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 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. 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.
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.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. 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” ReeseHarold 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. 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.”
Jackie RobinsonJackie 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.”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. 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.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. 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.”
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.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.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. 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.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.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.
The StatuesThe 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.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 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.”
For additional stories at this website from the “statues & icons” series, see, for example: “RFK in Brooklyn,” “Ruth at Oriole Park,” “The Rocky Statue” (at the Philadelphia Art Museum), “The Jackson Statues” (Michael Jackson), and “Ralph Kramden Statue.” Additional sports stories can be found at the “Annals of Sport” category page. Thanks for visiting. – Jack Doyle.
Date Posted: 29 June 2011
Last Update: 29 June 2011
Comments to: email@example.com
Jack Doyle, “Reese & Robbie, 1945-2005,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 29, 2011.
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