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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pee Wee Reese Born, July 23, 1918

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Harold Henry Reese was born on July 23, 1918 in Ekron, Kentucky. A superb defensive shortstop, a capable hitter, and a student of baseball, Reese used his intelligence as much as his athletic abilities to beat opponents. Reese, however, earned his place in baseball history for far more than his ball-playing talent. Today, he is most remembered as the man whose courage, sense of justice and fair play greatly helped smooth the entry of Jackie Robinson into the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. Reese's support of Robinson hastened the integration of Americans of African descent into Major League Baseball at a time when the sport was still pervaded by racism.

Reese's father, Carl, was a railroad detective, and his family lived for the most part in Louisville. Harold was a small boy growing up, but it was not his stature that brought him his famous nickname. Folks started calling him "Pee Wee" when the fourteen-year old Reese won a national marbles tournament, a "pee wee" being a kind of marble. Despite providing Reese with the trappings of a normal boyhood, Louisville was still a segregated city in the American South. Reese later admitted he had never shaken the hand of a black man until he greeted Jackie Robinson on the first day of the Dodger's 1947 spring training. When Reese was about ten-years-old, his father took him to a tree and solemnly told the boy that black men had been lynched on the tree. The story impressed Reese deeply, and when he became a father himself, Reese showed his own sons the same tree.

After graduating from high school, Reese joined the New Covenant Presbyterian Church team. In the church league, Reese proved to be a talented shortstop and at the end of the 1937 season he was signed by the Louisville Colonels of the minor league American Association (AA). By the end of his second season with the Colonels, Reese had become the star of the team. In 1939 Reese was acquired by the Boston Red Sox who, unable to find a place for him in their line-up, sold him the following year to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League (NL) for $75,000.

In 1942 Reese married Dorothy Walton, with whom he would have two children, a daughter Barbara and a son Mark. With the Second World War raging, Reese enlisted in the Navy soon after he married and shipped out to fight in the Pacific. Like many another ball-players in the early 1940s, Reese lost some of the best years of his playing life in the service of his country in the Second World War.

In spring 1947, when Brooklyn brought Jackie Robinson up from its Montreal farm club, tensions were high at the Dodger training camp. Reese took the lead in making a place for Robinson on the team despite resentments. Reese was the first to shake Robinson's hand and the first to play cards with him in the clubhouse. Not long after spring training began, a group of southern players circulated a petition stating that they would not play if Robinson were allowed on the team. Reese, the team captain and a Southerner himself, bluntly refused to sign it. That action effectively put an end to the uprising.

That was not the end of attacks on Robinson, however. Once the season began, Robinson's presence gave rise to virulent racist provocation at ball parks throughout the United States. Witnessing a particularly violent eruption of racist heckling against Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio, Reese walked onto the field and put his hand on Robinson's shoulder, a powerful expression of solidarity. "Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while," Robinson was quoted as saying later, "He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me … and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that. I will never forget it."

Reese became Robinson's closest friend on the Dodgers, as well as his mate in a deadly double-play tandem after Robinson was switched to second base. Playing next to Jackie Robinson seems to have spurred Reese to the finest performances of his career. Beginning in 1947, Reese appeared in eight consecutive All-Star games. He had his best all-around season in 1949, batting .279 and leading the National League in runs scored. In 1954, he batted for a career high average of.309. Under Reese's captainship, the Dodgers won five National League pennants between 1949 and 1956. It wasn't until 1955 that Brooklyn finally managed to win the World Series, thanks in great measure to a spectacular play in the deciding game, in which Reese cut off a throw from the outfield after a fly out, spun blind and fired the ball to first to double off a runner there. The play helped preserve the Dodger's lead.

Reese retired at the end of the 1958 season. The Dodgers offered him the job of manager, a position he had already turned down twice as a player. He declined the job a third time, preferring to work with the team as a coach, a position he held for a single season. He subsequently worked as a baseball broadcaster for NBC and CBS, and as a representative for Louisville Slugger, the world's most respected maker of baseball bats. Reese underwent surgery for prostate cancer in the 1980s and in 1997 was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on August 14, 1999 at his Louisville home. He was 81.

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