout. But he kept his arm around Robinson’s shoulder while talking to him, which soon helped quiet the crowd and defuse the hostility. It was a moment for many who saw it say they will never forget, as a hush fell over the field and stadium. For Robinson and Reese, the moment became an important bonding experience that helped forge a long friendship. Years later Robinson would tell Roger Kahn: ”After Pee Wee came over like that, I never felt alone on a baseball field again.”
Pee Wee Reese, Brooklyn Dodgers, on a 1953 Topps baseball card.
Reese, in many ways, was an unlikely candidate to ally with Robinson’s strife. He was born in 1918, in Ekron, Kentucky, and moved with his family to racially segregated Louisville when he about eight years old. Louisville, not far away from Cincinnati, was then part of the old south; the south that had practiced institutionalized racial discrimination with all its outward manifestations of separate “colored” facilities. As a boy growing up, Reese had seen and experienced racial discrimination. His father had memorably marked one particular spot for him as a boy, pointing out a local tree where lynchings had occurred. Reese, however, had little contact with blacks during his youth. “When I was growing up, we never played ball with blacks because they weren’t allowed in the parks,” he would later explain. “And the schools were segregated, so we didn’t go to school with them….”
Reese was still finishing up his World War II military tour in the U.S. Navy in 1946 when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Dodgers’ baseball organization. Robinson would begin his play that year with the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, Canada. But in 1947, when Robinson reported to the main Brooklyn Dodger’s spring training camp, Reese was the first Dodger to walk across the field and shake his hand. “It was the first time I’d ever shaken the hand of a black man,” Reese would later say. “But I was the captain of the team. It was my job, I believed, to greet the new players.”
Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jackie Robinson made his debut in major league baseball when he stepped onto Ebbets Field that April 1947 day in Brooklyn, New York. Branch Rickey had carefully selected Robinson for this day. Rickey thought he had found in Robinson a candidate who could weather the storm of taunts and abuse that was certain to come to the first black player in major league baseball. Rickey had the support of Happy Chandler, baseball’s commissioner, at the time. Chandler, in fact, had stated that if African Americans could fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal, and in the South Pacific during WWII, they could play ball in America. There was also political support for Rickey in New York, as both the city council and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on Baseball backed a resolution against discrimination in professional baseball. And in March 1945, the state of New York had passed the first state Fair Employment Practices law forbidding “discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin.” Jackie Robinson, meanwhile, was an exceptional athlete. At UCLA, he had become the first ever to earn a varsity letter in four sports in one year – baseball, football, basketball, and track. But Rickey selected Robinson not only for his athletic capability, but also for his character, competitiveness, and determination. Robinson, however, was no patsy; he had a strong rebellious streak in him and a temper that could be provoked.
Jackie Robinson & Brooklyn Dodger’s general manager, Branch Rickey, shown in a 1948 photograph.
Rickey knew the going would be tough for Robinson and he warned him early on that there would be few supporters for what they were about to do: “No owners, no umpires, very few newspaper men – and I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile,” Rickey told Robinson. “We can win,” he said, “only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”
Rickey wanted a candidate who had the guts not to strike back. He asked Robinson to promise he would not fight back for his first three seasons – even though he would surely hear every imaginable kind of slur and insult. However, Robinson’s first test at the major league level – he already had a season’s worth of taunts at the minor league level in 1946 – came not from fans, but from
his own Brooklyn Dodger teammates.
Jackie Robinson & Pee Wee Reese, circa 1950s.
A petition had been drawn up in early 1947 by a group of Dodgers that stated they would not take the field with a black man. Pee Wee Reese, however, refused to sign it. Reese later downplayed his role in the refusal. “I wasn’t thinking of myself as the Great White Father,” Reese would later tell a reporter. “I just wanted to play baseball. I’d just come back from serving in the South Pacific with the Navy during the Second World War, and I had a wife and daughter to support. I needed the money. I just wanted to get on with it.”
But Pee Wee Reese became one of the most popular players of his day, known among fans and teammates as the “Little Colonel.” Not only was he the Dodgers’ captain in those years, he almost appeared to be their manager on occasion, bringing out the line-up card to the umpires at the start of games, a practice usually reserved for managers.
Brooklyn Dodgers players on opening day, April 15, 1947, from left: John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jackie Robinson.
Robinson, meanwhile, was stepping into a very visible and very contentious arena. Blacks had struggled for decades against every imaginable kind of discrimination and indignity and had to use separate rest rooms, drinking fountains, and waiting areas; could not stay in most hotels or eat in public restaurants; and had designated seating areas on buses and trains. In the late 1940s, segregation and discrimination were common throughout the U.S., north and south. On Long Island, New York, returning WWII veterans in the late 1940s were snapping up Levittown homes, but not black veterans. Developers refused to sell to African Americans. In fact, in 1950 there were state laws and/or local ordinances in effect in 48 states and the District of Columbia that mandated racial segregation of some kind; laws requiring African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and/or Asian Americans to go to segregated schools, work at segregated jobs, and live in segregated parts of town. Racially motivated violence still occurred throughout the country during the 1940s and 1950s, as Congress had refused to pass an anti-lynching law to quell racial violence. But soon the modern civil rights movement had a new spark – and as some would come to believe, a prime moving event pushing civil rights ahead – when Jackie Robinson took to Ebbets Field in April 1947. Yet the indignities and prejudices would not yield overnight, and Jackie Robinson in the limelight, bore a heavy load over many, many games and too many years.
Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and pitcher “Preacher” Roe celebrating after beating the New York Yankees in game 3 of the 1952 World Series.
White fans, in particular, were upset that black fans would be coming to see Robinson play; coming into stadiums in which they had previously been denied admission. Players from opposing teams also heckled Robinson mercilessly. And on the field during games, he was purposely spiked and spit on, while pitchers sometimes threw at his head. He also received hate mail and threats from fans, like those in Cincinnati.
That first year for Robinson, his teammates, and the Dodger organization was a rough time. Reese, who was also Robinson’s roommate when they traveled, did what he could to help buoy Robinson through the worst of insults and hard times. But in the end, it was Robinson’s play that won the day and would gradually win fan support. Still, under great pressure in that first year, Robinson’s play was outstanding, and he won the Rookie of the Year award.
“Thinking about the things that happened,” Reese would later say of Robinson’s ordeal, “I don’t know any other ballplayer who could have done what he did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
“Pee Wee” Reese
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Harold H. “Pee Wee” Reese began his baseball career in 1938 when he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing first with their Louisville Colonels minor league team. He then went briefly to the Boston Red Sox who sold him to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he made his big league playing debut in April 1940. That year Reese hit .272 in 84 games sharing shortstop duties with player-manager Leo Durocher. By 1942, he made National League all-star team at age 24. Then with World War II, he went off to the Navy for two years. Back with the Dodgers in 1946, Reese was named to the National League all-star team again, a distinction he would win in eight more consecutive seasons.
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers, shown on 1957 Topps baseball card.
In 1947 and 1948, Reese led National League shortstops in double plays. In 1949, Reese topped the National Leaguers with 132 runs scored as the Dodgers won the pennant. He also led the National League that year in fielding average at .977. In the 1949 World Series, the Dodgers lost to the Yankees despite Reese’s .316 series batting average. In 1952, Reese led the National League in stolen bases with 30, and in the World Series that year compiled a .345 batting average with 10 hits, one home run and four RBIs. In Game 3 of that World Series, Robinson and Reese pulled off a double steal, with both later scoring on a passed ball.
In 1953 Reese again was an important player in the Dodgers’ National League pennant run, compiling a .271 batting average and scoring 108 runs. The Dodgers went 105–49 that year but again lost the world Series to the Yankees. In 1954, now 36 years old, Reese compiled a .309 batting average. The following year he scored 99 runs as the Dodgers won their first World Series with Reese garnering two RBIs in Game 2 while also making some outstanding defensive plays. By 1957, Reese was playing less as starter, and after moving with the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 as a backup infielder, he retired. In 1959, he coached with the Dodgers, a year they won the World Series. After that, Reese enjoyed a broadcasting career for a time, working with CBS, NBC, and the Cincinnati Reds. He later became director of the college and professional baseball staff at Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of Louisville Slugger bats. Reese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984. Reese passed away in 1999. At Reese’s funeral, Joe Black, another African American ballplayer who helped integrate baseball, spoke of how he and others had been moved by Reese’s support for Robinson when the insults were flying:
“…When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time that a white guy had accepted us. When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, ‘Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.’ With Pee Wee, it was No. 1 on his uniform and No. 1 in our hearts.”
Among other things, Jackie Robinson had been a track star at UCLA in 1940.
Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia . Robinson’s father left while young Jackie was still a toddler, and the family then moved to Pasadena, California where Robinson’s mother worked various odd jobs to support the family. At John Muir High School, Robinson became a star athlete in several sports – at shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, and guard on the basketball team. In track he won awards in the broad jump and also won a junior boys singles tennis championship.
Following high school, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College, where he continued his athletic career excelling in basketball, football, baseball, and track. After junior college, he transferred to UCLA, where he became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. In 1939, he was one of four black players on the UCLA football team, a time when mainstream college football had only a few blacks in the game. In 1940, Robinson won the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship long jump event, baseball then being his “worst sport.”
Jackie Robinson in his U.S. Army officer’s uniform, was acquitted in a court martial for a “back-of-the-bus” incident & false charges.
In 1941, Robinson played semi-professional football briefly with the racially-integrated Honolulu Bears in Hawaii, and had plans to continue with the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League. However, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Robinson’s football career ended as he was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a segregated Army unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. At Fort Riley, Robinson and several other black soldiers applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School, but admission to the program was blocked until help came by way of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and others. Robinson was admitted to OCS school, and in January 1943 he was commissioned an officer, second lieutenant, in the U.S. Army. Then came an incident on a military bus where Robinson was ordered to sit in the back of the bus, which he refused to do, leading to an arrest, some trumped-up charges, and a court martial, in which Robinson was acquitted in August 1944 by an all-white panel of officers.
Jackie Robinson with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League, 1945.
By early 1945, while Robinson was serving as athletics director at Sam Houston College in Texas, the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team of the Negro baseball leagues sent him a written offer to play for the team. Robinson accepted a contract roughly equal to $4,800 a month in today’s money. In April 1945, Robinson also attended a tryout that the Boston Red Sox major league team had arranged for a few black players; a tryout that turned out to be a farce to appease an anti-segregation city councilman. At the tryout, with largely Red Sox management in attendance, there were racial slurs and epithets hurled at the black players, leaving Robinson and others humiliated.
Meanwhile, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers had been searching for a prospective black ball player to help break the color barrier in professional baseball, and in August after meeting with several prospects, he began meeting with Robinson. Satisfied that Robinson would commit to not fighting back, Rickey signed him to a contract of roughly the equivalent of $7,300 a month in today’s money. The deal was formally announced in late October 1945 that Robinson would be playing for the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals minor league team for the 1946 season.
Jackie Robinson at his first minor league game, Jersey City, N.J., April 18, 1946.
In his year with Montreal, Robinson faced racial difficulties from the start. In spring training in Florida local hotels refused to lodge him. But it wasn’t just Robinson who had problems. Some baseball parks in Florida at the time, typically eager to host spring training teams, refused to let the Montreal Royals use their parks. In March 1946 the Triple-A Royals were scheduled to play an exhibition against their parent club, the Dodgers. However, both Florida towns of Jacksonville and Sanford refused to allow the game to be played in their parks, citing segregation laws. Daytona Beach, however, agreed, and the game was played on March 17, 1946. The Dodgers didn’t forget the incident, as the following year they shifted their spring training from Jacksonville, their previous spring training home, to Daytona.
Jackie Robinson at his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15,1947.
Robinson, meanwhile, throughout his minor league season with Montreal, was taunted and heckled. His play on the field, however, was superior, leading the league in batting and fielding with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage, also named the league’s Most Valuable Player while helping set league attendance records. More than one million people attended minor league games involving Robinson in 1946, a very large number at the time. In fact, at one point in Montreal, after winning the league championship, Robinson was chased – in a good way – by a crowd of jubilant fans.
Next came the big leagues. But some of the Dodgers’ players weren’t happy to be playing with a black man, as some had signed a petition saying they would not play. Rickey delegated team manager Leo Durocher to address the problem head on, which he did in a locker room speech. “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a … zebra,” he told his players. “I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see
that you are all traded.”
Example of hate mail Jackie Robinson received, May 20, 1950, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: National Baseball Library.
On opening day with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, Robinson did not have an exceptional playing debut, but more than 26,600 fans had come out, with about 14,000 of them black fans. But Robinson soon had an early test of his pledge to Branch Rickey when the Philadelphia Phillies came to Brooklyn that April for a three-game series. The taunts hurled at Robinson came from the players and the Phillies’ manger, Ben Chapman, most embellished with the “n” word. “We don’t want you here, n____,” and, “N___, go back to the cotton fields.” And worse. Robinson nearly lost it with the Phillies, and was ready to throw in the towel then and there, but some of his teammates began rising to his defense, a positive development that Durocher and Rickey were happy to see.
There were also lots of incidents on the road, like that at Crosley Field where Pee Wee Reese interceded. In August 1947 in St. Louis, Cardinals player Enos Slaugher purposely slid high into Robinson at first base, spikes first, slicing open Robinson’s thigh. Still, even with this onslaught of taunts, rough play, and death threats, Robinson finished the 1947 season with a .297 batting average, 125 runs scored, 12 home runs, and a league-leading 29 stolen bases. His performance earned him the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award, then a single award covering both leagues. Robinson’s play that year also helped the Dodgers win the National League Pennant, then meeting the New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series, though losing to the Yankees in seven games. The taunts and threats for Robinson, however, would continue for years.
Jackie Robinson appeared on “Time” magazine’s cover September 22, 1947.
In 1948, Robinson played second base with a .980 fielding average. He hit .296 that year with 22 stolen bases. In one game against the St. Louis Cardinals in late August 1948, Robinson “hit for the cycle,” a rare batting feat of a home run, a triple, a double, and a single in the same game. The Dodgers finished third in the league that year. By this time, other black players had joined professional baseball, including Larry Doby who joined the Cleveland Indians in the American League in July 1947 and Satchel Paige, who also played for Cleveland. The Dodgers, too, had added three additional black players.
In 1949, after working with retired Hall-of-Famer and experienced batsman George Sisler, Robinson improved his batting average to.342. He also had 124 runs batted in (RBIs) that year, 122 runs scored, 37 stolen bases, and was second in the league for doubles and triples. Robinson became first black player voted into the All-Star Game that year, and also the first black player to receive the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. A popular song was also made in Robinson’s honor that year – a song by Buddy Johnson that was also recorded by Count Basie and others – “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” The song became a pop hit, with the Buddy Johnson version reaching No. 13 on the music charts in August 1949. The Dodgers, meanwhile, won the pennant again, but also lost again to the Yankees in the World Series.
Jackie Robinson, once on base, was always a stealing threat, having very quick feet, a good sense of timing, and smart base running.
By 1950, Robinson was the highest paid Dodger, making nearly $320,000 in today’s money. He finished the year with a .328 batting average, 99 runs scored, and 12 stolen bases. He also led the National League in double plays by a second baseman with 133. A Hollywood film biography of Robinson’s life, The Jackie Robinson Story, was released that year as well, with Robinson playing himself in the film. Branch Rickey, then with an expired contract and no chance of replacing Walter O’ Malley as Dodger president, cashed out his one-quarter ownership interest in the team and became general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1951, Robinson had another good year, finishing with a .335 batting average, 106 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases. He also again led the National League in double plays made by a second baseman with 137. Robinson kept the Dodgers in contention for the 1951 pennant with a clutch hitting performance in two at bats in an extra inning game that forced a playoff against the New York Giants – that later game ending badly for the Dodgers with the famous Bobby Thomson home run giving the Giant’s the pennant.
Pee Wee Reese & Jackie Robinson featured on the October 1952 cover of “Sport” magazine turning a defensive “double play”.
In 1952, Robinson had what became for him an average year, finishing with a .308 batting average, 104 runs scored, and 24 stolen bases. Sport magazine that fall put Robinson and Reese on the cover, shown in “double play” action. The Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1952, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in seven games.
By 1953 Robinson began playing other positions, as Jim Gilliam, another black player, took over at second base. Robinson’s hitting, however, was a good as ever, compiling a .329 batting average, scoring 109 runs, and 17 steals. The Dodgers again took the pennant and again lost the World Series to the Yankees, this time in six games. A series of death threats were made on Robinson’s life during the 1953 season. Still, on the road, he would speak out and criticize segregated hotels and restaurants that poorly served the Dodger organization, including the five-star Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis, which later changed its practices. In 1954, Robinson had a .311 batting average, scored 62 runs, and had 7 steals. His best day at the plate that year came on June 17th when he hit two home runs and two doubles.
Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series still angers Yogi Berra who claims Robinson was out. Photo: Mark Kauffman/SI.
In 1955, Robinson missed 49 games and his performance slipped below his usual standard, hitting .256 that year with 12 stolen bases. He was now 37, playing either in the outfield or at third base. The Dodgers took the pennant that year and finally beat the Yankees in the World Series. In the following year, 1956, Robinson hit .275, scored 61 runs, and had 12 stolen bases. Around this time, he also began to exhibit the effects of diabetes. After the season ended, the Dodgers started to arrange a trade of Robinson to their arch-rivals, the New York Giants. However, the deal was never completed, as Robinson retired, announcing his retirement in a pre-arranged exclusive story in Look magazine. Robinson had also arranged for a business position with the Chock-Full-o’-Nuts coffee company.
Over ten seasons, Jackie Robinson had helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants, taking them to the World Series in each of those years, winning the Series in 1955. He was selected for six consecutive All-Star games from 1949 to 1954, received the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1949. But Jackie Robinson’s career, of course, was marked by much more than his outstanding play; as he became a powerful impetus for, and one of the most important figures in, the American civil rights movement that grew through the 1950s and 1960s.
Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson statue at the entrance of KeySpan Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Ted Levin.
In the years following his retirement from baseball, Robinson was honored in innumerable ways for his pioneering role in breaking baseball’s color barrier. He also became a tireless civil rights proponent in baseball and elsewhere, but especially pushing baseball to do more minority hiring in the managerial and front-office ranks. Jackie Robinson passed on in October 1972. He was 53 years old. His life and legacy have since been commemorated on postage stamps and presidential citations; special anniversary commemorations and also having his playing numeral, 42, retired by all Major League baseball teams. In 1973, his wife Rachel created the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has since awarded higher education scholarships to more than 1,200 minority students and is also involved in other baseball history and leadership development programs.
In 1999, Time magazine named Robinson among the world’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century, while Sporting News placed him on its list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Yet among all the Jackie Robinson commemorations and honors — and there are many others enumerated elsewhere — the recent 2005 Reese-Robinson sculpture in Brooklyn commemorating that moment in May 1947 when the two ballplayers made a powerful social statement by simply standing together, remains one of the more interesting and instructive honors, capturing a moment that stands out in baseball as well as the nation’s social history.
Reese-Robinson sculpture in Brooklyn sits atop a pedestal with descriptive engraving about the 1947 incident in Cincinnati. Photo Ted Levin.
The Reese-Robinson sculpture is located at the entrance to KeySpan Park, home of the New York Mets’ Class A minor league baseball team, the Brooklyn Cyclones. The likenesses of Reese and Robinson are eight-foot-tall bronze figures standing on an engraved pedestal with descriptive passages. The sculpture is the work of William Behrends. The monument was unveiled on November 1, 2005 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Rachel Robinson, Dorothy Reese, and a number of other VIPs.
The genesis of the project came about shortly after Pee Wee Reese’s death in August 1999, with some fans looking for a way to commemorate Reese’s playing career. Stan Isaacs, a columnist with Newsday, suggested that instead of naming a parkway or highway after Reese, that a statue in Brooklyn honoring the famous Reese-Robinson moment in 1947 would be a fitting tribute to Reese. Isaacs’ suggestion was subsequently mentioned during a TV broadcast of a Mets baseball game. Then New York Post writer, Jack Newfield, picked up the idea, writing about it in several columns. By December 1999, then Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani embraced the proposal and a committee was formed study the project. Giuliani became one of the lead donors for the project, making a $10,000 gift after he left office. The project then lapsed for a time following September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Close-up of Pee Wee Reese-Jackie Robinson sculpture. Photo: “Mets Guy in Michigan” website.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg resurrected the project after taking office, with Deputy Mayor for Administration, Patricia Harris, taking lead on the project. The KeySpan Park location was chosen, with the monument erected on public parkland, making it accessible to everyone. Some $1.2 million was raised to build and maintain the monument, with 110 donors contributing – ranging from Ted Forstmann, senior partner of Forstmann Little & Co. and Bob Daly, former Chairman and CEO of Warner Brothers and former managing partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to the New York Mets and New York Yankees baseball teams and a group of students at P.S. 7 Brooklyn Abraham Lincoln school who contributed a portion of their collected pennies to the project. The largest gift of $200,000, which helped complete the fundraising for the project, was made by Bob Daly, who had grown up in Brooklyn and had been a Dodger fan as a young boy, had been impressed by both players and Reese’s friendship with Robinson.
On the pedestal of the sculpture are six panels, which include an engraved description with the following explanation:
“This monument honors Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese: teammates, friends, and men of courage and conviction. Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Reese supported him, and together they made history. In May 1947, on Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Robinson endured racist taunts, jeers, and death threats that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man. Reese, captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, walked over to his teammate Robinson and stood by his side, silencing the taunts of the crowd. This simple gesture challenged prejudice and created a powerful and enduring friendship.”
At the dedication ceremony for the Reese-Robinson sculpture in 2005 are, from left: Rachel Robinson, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Dorothy Reese, and NY city councilman, Mike Nelson . Photo: Ted Levin.
At the dedication ceremony in November 2005, there were a number of speeches given by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, various baseball dignitaries, local officials, and Reese-Robinson family members. They all had good things to say.
“The Reese family is extremely proud to be able to share in the unveiling of this very special statue with the Robinson family,” said Reese’s wife, Dorothy. “Pee Wee didn’t see Jackie Robinson as a symbol, and, after a while, he didn’t see color. He merely saw Jackie as a human being, a wonderful individual who happened to be a great ball player. My husband had many wonderful moments in his life, but if he were alive today, I know he’d say this honor was among the greatest in his life. I share in that sentiment.”
“When Pee Wee Reese threw his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder in this legendary gesture of support and friendship,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, “they showed America and the world that racial discrimination is unaccept- able. Pee Wee and Jackie showed the courage to stand up for equality in the face of adversity, which we call the Brooklyn attitude. It is a moment in sports, and history that deserves to be preserved forever here in Brooklyn, proud home to everyone from everywhere.”
Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel, also spoke at the ceremony. “The Robinson Family is very proud to have the historic relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese memorialized in the statue being dedicated at KeySpan Park,” she said. “We hope that it will become a source of inspiration for all who view it, and a powerful reminder that teamwork underlies all social progress.”
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Reese & Robbie, 1945-2005,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 29, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
The late 1940s-early 1950s were the heyday of "stadium pins” or “pinbacks,” produced for sale at stadium concession stands to depict and support favorite players; collectables today. Jackie Robinson is shown in this 1947 Rookie-of-the-Year pin. According to one source, no player aside from Babe Ruth has been the subject of more pins than Jackie Robinson.
Newspaper coverage of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut by the black-owned “Pittsburgh Courier” (Wash., D.C. edition), Saturday, April 19, 1947.
CD cover of Natalie Cole’s version of “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?,” 1994 release, Elektra.; also used in Ken Burns “Baseball” film.
Sept 1953: Jackie Robinson & Pee Wee Reese, center, in the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout. Look Collection, U.S. Library of Congress.
Pee Wee Reese & Jackie Robinson turning a double play during March 1950 spring training in Vero Beach, FL. Photo Phil Sandlin, AP.
Tim Cohane, “A Branch Grows in Brooklyn,” Look, March 19, 1946, p. 70.
Front page story, New York Times, April 28th, 1947.
It was April 1947. America was about to begin its post-World War II economic boom. A few months earlier, Edwin Land had demonstrated his “instant camera”, the Polaroid Land Camera. Radio was still the principal communications medium, with more than 40 million strong. Television, at a scant 44,000 sets nationwide, was just starting. As a new baseball season began, a special day was set aside to honor former New York Yankee baseball star, Babe Ruth. More than 58,000 fans packed Yankee stadium on April 27th to honor Ruth, along with American and National League baseball officials, Catholic Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman, and other VIPs who were also in attendance. The ceremony and speeches were piped into all Major League and many Minor League baseball parks that day. Babe Ruth was then 12 years retired from active play; a new generation of players had taken the field such as Joe DiMaggio. Still, Ruth had set baseball’s most revered record 20 years earlier — hitting an unheard of 60 home runs in one season. In the intervening years a few players had hit as many as 58 home runs in one season, but no one had broken Ruth’s record. And his career total of 714 home runs appeared to be invincible.
Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth Day, April 27th, 1947.
In June 1948, at a second celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium — known as “the House that Ruth Built” — the slugger was again honored (see photo below). His Yankee uniform playing numeral, No. 3 was formally retired that day.
Babe Ruth, throughout his career, had made important contributions to the Yankees, New York city, and all of professional baseball. In the 1920s, his hitting prowess not only made millions of dollars for the New York Yankee franchise, but also “saved” baseball from national disgrace. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal — when players took bribes to throw the World Series — had badly tainted all of baseball. But Babe Ruth, with his home runs and out-sized personality, came along at just the right time. He wasn’t the only factor in the revival, certainly, but his power and celebrity helped energize the game, reclaim its respectability, and renew and expand the fan base. In so doing, he helped to elevate baseball’s place in American culture and to make it a much bigger business.
In the go-go 1920s, before the Stock Market crash, Ruth had been something of a symbol of American optimism; the sports hero with the big smile and big appetite who seemed to make anything possible. By 1947 and 1948, of course, a lot had changed. WWII and the Great Depression were then in the past. But the fans who came out to give their final cheers for Ruth at Yankee Stadium in 1947 and 1948, were also cheering for the 1920s American optimism and derring-do that Ruth stood for, as well as his awesome accomplishments.
June 13, 1948: Babe Ruth in his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, captured in Nat Fein's Pulitzer Prize winning photo.
George Herman Ruth, born in 1895, had come to baseball via the school of hard knocks. A Baltimore saloonkeeper’s son, Ruth had been something of a problem child, and at the age of 7, his parents placed him in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys for his “incorrigible” behavior. The school was run by Catholic Xaverian brothers, and Ruth spent almost his entire youth there. The school became the place where Ruth — with the help and encouragement of Brother Matthias Boutlier — developed into a promising baseball player. By 1914, he was signed briefly to a minor league team before being sold with others to the Boston Red Sox.
Babe Ruth with the Boston Red Sox, circa 1917-1918.
In Boston, the left-handed Ruth became a formidable pitcher as well as a promising hitter. His pitching, in fact, helped Boston win two World Series in 1916 and 1918. He was later converted to an outfielder in Boston so he could play more often, making use of his hitting power. He did not disappoint.
In 1919, his last year with Boston before coming to the Yankees, he hit 29 home runs, breaking the existing record. Before that, no one had ever hit more than 25 home runs in one season. News of Ruth’s batting feats in Boston spread. Wherever he played, large crowds filled the stands.
In the winter of 1919, however, Boston’s owner Harry Frazee, in need of money to finance his business interests on Broadway, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for about $100,000 and a $300,000 loan. With the Yankees, Ruth would soon become the dominant player in all of professional baseball.
“Small Ball” No More
In the decade preceding the 1920s, baseball was not a game of home runs and high drama. Rather, it was a game of singles, bunts and stolen bases; what might be called “small ball” in today’s lingo – a game of hustle with batters hitting for direction, not distance. Few players ever hit more than a dozen or so home runs per season prior to 1919. Pitchers dominated, then using the spitball, often aided by tobacco-juice. In those days, only one ball was used for the entire game – a time known as “the dead ball” era. By 1920, some rule changes had come to the game. The spitball was outlawed along with unorthodox pitching deliveries and the ball began to be replaced regularly during a game. One player, in fact, had been killed after being hit in the head with a dirty, darkened ball.
Ruth in his early days with the NY Yankees.
When Ruth began play with the Yankees in 1920, the team then shared the Polo Grounds stadium with the neighboring New York Giants of the National League. On May 1st that year, Ruth hit his first Yankee home run, a ball that left the Polo Grounds. By year’s end, Ruth had hit a prodigious 54 home runs, nearly doubling the existing record. No other player that year had hit more than 19 home runs. Ruth also batted for a .376 average with a slugging average of .847 – the latter a record that would stand for 80 years. The Yankees that year also shattered the league’s annual attendance mark, drawing 1.3 million fans, breaking the old mark of 900,000 set in 1908. In the following year, 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs. Only the Philadelphia Phillies – as an entire team – hit more at 64. The “small ball” era was long gone.
A Good Investment
In the Yankee front office, meanwhile, Ruth was proving to be a very good investment. Home receipts more than doubled in each of the years 1920-1922, and the Yankees also appeared in the 1921 and 1922 World Series, producing an additional $150,000 in revenues. The Yankee share of road receipts more than doubled in each of those years as well. In 1923, Ruth continued to excel. He set a career-high batting average of .393 that year and led the major leagues with 41 home runs. The 1923 season also saw the opening of Yankee Stadium, with Ruth hitting the stadium’s first home run in the opening game, prompting sportswriter Fred Lieb to nickname the place, “The House That Ruth Built.” In 1923, for the third straight time, the Yankees faced the Giants in the World Series. Ruth hit .368 for the series, scored eight runs, and hit three home runs. The Yankees won the series 4 games to 2.
1924: Babe Ruth with George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns, one of the game’s all-time greats, who in 1922 had hit safely in 41 consecutive games and complied a .420 batting average.
In New York, and on the road, fans were turning out see Ruth in droves. One reporter wrote, “This new fan didn’t know where first base was, but he had heard of Babe Ruth and wanted to see him hit a home run. . .” Ruth was also generating a lot of attention with his outsized personality and off-the-field carousing. He had larger-than-life appetites and eventually became one of the enduring personalities of the roaring ’20s. The large New York Italian immigrant community gave him the nickname “bambino.” To many people, Ruth was more than a baseball player, he was a national icon. Yet some say Ruth never quite grew up as person; at times he could be down right crude. He drank, gambled, scoffed at training rules, and would argue with umpires and abusive fans. Still, New York City proved the perfect place for Ruth — the big star on a big stage, with big crowds and big media coverage. He lived large and earned over $2 million, most of which he spent. Yet Ruth could be very generous and caring, and would go out of his way for some people, and especially for sick children and orphans.
By December 1925, however, Ruth’s high living was beginning to show; he was overweight at 254 pounds, had a high pulse, fat stomach, and was generally out of shape. With the help of fitness coach Artie McGovern, Ruth changed his diet and got back into shape. He also kept McGovern as his trainer. In 1926, Ruth compiled an impressive .372 batting average with 47 home runs and 146 RBIs, leading the Yankees back to the World Series. Though they lost the Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, Ruth hit three home runs in game 4.
In 1927, Lou Gehrig & Babe Ruth combined for 107 home runs and 339 RBIs, helping compile a team win-loss record of 110-44.
By 1927, the New York Yankees had built one of the greatest teams of all time, compiling a 110-44 record, sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. That was the year Ruth hit his record-setting 60 home runs, a time when teammate Lou Gehrig was also becoming a powerhouse. In addition to Ruth’s record 60 home runs that year, he also batted .356, drove in 164 runs, and complied a slugging avg of .772 – all phenomenally impressive baseball feats.
In the following year Ruth had 54 home runs. In fact, from 1928 through 1934, Ruth continued to produce at that level, with very good numbers: batting averages of .300 or more every year except 1934, and hitting 40 or more home runs in each of those years except 1933 and 1934 when he hit respectively, 34 and 22 home runs.
In 1930, during spring training in Florida, when Ruth was negotiating for a higher salary — he wanted $100,000 a year, but signed for $80,000 — a reporter pointed out that he was now making a higher salary than President Herbert Hoover. Ruth replied, “I had a better year.”
Although not a person active in politics, Babe Ruth supported NY Governor Al Smith (D) for President in 1928, shown here with Smith in an undated photo.
During the prime of his career, Babe Ruth was one of the most sought-after celebrities of his day. Sportswriters and newsmen, of course, wanted Babe Ruth in their stories. But advertisers and politicians also wanted Ruth to back their products or endorse their political campaigns. He appeared in numerous print ads for products ranging from breakfast cereals and shaving cream to sporting goods and tobacco products.
Although he rarely if ever voted, he supported the 1928 presidential candidacy of New York Governor Al Smith (D), speaking on radio a few times on Smith’s behalf, and also attending at least one political convention where he introduced fellow Yankee ballplayers Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri, who supported Smith as well. Ruth, in fact, refused to appear with then sitting U.S. President Herbert Hoover at a baseball game in Washington, DC in September, saying he was “an Al Smith man,” although he later apologized for the slight. In later years, Ruth did appear in a photograph with then former President Herbert Hoover, taken on November 11th, 1933 at a Stanford-USC football game. Ruth also had roles in a number of short films during the late 1920s and early 1930s, and would often appear in promotional photos with various movie and entertainment stars.
By 1935, as Ruth’s career was coming to an end, the New York Yankees traded him to the National League’s Boston Braves. But Babe Ruth still had one last hurrah left.
The Last Hurrah
On May 25,1935, against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field, the 41-year old Ruth had four hits in the game, a rare feat on its own. But three of Ruth’s hits that day were home runs: one in the first inning that went over the right-center field wall; a second in the third inning to deep right field; and a third, monster drive in the ninth inning that the Associated Press then described as “a prodigious clout that carried clear over the right field grandstand, bounded into the street, and rolled into Schenley Park.” It was the first baseball ever hit out of Forbes Field. That homer brought a standing ovation for Ruth from the sparse crowd of 10,000 that day as he rounded the bases for his 714th career home run. It would be Ruth’s final home run.
Ruth at career end with the Boston Braves in 1935, the year he hit 3 home runs in one game at Pittsburgh at age 41.
In early June 1935, Babe Ruth voluntarily retired from baseball and was released by the Braves. In the years that followed, Ruth did some coaching but never became a manager, which he had always wanted to do. In 1936, when the Baseball Hall of Fame was instituted, Babe Ruth was among the first five players elected, along with Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.
In retirement, Ruth made special appearances, played in occasional exhibition games in the U.S. and abroad, and endorsed a variety of products. He also gave talks on the radio, at orphanages and hospitals, and served as a spokesperson for U.S. War Bonds during World War II.
By 1946, however, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer and although treated, doctors could do little to help him. His treatment had ended just a few months before his appearance at Yankee Stadium for the April 1947 Babe Ruth Day celebration. It was apparent to most who saw him that day that Ruth was a sick man. Having lost weight, he was not the robust player most remembered. Still, he was greeted with a great roar of the crowd after the initial convocation by Cardinal Spellman and the introductions by Major League baseball officials.
“Just before he spoke,” explained a New York Times reporter at the ceremony, “Ruth started to cough and it appeared that he might break down because of the thunderous cheers that came his way. But once he started to talk, he was all right, still the champion. It was the many men who surrounded him on the field, players, newspaper and radio persons, who choked up.” Ruth’s Hall of Fame plaque says he was the “greatest drawing card in history of baseball.”Ruth began his speech from the microphone on the field at home plate in a very raspy, painful sounding voice. “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. You know how bad my voice sounds,” he said. “Well, it feels just as bad.” He proceeded to talk briefly about the game of baseball and how important it was to keep the youth of the country involved in the game. He then thanked the fans and the earlier speakers for their words of praise, and with a wave to the fans, walked from the field down into the Yankee dugout. Beneath the stands he had a few trying minutes, coughing again, before he wa able to join his wife, daughter, and other friends in a boxed seat to watch the game.
Actor William Bendix as Ruth in a scene from Hollywood film, 'The Babe Ruth Story,' 1948.
Ruth made his final Yankee Stadium appearance less than a year later on June 13, 1948, at the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium. Dressed in his old Yankee uniform that day (see earlier photo, above), Ruth again was honored and his Yankee No. 3 jersey retired from service. The next time he appeared in public, his last, was on July 26th that year for the New York premier of a Hollywood movie, The Babe Ruth Story, with actor William Bendix playing Ruth. Shortly thereafter he was back in the hospital. On Aug 16, 1948, Babe Ruth died of throat cancer. He was 53. For two days Ruth’s body lay in state at the entrance to Yankee Stadium where tens of thousands came to pay their last respects. A Requiem Mass was held for Ruth at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Francis Cardinal Spellman presiding. About 6,000 people attended the service, with New York Governor Thomas Dewey, New York Mayor William O’Dwyer, and Boston Mayor James Michael Curley serving as pallbearers.
Babe Ruth left behind a professional baseball legacy that few other players would ever equal. His Hall of Fame plaque says, among other things, that he was the “greatest drawing card in history of baseball.” At the time of his death in 1948, Ruth is said to have set or tied 76 baseball records, a number of which have since been overtaken. Yet some of Ruth’s achievements stood for decades.
In addition to setting the single-season home run mark in 1927 at 60 — a record that stood for 34 years until Yankee Roger Maris broke it in September 1961 — Ruth was also the first player to hit respectively more that 30, 40, and 50 home runs in one season. His career home run record of 714 wasn’t broken until Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves surpassed it in 1974. And Ruth was surprisingly durable too, considering his living-large habits. He played more than 20 years in the big leagues.
Babe Ruth in action, 1931, at Oriole Park, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo from Robert F. Kniesche / Kniesche Collection / Maryland Historical Society.
Along with his home runs, Babe Ruth put in more seasons, had more hits, more extra-base hits, more runs scored, and more runs batted-in than many of the other Yankee greats, including Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. Ruth led the Yankees to seven American League pennants and four World Series titles, hitting a total of 15 home runs in World Series play. He is the only player ever to hit three home runs in a World Series game on two separate occasions — game 4 of the 1926 World Series and game 4 of the 1928 World Series. Unlike many home run hitters, Ruth had a very good batting average. Wrote the Sporting News in 1999, naming him to its 100 Greatest Players list: “Lost in the fog of Ruth’s 12 American League home run titles, four 50-homer seasons, and six RBI titles was a career .342 average that ties for eighth all-time in baseball’s modern era.” Ruth’s career .690 slugging percentage (calculated by dividing total bases by at-bats) is the highest total in the history of Major League Baseball. Ruth’s “Louisville slugger” baseball bat — used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium in 1923 — was sold at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $1.26 million. As a pitcher in his early years with the Red Sox, Ruth won 89 games in six years and set a World Series record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. From 1915-17, Ruth won 65 games, the most by any left-handed pitcher in the majors during that time.
Ruth’s name and legend have been enshrined in baseball history and active baseball play. In 1953, an organized baseball league for boys aged 13-to-15 was named Babe Ruth League Baseball. In 1969, Ruth was named baseball’s Greatest Player Ever in a ballot commemorating the 100th anniversary of the game. And in 1999, voting by baseball fans put Ruth on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Ruth’s popularity, and indeed his continuing commercial value, is seen in the recent prices paid at auction for Ruth memorabilia. Ruth’s 1923 solid ash, Louisville Slugger baseball bat used to hit the first home run at Yankee Stadium in April 1923 was sold at a Sotheby’s in December 2004 for $1.26 million. The 1919 contract that sent Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees was sold by Sotheby’s on June 10, 2005 for $996,000. Ruth’s name and image — used variously in advertising and other commercial uses — continues to be under management by a public relations firm. His life has also been the subject of numerous books and web sites, including the 2006 book, The Big Bam, the cover of which is shown below in “Sources”.
Others Cash In
Ruth plugged Wheaties cereal in radio spots & print ads in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in 1992, he appeared on a 'sports heritage' Wheaties box.
Sports marketing firms have also cashed in on Ruth’s legacy, one of which is the Indianapolis firm, Curtis Management Group, now called CMG Worldwide. CMG represents the families and estates of Ruth and more than 50 other late great sports stars. Sports celebrities account for about 40 percent of CMG’s business, which also includes late movie stars and other celebrities — from Norman Rockwell to Humprey Bogart.
In 1995, CMG made a special push with Ruth memorabilia on the anniversary of the slugger’s 100th birthday. The firm offered for sale nearly 100 “official” Ruth products – plates, beer steins, trading cards, t-shirts, telephone debit cards, computer mouse pads, and more. CMG estimated at the time that the Ruth products would bring in more than $25 million in retail sales. Ruth’s image has also appeared in a variety of corporate advertising and marketing campaigns — Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Hallmark, Zenith, Sears, and others. In the mid-1990s, royalties and licensing fees from Ruth advertising and other ventures were expected to run “well into seven figures,” according to CMG’s Mark Roesler.
In the 1980s, Roesler and CMG had located Ruth’s surviving relatives and struck a deal with them, with CMG keeping 60 percent of sales and the Ruth family and Babe Ruth League Baseball getting the remainder. By 1985, modest checks began arriving for the family in the $5,000 range, and by the early 1990s the family was receiving amounts of up to six figures annually. CMG at that time was still taking its 60 percent cut. Since the mid-2000s, however, the Luminary Group of Shelbyville, Indiana, appears to have acquired the Babe Ruth account.
See also at this website: “Baseball Stories,” a topics page with links to 12 other baseball stories, including two other stories on Ruth – “Ruth at Oriole Park”(about a statue of Ruth at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, his early baseball youth, and years in Baltimore); and “Babe Ruth & Tobacco” (Ruth’s endorsements of various cigar, cigarette, and chewing tobacco products, as well as appearances at a tobacco shop in Boston). Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle