The Pop History Dig

“Reese & Robbie”
1945-2005

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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”


Jackie Robinson

Among other things, Jackie Robinson had been a track star at UCLA in 1940.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.


The Statues

Reese-Robinson sculpture in Brooklyn sits atop a pedestal with descriptive engraving about the 1947 incident in Cincinnati. Photo Ted Levin.
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.
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 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.”

     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.


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Date Posted: 29 June 2011
Last Update: 29 June 2011
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Reese & Robbie, 1945-2005,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 29, 2011.

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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

“Sport: Rookie of the Year,” Time (cover story) Monday, September 22, 1947.

“Jackie Robinson’s First Year As a Dodger,” Look, January 6, 1948.

Jackie Robinson, “My Future,” Look, January 22, 1957.

Red Barber, 1947, When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.

Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer, New York: Perennial Library, 1987.

Maury Allen, Jackie Robinson: A Life Remembered, New York: F. Watts, 1987.

Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Baseball: An Illustrated History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, pp. 285-300.

Ben Couch, “Robinson, Reese Now Together Forever; Statue of Former Brooklyn Dodgers Teammates is Unveiled,” MLB.com, November 1, 2005.

Rachel Robinson and Lee Daniels, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, New York: Abrams, 1996.

Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson,” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 448pp.

“Pee Wee Reese,” Wikipedia.org.

“Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson, “Online Exhibit, Library of Congress.

“Jackie Robinson Timeline,”MLB.com.

Ira Berkow, Sports of the Times, “Standing Beside Jackie Robinson, Reese Helped Change Baseball,” New York Times, March 31, 1997

“Rachel Robinson Recalls How the Late Pee Wee Reese Helped Jackie Robinson Integrate Baseball,” Jet Magazine, September 13, 1999.

Press Release, “Mayor Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Markowitz Unveil Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese Monument,” Office of the Mayor, New York, NY, November 1, 2005.

Ted Levin Photos, “A Monument for Tolerance: Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese,” pBase.com, November 2005.

“Keyspan Park,” Mets Guy In Michigan, website.

Scott Simon, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball,

Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007, 176pp.

“Jackie Robinson,” Wikipedia.org.

“Jackie Robinson and Dr. Martin Luther King: They Changed America,” Padre steve’s World, January 18, 2010

“The Glory Days: New York Baseball, 1947-1957,”Exhibit, Museum of the City of New York.

“Remembering Jackie Robinson, 1946,” MiLB.com, 2006.

Roger Kahn, Letter to the Editor, “The Day Jackie Robinson Was Embraced,” New York Times, April 21, 2007.

Jonathan Eig, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007, 336 pp.

Barry M. Bloom, “Jackie Robinson: Gone But Not Forgotten; Dodgers Legend Continued to Be a Force after His Playing Days,” MLB.com, June 4, 2007.

“Jackie Robinson: An American Icon,” DefinitiveTouch.com, October 31, 2009.




 



$2.8 Million Baseball Card
1909-Honus Wagner

Close-up of 1909 trading card show- ing a young Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.
Close-up of 1909 trading card show- ing a young Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.
     In early September 2007, a rare sports trading card was sold at auction for $2.8 million, then a record price.  The 1909 card, depicting the famous Pittsburgh baseball player, Honus Wagner, was sold to an anonymous private collector.  It had been sold only six months earlier, in February 2007, for a record $2.35 million.  But that’s only part of the story.  Escalating amounts of money, along with various luminary and ordinary owners, plus a measure of controversy, have followed this card around for nearly a century.  More on that in a moment.  First, the player whose image is on this highly-valued piece of baseball history.

      Honus Wagner was a legendary baseball player who began his professional career with the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1897.  Wagner hit .344 during his rookie year and quickly became one of the best hitters in the National League.  However, in 1899, the NL reduced its membership from twelve to eight teams, and the Colonels were eliminated.  Thereafter, and through his remaining career, Wagner played with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  In Pittsburgh, he compiled a stellar record through 1917.  He played the infield, primarily shortstop.  Wagner had grown up in the Pennsylvania coal fields and worked in the mines as a 12 year-old.  His mother called him “Hans,” which over the years became “Honus.”  Babe Ruth once said there was no one who could replace him at shortstop, noting his big hands, that “drew the balls to him.”  Former U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, growing up in Kansas, used to daydream and tell his friend about becoming a baseball player like Honus Wagner.

An inscription on this photo reads: “I hold out for Hans Wagner as the greatest of them all.  Wagner  was a great ball player at 20. He was still a great ballplayer at 43. In all my career I never saw such a versatile player.” John McGraw, mgr., NY Giants, 1931.
An inscription on this photo reads: “I hold out for Hans Wagner as the greatest of them all. Wagner was a great ball player at 20. He was still a great ballplayer at 43. In all my career I never saw such a versatile player.” John McGraw, mgr., NY Giants, 1931.
     Honus Wagner is generally considered one of the finest all-around players in the history of National League baseball, and for some, the greatest shortstop in baseball history.  Others regard him as the second-greatest baseball player of his era, behind Ty Cobb.  He hit for an average of .300 or better for 17 consecutive seasons, winning eight National League batting titles.  He was also a good runner, dubbed “the flying Dutchman,” and excelled at base stealing.  When Honus Wagner retired in 1917 he had more hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, triples and steals than any National League player.  In 1936, at the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was among the first class of elite players inducted, along with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson — sometimes called “The Fabulous Five.”

 

‘Holy Grail’ of Cards

     The 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card, therefore, honors a great player.  But there’s a lot more to this baseball card story than Wagner’s impressive career achievements.  The Wagner card — sometimes called the “Mona Lisa” or “Holy Grail” of baseball trading cards — was originally published and released by the American Tobacco Trust in 1909.  Only 50 to 60 other Honus Wagner cards are believed to exist (some estimates run as high as 100, though collector quality is a limiting factor).  Yet the Honus Wagner card that sold in September 2007 for $2.8 million, was especially rare and in very good, near mint condition.

Original portrait photo of Honus Wagner in his Pittsburgh uniform taken by Carl Horner  in 1905, from which an artist’s version was later made, adding 'Pittsburgh' to his jersey.
Original portrait photo of Honus Wagner in his Pittsburgh uniform taken by Carl Horner in 1905, from which an artist’s version was later made, adding 'Pittsburgh' to his jersey.
     The Wagner card is one of 523 baseball player trading cards that were issued by the American Tobacco between 1909 and 1911. American Tobacco was using the cards and the players to promote its various brands of cigarettes, primarily two at the time — Sweet Caporal and Piedmont.  On the reverse side of the near mint-condition Wagner card is a Piedmont cigarette ad.  The Wagner cards generally became a rarity, in part, because Wagner himself stopped their production, although his exact objection remains unclear.  Some say Wagner did so because he wanted a bigger promotional fee from American Tobacco.  Others say he didn’t want children buying and smoking cigarettes to get his picture.  But Wagner did deny the tobacco company permission to use his image, responding to their recruitment efforts in one circa 1908-09 letter saying, “I don’t want my picture in any cigarettes.”  To be clear, Wagner also threatened legal action to stop the company.  So American Tobacco stopped production of the card.

     According to his granddaughter, Leslie Wagner Blair, Honus Wagner did care about his fans, and especially young fans.  Blair, who knew her grandfather as “Buck,” says in one account that “[h]e loved children. He wanted to teach kids good sportsmanship. When it came time for that card to come out, it wasn’t that he wasn’t paid. He didn’t want kids to have to buy tobacco to get his card.” Yet Wagner himself chewed tobacco, and he had also appeared in or lent his name to tobacco advertisements and products, including a cigar baseball trading card in 1899 and a newspaper ad for Murad cigarettes during the 1909 World Series. It’s possible, of course, that early in his career Wagner did endorse and use tobacco products, but later, changed his mind about endorsements.

Another Wagner card showing the backside Piedmont cigarette advertisement.
Another Wagner card showing the backside Piedmont cigarette advertisement.
     Whatever the reason for Wagner’s refusal, American Tobacco could not stop the trading cards it had already produced.  So today it is believed that 50-to-60 collector-worthy Honus Wagner T206 cards are still in existence.  Most of these cards are backed with a Sweet Caporal cigarette ad. 

However, only three, it is believed, carry a Piedmont cigarette ad, making them the rarer and most valuable.  And one of the best of these three has been dubbed “the Gretsky card” since it was owned in recent years by famous ice hockey star, Wayne Gretsky.  This particular card has changed hands four times in the last 10 years (1997-2007), doubling in value on three of those occasions.

 

 

“Celebrity Sell”

     Star baseball players in the 1890s and early 1900s — the sports celebrities of their day — were sought after for product endorsements and testimonials. Honus Wagner, either by word or likeness, appeared in advertisements for chewing gum, gunpowder, soft drinks, Gillette razor blades, cigars, and other products. In fact, Wagner is believed to be among the first professional athletes to receive endorsement money for allowing the use of his name on a product. He was also among the first professional players to make commercial ties with a sporting equipment company — in this case, Louisville Slugger baseball bats.

     Wagner first played with the Louisville Colonels professional team in Louisville, Kentucky. There he met and befriended Bud Hillerich, who in 1894 had begun producing a trademarked baseball bat containing the engraved name, Louisville Slugger. Many ball players of that day began to use only Hillerich’s bats, who would also engrave their names on the bats so they could determine which bat was theirs. One of those players was Honus Wagner.

     When Wagner left Louisville to play for Pittsburgh, he and Hillerich kept in touch and maintained their friendship. In 1905, Wagner signed a contract with Hillerich which allowed him to use Wagner’s signature on baseball bats to be sold in stores. And with that, Wagner became one of the first professional athletes to receive endorsement money by allowing the use of his name on a product for general sale.

 

Photograph of a 'Honus Wagner' cigar box.
Photograph of a 'Honus Wagner' cigar box.
 

The Card’s Trail

      As early as 1933, a Honus Wagner baseball card was listed in The American Card Catalog of a collector named Jefferson Burdick at a price of $50, making it even then the world’s most expensive baseball card.  But the special, mint condition card of recent $2.8 million fame, appears to have surfaced in 1985, when a Long Island, New York sports memorabilia dealer named Bill Mastro purchased it along with 50-to-75 other old cards also in the T206 series.  Mastro bought the “package deal” from a Hicksville, New York collector — Wagner card included — for $25,000. Mastro then sold his card in 1987 to Jim Copeland, a San Luis Obispo, California sporting-goods chain owner and baseball card collector, for $110,000 — a transaction credited with raising interest in baseball card collecting.  Copeland, in turn, decided to sell his entire baseball card collection in 1991 — some 873 pieces, including the rare Honus Wagner card.  That sale occurred at the Sotheby’s auction house in New York, where separate action focused on Copeland’s Wagner card.  Bidding rose swiftly, jumping from an opening price of $114,000 to $228,000, then $300,000, and finally, $410,000.  The full price for the card, with Sotheby’s charge added, was $451,000.

Wagner at left in 1912 photo with Pittsburgh teammates Mike Donlin, manager Fred Clarke and Marty O’Toole.
Wagner at left in 1912 photo with Pittsburgh teammates Mike Donlin, manager Fred Clarke and Marty O’Toole.

     The winning bidder — who had done so by phone — turned out to be National Hockey League star Wayne Gretzky, who had some financial assistance from partner Bruce McNall, the owner of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.  Once again, publicity surrounding the Sotheby’s auction of the Wagner and other old cards, elevated interest in the baseball card collecting and the sports memorabilia business. 

 

Sold To Wal-Mart

     Wayne Gretzky, however, was not a baseball card collector. He bought the Honus Wagner card for investment purposes.  Three years after he acquired it, Gretzky bought out his partner’s share.  He then sold the Honus Wagner card in 1995 to Wal-Mart for a reported $500,000.  Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment, an Atlanta, Georgia printing company, used the card as the grand prize in a nationwide contest to promote the sale of new baseball trading cards.  They took the highly-prized Wagner card on road tour across the U.S. 

Honus Wagner, circa 1910s.
Honus Wagner, circa 1910s.
     In February 1996, on the 122nd anniversary of Honus Wagner’s birthday, a grand prize drawing was held for the Honus Wagner card.  The ceremony and drawing were broadcast on CNN’s Larry King Live Show.  Brooks Robinson, former Baltimore Oriole baseball star third baseman and Hall-of-Famer, came on the show to select the winning contestant.  A Florida postal worker named Patricia Gibbs was the grand-prize winner.  Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment officially awarded the card to Gibbs later at a Wal-Mart store in Florida, reportedly delivered by two armed guards.  Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment by this time were reaping the returns of their baseball-card publicity campaign, selling more than 30 million baseball card packs in a matter of months. 

     Patricia Gibbs, however, could not afford to pay the taxes on the Honus Wagner card she won in the drawing, and decided to sell the card at Christie’s auction house in New York.  In September 1996 and the card was sold for $640,500 to an anonymous buyer (later revealed to be Chicago collector, Michael Gidwitz) whose agent said he expected it would soon fetch $1 million or more in later bidding.  Sure enough, in the year 2000, Brian Seigel, the CEO of an asset management company, paid a record $1.265 million when he bought the card at auction on e-Bay.

 

Wagner Memorabilia

      By the year 2000, it was clear that Honus Wagner had real value in the sports memorabilia world.  And it turned out that Wagner’s granddaughter, Leslie Wagner Blair, still living in Pittsburgh, had an attic full of her grandfather’s baseball mementos.  But Blair, then moving her residence, no longer had room to keep all the treasures, nor heirs to pass them along to.  So she decided to sell some of her grandfather’s keepsakes.  In June 2003, a number of items from her collection were designated for auction, along with a few other Wagner items added by others.  The auction was held in August 2003.

1909 World Series: Honus Wagner at center, Ty Cobb of Detroit at right, and Davy Jones of Detroit with back to camera.
1909 World Series: Honus Wagner at center, Ty Cobb of Detroit at right, and Davy Jones of Detroit with back to camera.
     Among the Wagner items auctioned from Blair’s collection was an 11-inch Tiffany sterling chalice, or loving cup, that was presented to Wagner in December 1907 by National League president Harry Pulliam.  The cup is engraved with HonusWagner’sname, given him to commemorate the five National League batting titles he had won to that point.  He would proceed to win three more batting titles.  Legend has it that Wagner was then in an off-season contract dispute and was called to Pulliam’s office in New York to receive the award as a way of placating him.  At the auction, the Loving Cup went for more than $93,000.

     Also in this auction was a baseball hit by Wagner in the final game of the 1909 World Series — a championship series in which Wagner was matched against rival Ty Cobb and his Detroit ball club.  An inscription on the ball reads: “Ball hit by Honus Wagner of Pittsburgh Nationals winning game and championship from Detroit American, Oct/1909.  Kindness of Umpire William Klem.”(who apparently gave the ball to Wagner).  The 1909 season and that Word Series may well have been the pinnacle of Wagner’s career.  He led the Pirates to 110 wins that year, and in the World Series games he outshone rival Ty Cobb and helped Pittsburgh win their first World Series.

The famed 'Wayne Gretsky' Wagner card, graded & framed.
The famed 'Wayne Gretsky' Wagner card, graded & framed.
     The August 2003 auction also included a large swatch of material from the sleeve of one of Wagner’s 1908-1909 tattered baseball jerseys — a swatch which contained the Pittsburgh Baseball Club logo “PBC”. It sold for $16,000.  There was also a Honus Wagner baseball card in the collection — a more worn and tattered card that ranked much lower than the Gretsky card, but which nonetheless sold for more than $92,000.

 

Graded Wagners

      A number of other Honus Wagner cards have surfaced in recent years, some fraught with controversy over their authenticity and/or quality.  The Honus Wagner card highlighted here, however, was graded in the 1990s when Wayne Gretsky owned it.  The card was graded by the Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), a firm which came into existence about that time, and has since become one of the nation’s leading third-party, sports- card grading services.  The Wagner card, in fact, was the first baseball card to be PSA-graded, and it received a NM-MT 8 from PSA, which is a “near mint – mint” rating, the highest given to a T206 Wagner so far. 

Honus Wagner in the infield.
Honus Wagner in the infield.
     The PSA grades sports cards based on a 1-to-10 scale and has instituted the PSA Sports Card Grading Standards.  PSA has authenticated, graded and encapsulated 28 of the known T206 Wagner cards.  Of those, only two have earned grades of 4 (VG-EX) or better, three have earned 3 (VG) status, with the remainder garnering either a 1 or 2 due to substantial wear or significant physical imperfections.  Other Honus Wagner cards have been sold in the 2000-2005 period bringing prices in the $75,000 to $460,000 range.  None of these cards, however, have received the 8 rating of the “Gretsky card,” with most receiving between a PSA 2 and 4.  Dan Imler, managing director of SCP Auctions, one of the auction houses that has handled Wagner cards, among other memorabilia, has stated: “For many collectors, owning any example of a T206 Honus Wagner card is the crowning achievement of baseball card collecting.”

  

“The Card”: New Heights

      By 2007, meanwhile, the “Gretsky”card, was about to reach new heights in value.  Brian Seigel of Las Vegas, the CEO of Emerald Capital LLC, an asset management company, decided to sell the Gretsky card.  In July 2000, he had paid a then-record $1,265,000 for the card at public auction.  During his ownership of the card, Seigel had shared it with the public.

Wagner Card
Escalating Value

1930      $50
1985      $25,000
1987      $110,000
1991      $451,000
1995      $500,000
1996      $641,500
2000     $1,265,000
2/’07     $2,350,000
9/’07     $2,800,000

      “Previous owners usually kept it locked up,” explained Seigel, “however, I displayed the card as frequently as possible at major sports collectibles shows around the country.  When I lived in Orange County California I even took it to several Cal State Fullerton baseball games and to elementary schools to teach children about baseball card collecting.”  The card was also displayed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California in March 2003.

     Seigel said he enjoyed owning the card for over six years, and added that during that time it was never for sale.  “But I received an unsolicited call out of the blue late last year [2006] from a California collector who wanted to buy it.  After thinking it over for a while, I decided to sell, and the two of us agreed on a price.”  That price, paid in February 2007, was $2.35 million.  Six months later, in September 2007, it was sold again, when another California collector paid $2.8 million for the card, now the most valuable baseball card in history.

2007 book by Michael O’Keefe & Teri Thompson, published by Wm. Morrow.
2007 book by Michael O’Keefe & Teri Thompson, published by Wm. Morrow.
 

Card Controversy

      As the value of the Honus Wagner baseball trading card has escalated over the years, so have claims about finds of other cards — some of which have generated considerable controversy and in a few cases, have become quite messy and nasty battles.  Two African American card collectors from Cincinnati, Ohio named John Cobb and Ray Edwards tried to sell a Piedmont-backed Honus Wagner card in 2002 on e-Bay, but ran into a battle over authentication which included various expert reviews, police investigations, charges of fakery and racism, coverage by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and attempted sales and shuts downs by e-Bay.  That card, and its history to August 2006, however, is still posted on some auction sites

Photo of 'Hans Wagner' dated October 1st, 1914.
Photo of 'Hans Wagner' dated October 1st, 1914.
     But even the famed “Gretsky” card has generated controversy, with some charging it was cut from a sheet and did not come from an ordinary cigarette pack- age.  These charges and other history are covered in a 2007 book and subsequent reporting by New York Daily News writers Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson.  Their book is titled, The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card.

      The Wagner card saga continues to generate much interest in the world of card collecting and beyond.  And to keep things interesting, there is always the possibility of “old card” finds, not only in the T206 American Tobacco collection, but also in a range of other notable “old card” series and their commercial sponsors.  In January 2008, a man living in the southeast U.S. discovered 550 old baseball cards in his attic — all from the legendary 1909-1911 T206 series issued by American Tobacco.  Among those cards was a Honus Wagner card – a card not in the best of shape and receiving a low grade, but still expected to sell for at least $100,000.

  

Honus Wagner statue at entrance to Pittsburgh Pirates home stadium, PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA.
Honus Wagner statue at entrance to Pittsburgh Pirates home stadium, PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA.
The Genuine Article

     The baseball player at the center of all this, however, Honus Wagner, is the real deal and the genuine item — a great ball player who leaves behind some still amazing achievements.  Not only did he hit for an average of .300 or more for 17 consecutive seasons, but in seven of those seasons he hit for .350 or better, finishing his career with a .329 lifetime average.  And although he played in an era when “small ball” was the prevailing method of play — with low-scoring games of 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 being the norm — Wagner still had nine seasons with 100 RBIs or more, winning five RBI titles and six for slugging.  He also led the National League in stolen bases on five occasions.

     Some baseball historians rank Wagner as the second-best player of all time, behind only Babe Ruth.  He was also a decent person by many accounts, respected by those who knew him.  Says historian Bill James: “He was a gentle, kind man, a story teller, supportive of rookies, patient with the fans, cheerful in hard times, careful of the example he set for youth, a hard worker, a man who had no enemies and who never forgot his friends.  He was the most beloved man in baseball before Ruth.”

U.S. postage stamp issued in 2003 as part of the 'Legends of Baseball' group.
U.S. postage stamp issued in 2003 as part of the 'Legends of Baseball' group.
     In 2003, Wagner was among those baseball greats honored with a commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.  In July 2003, the USPS issued its “Legends of Baseball” 33-cent commemorative stamps, honoring a collection of players, including Wagner — a group named the previous year to Major League Baseball’s “All-Century Team.” Among those in addition to Wagner were: Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Josh Gibson, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, Pie Traynor, and Cy Young.

Detailed close-up of Wagner statue at PNC Park. Photo by Jeff Hecker at pbase.com.
Detailed close-up of Wagner statue at PNC Park. Photo by Jeff Hecker at pbase.com.
     One story about Wagner in 1909 has it that he was ready to call it quits that season.  Arthritis in his legs had begun, and he felt he was slowing down.  But then-manager Fred Clarke and owner Mr. Dreyfuss convinced him that he was still essential to the team’s success.  So he continued playing.  But after the 1917 season, at the age of 43, he hung up his glove and spikes for good.  He managed a few games for the Pirates that year, but then moved on to other things.  He later returned to the Pirates in a coaching capacity, serving as a general instructor with the team from 1933 to 1951, and becoming a favorite among the players.  Shortly before his death at age 81 — on December 6th, 1955 — a statue in his honor was erected in Schenley Park, not far from Forbes Field.  When Forbes Field was razed and the new Three Rivers Stadium was built, the statue came with it, and today, it now stands at the entrance of the new PNC Park that replaced Three Rivers.

See also at this website, “Baseball Stories, 1900s-2000s,” a topics page with links to 12 other baseball-related stories, and for Pittsburgh fans, “The Mazeroski Moment: 1960 World Series.” For additional sports-related stories at this website see the Annals of Sport category page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted:  28 May 2008
Last Update:  12 March 2014
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “$2.8 Million Baseball Card — 1909 Honus Wagner,”
PopHistoryDig.com, May 28, 2008.

_____________________________


 

Sources, Links & Additional Information

Honus Wagner jumping off the ground to field a ball, undated.
Honus Wagner jumping off the ground to field a ball, undated.
Ralph S. Davis, “Wagner A Wonder: One Player In Game Who Is Not Money Mad,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1912.

Alexandra Peers, “Baseball’s Card of Cards Is Up for Grabs,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1996.

Dan Barry, “Baseball’s Card of Cards Is Auctioned for $640,500,” New York Times, September 22, 1996.

Dennis DeValeria and Jeanne Burke, Honus Wagner: A Biography, New York: Holt, 1996.

Michael O’Keeffe and Bill Madden, “Wagner’s Wild Card: Mystery Has Surrounded Honus T206 Since 1909″, Daily News (New York), March 25, 2001.

Shelly Anderson, “Honus Wagner’s ‘Honey’ to Offer Rare Memorabilia at Auction,”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 13, 2003.

“Honus Wagner Original T206 Pose Carl Horner Photograph sold for $18,560,” Description written by T206museum.com, May, 2005. (Robert Edward Auctions offered a Honus Wagner Original T206 Pose Carl Horner Photograph at auction and it sold for $18,560 on April 30th, 2005).

“PSA Reports Record $2.35 Million Sale of NM-MT T-206 Honus Wagner Card,” PSAcard.com, February 27, 2007.

Bob Pool, “Honus Wagner Card Sells for $2.35 Million,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2007.

Associated Press, “Rare Honus Wagner 1909 Baseball Card Sold for Record $2.8 Million,” September 6, 2007.

Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Michael O’Keeffe, blog, “Collector Finds $300k in Baseball Cards in His Attic.” New York Daily News, January 16, 2008.

For an excellent site on Honus Wagner history, photos, and card collecting see Honus Wagner Blog.

“Honus Wagner,” and “T206 Honus Wagner,” Wikipedia.org.

“Wagner & Louisville Slugger,” Research Paper, University of Maryland.

Bob Diskin, “Easy-Going Honus Was a Pirates Icon,”ESPN.com

For more detail on vintage baseball card collecting, auctions, valuations, etc. see, for example: www.T206.org and www.T205.org

“The Legend of Honus,” (The Brian Seigel Collection), in Stephen Wong and Susan Einstein, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections [ a lavishly illustrated book on baseball card collections], HarperCollins, 2005, pp.59-65.



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