Baseball’s Man for All Seasons

This article was written by William A. Borst

This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal


The term “hero” has come to mean a fictional or actual figure known for his bold exploits or daring adventure. As a youngster in the early fifties I was impressed with the cinematic heroics of John Wayne, as he battled the forces of world aggression and the romanticized bravado of Gene Autry and Roy. Rogers, as they whipped desperadoes without ever losing their white hats. Yet in mature retrospect my only real-life hero was the Brooklyn Dodger captain and shortstop, Pee Wee Reese. Reese was not a home run threat, nor was he the most spectacular glove man in the business. He lacked the flair of a Willie Mays, or the dynamism of a Mickey Mantle. Yet his optimistic demeanor and quiet leadership engendered the respect of all who saw him play.

The box score does not accurately reflect the contribution he made to his team and to the history of baseball.  His good humor and dedicated play sparked the Dodgers, both young and old, to their best performances. Reese was an indefatigable morale booster, though not in the same sense as a locker room prankster, such as Sciplo Spinks of the St. Louis Cardinals. In the words of catcher Rube Walker, now a Mets coach, “Reese was like another coach.” Reese acted like an interested buffer between the players and the management for the benefit of the whole Dodger organization.

Harold Reese, more than any other individual, was responsible for the eventual acceptance of Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. Yet Reese was not some sort of crusader for racial equality. Even though he was a Southerner by birth, he was color-blind to the race issue. Robinson was a productive member of the Dodgers and Reese took it upon himself to ease his entry into major league baseball, even at the risk of his own neck, for the good of the team.

Many psychologists stress the adverse effects of “hero worship” on the young people of America. If the “hero” should turn out to have feet of clay or a heart of stone, it can have some very serious consequences on the impressionable mind. A few summers ago I traveled to Reese’s home in Louisville, Kentucky to chat with him about his years with the Brooklyn organization. I fully understood that I was risking a painful disillusionment if our meeting turned out to be unfavorable.

I arrived in Louisville on July 14, 1972. Since Reese was unavailable until later that evening, I decided to watch his Babe Ruth League team in action that night. Reese devotes much of his free time to the Babe Ruth League, both as a coach and national promoter. It was a strange sight, seeing him in the third base coach’s box, wearing the #10 in a white uniform with red trim. For all of his 16 seasons with Brooklyn, he wore #1 in a uniform trimmed in royal blue. Yet his mannerisms were the same, especially his hat pulled down tightly on his head.

After his team had blown a 4-0 lead, losing 7-4, Reese invited me over to his house in the St. Matthew’s district of Louisville. He introduced me to his wife Dotty and his l6-year-old son Mark, a left-handed hitter who plays first base. My first thought was about the “birthday party” the fans gave Reese in July of 1955 at Ebbets Field. One of the many gifts the Flatbush Faithful presented in honor of Pee Wee was a new automobile. But in the true spirit of Brooklyn, they just didn’t hand him the keys to a new car. The promoters drove out eight new cars. It was up to Barbara Reese, Pee Wee’s 12-year-old daughter to choose one of the keys from a hat. The car that matched the key would be theirs. Of course, nobody on the committee had thought to label each key. So they had to try out her choice on all the cars that ranged from a Cadillac to a Chevrolet. As it turned out the Reeses were the new owners of a 1955 Chevy hardtop.

After the initial introductions, I joined him on the patio. Since he was still dressed in his uniform, with the exception of his spikes, I felt that we really had the right baseball atmosphere. We talked of the old Dodger teams, or the “Boys of Summer,” as Roger Kahn has called them. He enjoyed Kahn’s nostalgic reminiscence of his old teammates, but was surprised that he was included in the best-seller. The dominant theme is one of pathos, as Kahn wrote of the “tragic ruin” of men who had for one short moment in eternity heard the cheers of the crowd. Pee Wee said that his life had been a happy one with very few re-grets. As in Kahn’s book, Jackie Robinson was a major focal point of our conversation. He was quite worried about Jackie’s declining health.

We also talked about two other deceased members of the Dodgers, Gil Hodges and Don Hoak. Only Pee Wee ranked higher in the hearts of Brooklyn fans, than did Hodges, the quiet man from Indiana.  Reese said that the suddenness of Gil’s death “affected me greater than that of my own mom and dad,” whose protracted illnesses gave him ample warning to prepare for their deaths. Reese had talked to Gil, only a few short days before his fatal heart attack in Florida. He learned of Hodges’ death from a callous journalist who wanted to write about Reese’s reaction to his friend’s death. The writer’s blatant insensitivity enraged Reese, who is generally an unexcitable man.

Don Hoak, who also died of a heart attack a few years ago, was in Pee Wee’s words “a real squirrel” when he was with Brooklyn. Since both Hodges and Hoak were former marines, Hoak was always challenging Gil to a fight.  Reese laughed at this because if the reluctant giant ever fought Hoak, “Hodges would have torn his head off.” After they had both retired, Hoak once started riding Reese about his play in the last out of Brooklyn’s only World Series championship in 1955. Elston Howard, the Yankees’ catcher, had rolled to Reese who threw him out to end the series. Hoak bet $25 that Reese’s throw was in the dirt and only Hodges’ scoop had saved an error. To settle the heated debate they called Hodges in Washington. He supported Reese’s version, as do the actual films of the out, and Reese “took the money.”

We also talked about Carl Furillo, the rifle-armed outfielder who played the wall in right at Ebbets Field as if he had built it himself. During the Dodgers’ last year in Brooklyn, “Skoonj,” which means “snail” or “loner,” roomed with Sandy Koufax. They were an “odd couple” since Furillo was never known for his mind and Koufax was considered an intellectual in baseball circles. Reese could never understand how they got to be good friends.

Reese now has a number of business concerns in and around Louisville. He does public relations for Hillerich & Bradsby, the makers of the famed “Louisville Slugger.” Reese said that his first model (they still carry his bat in their line) in 1940 bore the signature of “Hal Reese.” He later reverted to his marble nickname, “Pee Wee” because “it was short and easy to remember.” A grandfather for the second time, Reese is not what you would call a religious sort of man. His basic ingredient is that “he likes people.” He personifies all the fine qualities of a gentleman, Southern or otherwise. His dignity and bearing, even at one in the morning, confirmed all my childhood suspicions about him.  In an era that has glorified the theatrical and defiant antics of so many anti-heroes, I feel lucky that I grew up in a time that had such men as Pee Wee Reese and the Brooklyn Dodgers. To me Pee Wee Reese was much more than a “boy of summer,” he was a man for all seasons.

I sincerely hope that the Baseball Writers of America will eventually recognize that Pee Wee Reese’s “internal statistics,” along with his playing ability, have merited him a niche at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

 

Copyright by William A. Borst, 1975

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