There have been relatively few Jewish ballplayers in the major leagues. The count is not fully known because it wasn’t unusual for Jewish ballplayers, especially in the early years, to change their names to hide their Judaism. (Indeed, many Southern and Eastern European immigrants anglicized their names to appear more “American.”) The Jewish World Review, in an article dated November 15, 2002, said there have been 140 Jewish major leaguers. For those who hid their true identities, the most obvious reason was that they wished to avoid anti-Semitism. Only when Hank Greenberg became an established star and a war veteran did anti-Semitism abate in major league baseball and most Jewish players stop hiding their identities. Vestiges of anti-Semitism, however, have never completely died off.
One who changed his name–even though he seems to have been fairly indifferent about his religion–was Hymie Soloman, who spent a long career in baseball under the assumed name of Jimmie Reese. Reese was a baseball lifer, and his longevity deserves recognition. When Reese died in 1994, at the age of 92, he was still a coach for the California Angels. His death ended 77 years in baseball.
James Herman Soloman was born on October 1, 1901, in New York City but was raised in Los Angeles. At the age of 12 he was a batboy for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. For six years he held the batboy job except for a one-year stint in the U.S. Navy in 1918, where he was a mascot for a Navy team that included Lefty O’Doul, Bob Meusel, and Howard Ehmke. Concluding his batboy career in 1923, Reese started his playing career in 1924 as a second baseman for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. In 1925 he played 136 games at shortstop and second base, batting .248. Jimmie became the Oaks’ regular second baseman in 1926, pairing with Lyn Lary as a double play combination; they became known as “The Gold Dust Twins.” In 1927, Reese batted .295 in 191 games and led the PCL in fielding for second basemen (.984) as the Oaks won their first pennant in 15 years.
During the 1928 season the New York Yankees purchased Reese and Lary’s contracts from the Oaks for $125,000, a substantial sum at the time. Lary was called up in 1929 and Reese in 1930. Before that, Reese had his best year for the Oaks in 1929, batting .337 with one homer, 65 runs batted in, and 24 stolen bases, while leading all second basemen in the PCL with a .979 fielding average and 622 putouts in 190 games.
Finally brought up by the Yanks in 1930, Reese played 48 games at second base and five games at third that season. Pinch hitting appearances raised his total number of games to 77. He batted .346 with 65 hits, driving in 18 runs with 14 doubles and 3 homers. In 1931, Reese tailed off, batting .241, with 3 homers and 26 runs batted in 65 games. In 1932, the Yanks sent him to St. Paul of the American Association and he was quickly picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals to fill in for the injured Frankie Frisch. In 90 games with the Cardinals, Reese batted .265, with 82 hits in 309 at-bats, hitting 2 homers and driving in 26 runs. That was it for Reese’s major league career; in all, he played in 232 games, batting a respectable .278 with 8 homers and 70 runs batted in 742 official at-bats.
The Los Angeles Angels purchased Reese’s contract from the Cardinals in February of 1933. That year, Jimmie hit .330 in 104 games but missed a large part of the season because of injuries and illness. In 1934, he batted .311, with 12 triples, and led all second basemen in fielding percentage (.972). That year the Angels won 137 games and lost only 50. (That stands today as a minor league record for wins in one season.) The 1935 and 1936 seasons found him still with the Angels. In 1937, he was traded to San Diego, where he hit .314 and helped the Padres win the Governor’s Cup. Nineteen thirty-eight was his last year in the PCL. Jimmie played in the league for 13 years. His PCL career batting average was .289 in 1,673 games, and he holds the league record for most putouts by a second baseman (4,771) and most assists (5,119). He was selected as the second baseman on the All-Time Pacific Coast League in 1937.
After 1938, Reese began a six-decade career as a coach and scout for various major league teams, a coach for several minor league teams and a manager of two minor league teams. In 1939, he managed Bellingham in the Western International League, but was released with the team in last place. He finished the season playing at Spokane in the same league. Then he became a coach for the Angels in the PCL.
During World War II, Reese served briefly in the Army, from November 2, 1942, to July 12, 1943. Assigned to the 12th Armored Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he managed the baseball team there. After the war he scouted for the Boston Braves for two years, then returned to San Diego as a coach from 1948 until 1960. On June 23, 1960, he was appointed manager at San Diego, and his team went 34-18 for the rest of the season. He started 1961 as manager but resigned because he felt he was not cut out to be a manager. “I’m best suited as a liaison man, as a coach,” he said. “I just am not suited to give a guy hell.”
From 1963 until 1970 he coached at Hawaii, Seattle, and Portland; then he scouted for the Montreal Expos.
In 1972, at the age of 71, when most men are sitting in an easy chair waiting for the game to start with a glass of beer in one hand and a stogie stuck in their mouths, Jimmie Reese started a new career, as a coach for the California Angels, a position he held until his death in 1994.
One reason Reese lasted so long as a coach for the Angels likely was his ability to use a fungo bat like a magician. He could hit the ball to any part of the field. Gabriel Schechter, a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, witnessed Reese’s magic with the fungo bat when he visited the Angels’ spring training camp in the late 1980s. “One morning I watched Reese wielding his fungo bat while a good-sized group of Angel players gathered around,” Schechter recalled. “One player stationed himself behind a home plate about 40 feet away from Reese, while other players caught the ball for him and even dropped it down for him to hit it. Reese started with the bat resting lightly on his shoulder, and when the ball was dropped he would drop the bat effortlessly and thwack the ball to the catcher, crossing the strike zone nearly every time. He wasn’t just tapping it, he was hitting it. They said he used to pitch batting practice by hitting the ball with his fungo bat. The man was a magician and the players loved him.”
Reese was also an excellent batting practice pitcher. A skilled wood craftsman, he made a fungo bat that was flat on one side so that he could scoop up balls thrown back to him from the outfield.
Reese formed some unique friendships early and late in his career. While he was with the Yankees, Babe Ruth took a liking to him and they became roommates. Though they were only several years apart in age, Ruth treated Reese like a younger brother and often took him home for dinner or took him along on his nights on the town. Dan Holmes, a researcher and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, said Reese felt the stories about the Babe were overblown by the media because of who he was. Reese personally found the Babe to be honest, generous, and loyal. Reese and the Babe would talk about baseball, and he found that Ruth was articulate about the game and what it took for hitters to gain confidence in their ability to hit major league pitching.
Late in his career, Reese and Nolan Ryan, who both came to the Angels in 1972, formed a friendship that lasted until Reese died. Nolan loved Jimmie so much that he named his second son Reese. Ryan said, “He’s the finest human being I’ve ever met.” Another admirer was Angels owner Gene Autry, who gave Reese a lifetime contract with the Angels.
Oddly and even humorously, Jimmie’s Jewish background came to light in a player/celebrity ballgame in the 1920s. Harry Ruby, the great songwriter and a lover of baseball, fancied himself a pitcher. He was on the mound for one of the mixed celebrity and professional ballplayer teams. His catcher was Ike Danning, the brother of Harry “The Horse” Danning. Since Ruby and Danning were Jewish, they decided to communicate in Yiddish to confuse the opposition. Reese, who was on the opposing team, went 4-for-4. After the game Ruby congratulated Reese and asked how he had seemed to know what pitch was coming. That was when Jimmie told Ruby his real name.
Reese’s personal life away from the ballfield was something of a mystery. He gave the impression that he was married at one time, but was mum on whom he was married to.
Reese was also a smart businessman. At the age of 20 he was reputed to be worth $60,000, a large sum in the 1920s. As a youth he had sold papers on the San Pedro, California, waterfront and saved his money and later invested in California real estate.
When Reese died on July 13, 1994, he was still actively employed by the Angels. Reese served 23 years with the Angels – only Bobby Knoop, with six years as a player and 22 years as a coach, had longer service with the Angels. One year after Reese’s death, the California Angels encased his locker in tinted Plexiglas. Inside were his beloved fungo bat and his uniform. His number 50 was retired, joining those of Nolan Ryan, Gene Autry, and Rod Carew. “We think about him every day,” equipment manager Ken Higdon said.
We all cannot be superstars or even lesser lights. But that does not mean we cannot contribute to any given endeavor. Jimmie Reese is not a name baseball aficionados automatically conjure up. But in his 77 years in one role or another he contributed to baseball all the skills he had mastered. And yes, Leo, nice guys are winners too. How many of us can say that we contributed 77 years to a particular endeavor?
James Hymie Soloman, a.k.a. Jimmie Reese, is buried in the Westwood Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Holmes, Dan, Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim web site, www.angelsmlb.com (History of Angels Retired Numbers)
National Baseball Hall of Fame, Files on Jimmie Reese, Cooperstown, New York
Obituary, New York Times, July 14, 1994.
Schechter, Gabriel, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.