Memo To: Website baseball fans, browsers
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Pee Wee Reese, 81
One of the few quirks about me that nobody has ever known -- until today -- involves Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, who was the shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers when I saw my first major league games at Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1946. I was nine years old at the time, Pee Wee 28. Sometime in my teenage years, perhaps when I was 15 or 16, I began to seriously think of my mortality, wondering "when my number would be up." I thought of all the ways I might cash in, but decided I would not have to be greatly concerned until Pee Wee had cashed in his chips. In the last 20 years, as more and more of the Boys of Summer went on to the Big Ballpark in the Sky, there was not a single day I did not read the obituary page thinking Pee Wee might show up. Because I have been reading The New York Times since I was 13 and a freshman at Brooklyn Technical High School, I always assumed I would find Pee Wee's obit in its grey pages. That's where I found Carl Furillo and Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges over the years. What a comfort every day to find Pee Wee was still okay. So imagine my surprise Saturday afternoon, flipping between the PGA and Tiger Woods on CBS and the Iowa Straw Poll on CNN, to find that Pee Wee had just died, 81 years old, at his home in Louisville, Ky. That's my quirk, which I never told anyone about, even my kid brother Terry, 62, whom I certainly hope I do not outlive.
The New York papers, including the Times, of course, all carried obituaries on Sunday, and they uniformly gave credit to Pee Wee for making it easier for Jackie Robinson to be accepted as the first black ballplayer in the majors. From their dugout, the Boston Braves (who, incidentally, played the Dodgers in that doubleheader Terry and I saw in 1946 with our Uncle Vince and Aunt Marie) were heckling Pee Wee, a Southerner, for playing with a Negro. Pee Wee, the captain of the team, walked up to Jackie and put his arm around him. That game was in Boston in 1947, but the New York papers played up the story so that no baseball fan in the country was unaware of it. There was probably not a black in the nation over the age of 13, baseball fan or not, who was not aware of what Pee Wee had done in that simple "Gesture on the Margin."
What made it so hard for me was that in my first games in 1946. I did not really identify with Reese (who wore #1 on his uniform), but with Dixie Walker, the centerfielder, who wore #11. Dixie was the clean-up hitter for the Dodgers, who had won the N.L. batting championship once or twice, and had a good day at the plate when Terry and I were there for our first games. Dixie, who I remember was born in 1911, and died years ago, was a Brooklyn favorite, the "Peeple's Cherce." If anyone asked me in April 1947 who my idol was, I would say Dixie Walker. As a 10-year-old in 1947, I went to the first Saturday game Jackie Robinson played in Brooklyn. Gosh, I remember how BLACK he was, in his snow white uniform. Terry and I always sat in the $1.25 grandstand seats right behind first base, so close to the field we could hear Jackie's chatter.
What shook me up was learning that Dixie Walker had circulated a petition among the Dodgers protesting Robinson's place on the team. How could my hero do this? This was not something I could understand at that tender age, and it practically made me physically ill. How glad I was when the owner of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, traded Dixie to the Pittsburgh Pirates. My new hero was Pee Wee, who had urged his fellows to ignore Dixie's petition. For as long as he played, to 1958, I loved Pee Wee. I dreamed of growing up to be a major leaguer. My brother to this day chuckles at the "contract" that I wrote out with Branch Rickie, Jude "Speedy" Wanniski, shortstop. As I recall, I signed for $10,000, which was big money back in those days, with low tax rates in the lower brackets, and gold at $35 an ounce.
One thing Terry and I will recall about Pee Wee, which none of the obits noted, and can't be found in the baseball statistics, is that the great majority of the times he struck out were "called" not "swinging." Pee Wee loved to get a base on balls, which is what drove the Dodger fans nutty, as too often on a 3-and-2 pitch, he watched a strike go by. That's okay, Pee Wee. People remember Jackie from breaking the color line. I remember you for being the white guy who helped him break it. Rest in peace -- a free pass to baseball heaven.