HAROLD "PEE WEE" REESE
Shortstop Pee Wee Reese was the de facto leader for all those great Dodger teams in the late ‘40s and throughout the ‘50s. During that time, heated debate could be made over who the best shortstop was. Reese’s contemporaries included Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Marty Marion and Phil Rizzuto -- who more than the rest seems to always be compared up against Pee Wee Reese. All but Marion are Hall of Famers; all but Reese and Appling have MVP awards. But when you crunch the numbers, Reese stands out as the best of this talented bunch.
Other than his Navy time between 1943-1945, Reese had no breaks in service and played at least 140 games in every year from 1941 to 1956. Consistently productive, he scored at least 75 runs between 1942 through 1956 and amassed 1338 lifetime, best of any Dodger. Though he never won an MVP award, another mark of solid consistency is evidenced by his strong showings in MVP balloting, eight times ranking in the top-ten. He also was a home run threat, where the other aforementioned shortstops really weren’t. He hit 126 HR for his career and had as many as 16 in a season. The best baserunner of the lot, he had 252 stolen bases in a period when steals were not an integral part of the game. While I’ll concede Marion and Boudreau were better fielders, he was an outstanding gloveman nevertheless. He led NL shortstops four times in putouts and ranks in the top-10, amongst shortstops all-time, in putouts and double plays.
One other Reese-revelation is this: During his 16 year tenure, the Dodgers won seven pennants. No other player outside of Yankee pinstripes has appeared in that many World Series for the same team!
Kentucky born Harold Henry Reese did not receive his nickname for being diminutive. He was a 5-foot-10, 175 lb. right-hander. He earned the title "Pee Wee" as a kid by virtue of his deftness at shooting marbles or pee wees. He was, in fact, a national champion at marbles. His baseball career began in 1938 when he signed with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. By 1939, Pee Wee Reese had spearheaded the doormat Colonels to a league pennant, led the league in both triples and stolen bases, and demonstrated the characteristic leadership that would be a trademark throughout his time with the Dodgers.
His rookie season, in 1940, was a painful one. A broken heel bone and a beaning curtailed him to only 84 games played in what looked to be a promising season (.272 BA with 58 runs scored). He had a thrilling moment that year, hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to beat the New York Giants. In 1941, he suffered a different type of pain as he hit a meager .229 and led the league with 47 errors. Even playing in the World Series that year was a forgetful experience for Reese as he batted only .200 and made three errors in the Four-games-to-One Yankees romp. It was in the 1942 campaign that he truly established himself, making the NL All-Star team for the first of ten consecutive years and leading National League shortstops in both putouts and assists.
While Reese was in the service, the Dodgers languished, finishing no better than third place and as poorly as 42 games out (in seventh place) in 1943. Upon his return in 1946, Reese immediately righted the ship as the Dodgers once again were a contender, finishing just two games behind the Cardinals.
In perhaps his signal demonstration of leadership, all eyes were upon the Kentucky Colonel as rookie Jackie Robinson was about to break Major League baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Ignorance and bigotry, particularly in the south, placed undue pressure on Robinson. Many Dodgers were anathema to the thought of a "colored man" playing in the bright white Dodger uniform. The mindset of the majority of the ballplayers at the time was that black people had been put on earth by the Almighty to shine their shoes and carry their bags. A petition was circulated by the players which essentially said, "If you bring up the nigger, trade us. We won’t play!" Pee Wee Reese would not sign the petition, which essentially killed that initiative.
As the season pressed on, it seemed that the entire enterprise of baseball, from ownership to the players to the peanut vendors heaped vehement epithets at Jackie Robinson. Chin music, brushbacks, spikings and spit were aimed in Jackie Robinson’s direction from Boston to St. Louis. During a game in Cincinnati, it was more of the same. Robinson, who was blessed with a patience longer than Interstate 10, was at critical mass as the cursing and booing from the stands reached a fervent pitch. It was Dixie-born Reese’s simple gesture of walking over to first, placing his arm around Jackie Robinson’s burdened shoulders, and offering some positive words of encouragement, that told the world, ‘this man is my teammate.’ It was considered a defining moment that Jackie Robinson was accepted.
As they season concluded, there was tacit acceptance of the fact that Black men were now playing big league ball. Robinson still got pitches thrown at him, but Pee Wee Reese told him, "You know Jack, some of these guys are throwing at you because you’re black. But others are doing it just because they don’t like you." His role in nurturing Jackie Robinson aside, 1947 was a superb year for Reese, as he batted .284 with a league-leading 104 walks. He also had a career best slugging average of .426.
In 1949, Reese had his only league lead in a Grande statistics category, topping all National Leaguers with 132 runs scored. The Dodgers won the pennant again that year, but the Yanks continued to dominate in the World Series, winning in five games despite Reese's .316 Series average and team-leading six hits.
The ex-sailor finally became Captain of the USS Dodgers in 1950. In 1951, he had his career high in RBI, with 84, quite lofty for a number two batter. In 1952, he led the NL in stolen bases with 30. That same year, Reese had his best Series, batting .345 with 10 hits, one home run and four RBI. In Game 3, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese pulled off a double steal and both later scored on a passed ball. The Dodgers appeared poised to win their first Series ever. They had a potential big inning in the seventh inning of Game 7, with the bases loaded (Reese was on first), two out and Jackie Robinson at bat. Robinson hit a bloop fly into right field that looked like it would drop in, but Billy Martin made a running snag. The Yankees held on to win 4-2.
The 1953 Dodgers may have been one of the greatest teams ever, 105-49 for an incredible .682 winning percentage. Reese was a mainstay, as usual, with 108 runs scored and a .271 batting average. Also, as usual, the Yankees bought the Dodgers down to earth in the World Series, winning Four-games-to-Two. After the season, the Dodgers offered Pee Wee Reese the position of manager. While the captain declined promotion to Admiral, the Dodgers did pretty well with their next choice, Walter Alston.
In 1954, Reese batted .309, the only season he broke the .300 standard. Now an elder statesman at 36 years old, he still was going strong through the 1955 season, scoring 99 runs. It was that year that the accursed Dodgers won their first World Series. Pee Wee Reese batted-in two runs in Game 2. In Game 7, he singled and scored an insurance run. While on the field, he doubled off Gil McDougall at first after a sensational catch and relay throw in left field, by Sandy Amoros, to help preserve the victory.
By 1957, Pee Wee Reese yielded his starting role to another black ballplayer, Charlie Neal. As the Dodgers moved West in 1958, Pee Wee Reese joined them on their sojourn physically. However, with his best days behind him and in a backup infielder role, Reese’s baseball soul remained in Brooklyn. He retired that year after batting only .224 in 59 games. He did coach in the 1959 season. Guess what the LA Dodgers did that year?!
Pee Wee Reese teamed up with legendary pitcher and mangler of the English language, Dizzy Dean, to broadcast Baseball’s Game of the Week from 1960-1964. He also broadcasted with Curt Gowdy from 1966-1968. Later on, in an executive role with Hillerich and Bradsby, the manufacturers of the Louisville Slugger bat, Reese helped make that company a household name. Pee Wee Reese is currently fighting a tougher nemesis than even the Yankees; he is suffering from lung cancer, after having beaten an earlier bout of prostate cancer. At 78, he has lived to see the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic debut in Major League ball; a debut in some ways made possible by Mr. Reese’s strong support.
While it’s hard to quantify why, since Reese’s overall numbers are solid but far from eye-popping, ballclubs always improved by having Pee Wee Reese on their side. Had there been a statistic for "Intangible Average," Pee Wee Reese would have been among the top.