Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Remembering Pee Wee Reese on Jackie Robinson Day

As I listen to Marty Brennaman and Jim Kelch broadcast the
Reds game on this, MLB's Jackie Robinson Day, when all players wear number 42 in commemoration of this day in 1947 when the color barrier was abolished, it's easy to get a little choked up thinking about Cincinnati's important connection to that important season--and the Kentucky connection to it. 

And I do . . . get choked up about it, I mean . . . every year, I do. It's such a beautiful story about a Kentucky boy demonstrating nothing more than simple kindness.

And changing the world thereby.

This is such a stirring story for me because those of us who grew up around here, we know this boy. A native of Meade County, Kentucky, near Louisville, he had a high school education. He was splicing lines for the Louisville phone company when his church team got the chance to play a league championship game on the field belonging to the minor league Louisville Colonels. Reese impressed the owner of the Colonels so much, he signed him.

The way kids got to the bigs back then, 1937, is difficult for present-day baseball fans to believe, what with the structured system that's developed over the years and all.

Pee Wee Reese was married to his wife Dottie for 57 years by the time he died in 1999. That figures. We know this humble, salt-of-the-earth fellow. There are a lot of 'em in these parts.

And those of us who grew up around here, we know this place, Louisville, where he came from. How can I say this? It has been something of a known quantity over the years. It is not a northern city. 

When Pee Wee was young, his father showed him a tree where a black man had been lynched. An impression perhaps was made that day.

Louisville is the city out of which arose in the '50s the Louisville Lip, Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, that icon who bore within his persona the tensions of the race relations of the times.

And Louisville in the 1970s saw the governor call out the National Guard in the face of violent protests to keep the busses running to desegregate its public schools.

We know this place. We can only imagine what it was like back when Pee Wee was growing up.

There has been some conjecture over the years as to whether Pee Wee, the shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, actually walked over to Jackie Robinson, where he stood at the right of the diamond playing first base and put his arm around his shoulder and had a little chat with him to silence the booing and hissing Crosley Field stands in Cincinnati during that historic '47 season.

Some say it did happen, but it happened in Boston. Some say it happened the following year, either in Boston or Cincinnati. Some wonder if it ever happened at all.

This is difficult for present-day humans to believe, what with ubiquitous cell phone cameras and video and every single game televised live and digitally recorded for posterity, and all. But apparently, that's not the way it was in 1947.

A recent article in the Cincinnati Enquirer provides a credible eyewitness account of that shining moment in Pee Wee's life. A bat boy, 15 years old at the time (78 now), Ralph Tate, was assigned to retrieve the lumber of the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers that day at Crosley Field. Tate recounts:
“That’s when I saw Pee Wee Reese walk over to him. The whole place was booing and hollering and screaming. Jackie was at first base. Pee Wee walked over, put his arm around him and it just silenced the crowd.”
How that day began for Tate is one of those details you might miss on first pass because the writer doesn't comment on it, and it's effect is all the more powerful by the neglect. Let's see if you catch it:
Before the game, the Dodgers’ traveling secretary came to the bat boy and said: “I need someone to dress along side of you in the clubhouse. Are you OK with that?” 
Tate, a 15-year-old freshman at St. Xavier High School, was quite fine with that. He was getting paid $3 a game, $3.50 for doubleheaders. 
And he was living a dream. So, anyone could dress next to him. 
“Well, that person came in and sat next to me, and it was Jackie Robinson,” Tate said. “You would not want to meet a nicer person. 
“We became good friends over the years. He was one hell of a ballplayer. And he was so humble."
That's right, you guessed it: Jackie wasn't dressing with the players, he was dressing with the batboy. Here comes that choked up feeling again. And apparently, young Ralph Tate was one of those salt-of-the-earth types too. I told you, we have a lot of them around here. And it seems, so was Jackie.

Everybody wants to be associated in a positive way with historical events like this, but there's a quality to Mr. Tate's account, something in the way he tells the story that rings true. The article continues:
Reese’s move shocked some of his teammates, too. “Some of the Dodgers weren’t all that thrilled having Jackie on the team,” Tate noted. 
As the drama unfolded at first base, the bat boy stood in the dugout next to Duke Snider, the Dodgers’ famed center fielder. 
“Duke was injured, if I remember right,” Tate said. “He pinch hit later in the game.” 
Tate remembered correctly. Snider struck out pinch hitting for the pitcher. 
When Reese hugged Robinson, Tate remembered Snider saying these words: “Oh my God! This is unbelievable.”
This guy is 78 years old. I kinda doubt he's looking this stuff up on the Wikipedia. That's the kind of detail  that puts you right there in the action, seeing it through a fifteen-year-old boy's eyes. Eyes that were forever changed.

I can only imagine what must have been running through Pee Wee's mind each game as he listened to the jeers and cursing and caterwauling blanketing the field from the stands. I wonder what lead him to that simple, beautiful gesture of kindness.

Later in life, Pee Wee said of that moment: "I was just trying to make the world a little bit better. That's what you're supposed to do with your life, isn't it?"

Salt of the earth. We have a lot of those around here, but you don't usually get to see them. So seldom are they center stage like this that when they are, we should celebrate them, I think . . . at least once a year . . . by getting a little choked up.

And maybe by trying to make our world just a little bit better where we can.

You might also like: Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success - An Overview

Photo courtesy of FANDOM

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