Jimmie Reese: The Career and the Man
This article was written by Tom Willman
This article was published in The National Pastime: Endless Seasons: Baseball in Southern California (2011)
The life of Jimmie Reese as described by Tom Willman, journalist and friend.
I was driving us down Westwood Boulevard in L.A. headed toward lunch at Junior’s, when we had this conversation. This was maybe 1990. I think I asked Jimmie if he’d ever seen any of the Chicago Black Sox.
“Swede Risberg,” he said.
“Really? What was he like?”
“Hard-nosed,” he said matter-of-factly. “A hard-nosed ballplayer, but a nice guy.”[fn]Undated interview notes; about 1990. [/fn]
I still replay that snippet of conversation in my head. It contrasts so sharply with the memorable description that Shoeless Joe Jackson hung on Risberg: “The Swede was a hard guy.”[fn]Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof, Ace Publishing, NY, 1963. 208. [/fn]
Just a little twist on a word, Jackson’s implication of menace, versus Jimmie Reese’s context of baseball as it was properly played in the 1910s. At the time, though, what brought me up short was the revelation that I was sitting next to a man who in his mind’s eye could still see the way a young Swede Risberg had ranged after grounders in the year 1915. Risberg played for the Venice-Vernon Tigers of the old Pacific Coast League that year. In fact, Jimmie remembered Lefty Williams and Fred McMullin, too, and likely saw Sleepy Bill Burns and Joe Gedeon on the diamond as well. Four years before each played a fateful hand in the Black Sox scandal, they were all playing ball in the Coast League. And Jimmie Reese was there.[fn]“Jimmie Reese: In His Own Words,” by James D. Smith III, 89, Baseball Research Journal No. 24, SABR, 1994. [/fn]
The year Jimmie Reese was born, the American League played its first games as a major league. On his second birthday, Pittsburgh beat Boston, 7–3, in the very first World Series game. When he was six, they wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
The first time Jimmie himself came to any attention on a baseball diamond was at Washington Park, the PCL home of the Los Angeles Angels. He was a quick, blond youngster with a dazzling smile and boundless energy. He had fallen in love with baseball at about the usual age, and had begun sneaking into the ballpark, hanging around the practices, making himself useful.[fn]“Jimmy Reese First Young Player Oaks Are Developing Since ‘Busher Rule’ Began,” by John J. Connolly. Undated clipping (1925), Scrapbook 1, 5. [/fn] By 1917, the manager of the Angels was the luminary Frank Chance, as in Tinker to Evers, and Jimmie had earned the title of “mascot.” Every Sunday, Chance gave him a dollar and a baseball. And how’s that for bookends? Frank Chance’s rookie year in the majors was 1898. When Jimmie died, in his 23rd year as a big-league coach, he lay in state in his Angels’ uniform. That was 1994. The unparalleled baseball life of Jimmie Reese—as player, and as witness—nearly spanned the twentieth century.
By the usual statistics, the big-league career of Jimmie Reese was modest. Drill down to fielding, and he is in the upper echelon of big-league second basemen by common standards. Methodical observers may double-take at his pinch-hitting numbers—15-for-33 over three seasons. But the point is not to invite analysis. It’s that most of the amazing baseball life of Jimmie Reese was lived beyond statistics.
His youth was the storybook stuff of Horatio Alger. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was born Hyman Solomon (no middle name) in New York City on October 1, 1901.[fn]State of New York, Certificate and Record of Birth, copy of document in collection of Bonnie Baker Blish. [/fn] Jimmie said his widowed mother moved him and his sister to L.A. when he was little. He became a family breadwinner, a hustling newsboy, hawking papers on the streets. In an orphan trade, he lived by his wits and his charm, inventing the man he would become. He took the name Jimmie Reese.
When World War I loomed and the Navy built a submarine base at San Pedro, Jimmie wound up distributing papers and living on base, wearing a sailor’s uniform and mascoting for its champion Navy ball team. He left San Pedro High, where he was on the team, fudged his age, set off into the long Southern California summer and became a semipro baseball gypsy. In the ’20s he rose to stardom with the Coast League’s Oakland Oaks. In the ’30s, after his brief turn in the majors, he would star again for the 1934 Angels, always nominated as the best minor league team ever. When his playing days ended, he spent more than 30 years coaching, sometimes scouting, for a procession of Coast League teams, including a long run in San Diego. And then, from 1972 until his death in 1994, Jimmie Reese lived in the glow of fable as the California Angels’ conditioning coach, No. 50, the master of the fungo and onetime roommate of Babe Ruth. His own achievements as a player—and so much of the rich history he had lived—receded gently into the past.
But here’s a magical thing. We can know the story of the young Jimmie Reese, and the long-ago game as he played it, because he left a carefully assembled record—scrapbooks filled with news clippings, photographs, telegrams, with his hopes and dreams as he rose toward his baseball destiny. Players’ scrapbooks aren’t new. But reemerging into the light 17 years after his death, almost 100 years after he began to assemble them, Jimmie’s have the aura of a lost treasure map.[fn]Three scrapbooks and assorted ephemera and keepsakes. Collection of the author. [/fn]
Jimmie’s work ethic was staggering. As a kid, he made headlines practicing with both teams before a game.[fn]Undated clipping, Scrapbook 2 (1926), 45. [/fn] He asked permission to report to spring training early. He hustled through the long Coast League season. He stayed around the park to practice after the season ended. Then he played winter ball.[fn]Undated clipping (1924), Scrapbook I, 37. [/fn] Fast-for- ward to 1930, when Jimmie went to Yankee Stadium early to throw extra BP for a slumping Lou Gehrig. Fast-forward again to 1972 and a propitious meeting on the first day of Angels’ spring training in Holtville, California. Newcomer Nolan Ryan, just 25, “was standing around…when an older man, who seemed to be one of the California coaches, hollered to me, ‘Get out in the infield. Get some practice.’” For the next 20 minutes, until he was ready to throw up, Ryan was trapped in a pitiless fungo marathon. He was rescued by pitching coach Tom Morgan calling him to warm up. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.[fn]Throwing Heat: The Autobiography of Nolan Ryan, by Nolan Ryan and Harvey Frommer. Doubleday, NY, 1988. 74-75. [/fn] Fast-forward again to 1994, the last spring of Jimmie’s life, when he did much the same thing to pitcher Julio Valera.[fn]“An Angel Remembered: Jimmie Reese was Known for His Love of Baseball—and People”, by Bob Nightengale and Chris Foster. Obituary sidebar, Los Angeles Times, 14 July 1994. [/fn] It was a lifelong pattern.
When Jimmie Reese was young, his fielding left baseball people agog wherever he went. He was a natural fielder with acrobatic skills. By the middle ’20s, he was regarded as spectacular, always diving and tumbling.[fn] Scrapbooks, various clippings. Example: “The Second Guess,” by A.J.B., undated column 1926, Scrapbook 2, 49: “It is amusing to sit close to the Hollywood bench in Emeryville this week and listen to the highly-paid splinter-gatherers ridiculing and sneering at Jimmy Reese… . He will go through more acrobatic contortions in one game than most players will use in a season. BUT JIMMY GETS THERE. He apparently has no fear of injury to himself. He tumbles, falls, spraddles, somersaults and whatnot. BUT HE COMES UP WITH THE BALL AND HE GENERALLY GETS HIS MAN.” [/fn] Fans loved his showmanship, and in the box scores, where panache never registers, he still looked like what he was—the best second baseman in the league.[fn]Undated clipping (1926), “All-Star Team of Youngsters,” Scrapbook 2, 50. [/fn] He set a PCL single-season fielding record for chances handled with 1,294.[fn]Undated clipping, (December 1927), Scrapbook 2, 72. [/fn] Baseball veterans compared him to the best they had known, up to and including Eddie Collins.[fn]Reese-Lary Pair Fastest of All Time: Hollander,” by Clyde Giraldo, undated clipping, 1926, Scrapbook 2, 58. [/fn] Coast hyperbole? When he got to the Bronx, Yankees GM Ed Barrow called him one of the best fielders he had ever seen.[fn]Undated clipping with Scrapbooks, apparently June 6, 1930. By James M. Kahn, Special to The [N.Y.] Evening Graphic, dateline Chicago. [/fn] Jimmie would eventually set the Coast League career record for fielding, with 9,890 chances, and be named the second baseman on the all-time PCL team.[fn]“Remembering Jimmie Reese, 1901-1994,” by Tom Singer, Halo Magazine (Angels’ scorebook), Vol. 5, 1994, 15. Beverage, Richard E. The Angels: Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League: 1919–1957. Placentia, CA: The Deacon Press, 1981, 13. [/fn]
You wonder how many young hopeful infielders, parading through the Angels’ camp every spring in the 1970s and ’80s, had any idea who he was.
To them he was the conditioning coach. With his trademark flat-sided fungo bat, he could hit a player’s outstretched glove. Once on a bet he hit a flagpole. He could slap balls through the strike zone from the mound. Or he could hit grounder after grounder, right, left, right, precisely at the limits of a players’ reach. Until lungs and legs burned. Until agility and endurance began to show. It is ironic that in the end, the exquisite fielder was known only for his work with the bat.
And yet, what ultimately became singular was not how he had played the game, but how he had lived it.
Yes, Jimmie Reese roomed with Babe Ruth as a Yankee and spelled Frankie Frisch with the Cardinals. But he was mentored by Doc Crandall, who pitched with Christy Mathewson for John McGraw’s Giants. He grew up on the field in L.A. with Sam Crawford, who led the National League in homers in 1901. He played behind Wilbur Cooper, who’d pitched for Pittsburgh with Honus Wagner on his infield, and with Harry Krause, who in 1909 led the American League in ERA. Krause pitched for Connie Mack that year. His second baseman was Eddie Collins. Home Run Baker was at third. The Navy players who took Jimmie under their wing during World War I included Harry Heilmann, Howard Ehmke, and Bob Meusel. Jimmie was a teammate of the young Paul Waner in the ’20s, and the young Ted Williams in the ’30s; he played against the young Joe DiMaggio. One day in 1927, one of Jimmie’s Oakland games was preceded by an old-timers’ contest. Aging catcher Fred Lange played in old-fashioned style, bare-handed. His batterymate was George Van Haltren, who had pitched for the Chicago Nationals of 1887 under manager Cap Anson.[fn]History of Baseball in California and Pacific Coast Leagues, 1847–1938: Musings of an Old Time Baseball Player. By Fred W. Lange, Oakland, CA. 19, 30–31, 174. [/fn]
All this sketches the cumulative baseball awareness of a man who, in his last year in a big-league uniform, was a teammate of Jim Edmonds, who would still be in the majors in 2010.
So it was that in a game which reduces so absorbingly by statistical cross-section, Jimmie Reese was the sum of a cannier, more elemental understanding of the game and its players.
One day in the 1980s, Jimmie was talking about Nolan Ryan throwing 100 miles an hour, and the thought began triggering associations. Ryan led him to Dizzy Dean, and then Bobo Newsom. The speed and agility of PCL outfield star Jigger Statz brought him to Gary Pettis. The catcher on the wonderful 1934 PCL champion Angels, Gilly Campbell, led to Bob Boone. Campbell was the better hitter, but Boone “makes it up right there,” said Jimmie, tapping his head. “And you see, that’s the intangible that you don’t notice. There’s no stats on those things.”
The monologue that day ran to 42 players, from Grover Cleveland Alexander to Bo Jackson. Like Swede Risberg, they would all be on lifelong instant replay for Jimmie Reese.[fn]Interview notes, Sept. 11, 1986. [/fn]
I first met Jimmie early in 1986. He was living in L.A., near Westwood Village. One visit and interview led to another. My wife and little boy (soon enough, two little boys) always came along. At first, our visits were arranged around the interviews. Soon they were being arranged around lunch at Junior’s. Jimmie sat next to the kids.
The living room of Jimmie’s apartment was a shrine to baseball history with row upon row of autographed player photographs reaching across 70 years. The collection was crowned by inscribed photos from his old friends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. But it was out back in his picture-framing workshop where his own values were best displayed. Family-photo Christmas cards from friends in and out of baseball shared space with pictures of “his” kids, generations of them, ours soon included. Jimmie Reese famously gave away baseball artifacts, even treasured relics, without a twinge of nostalgia, while the things he kept closest around him were family keepsakes, obscure photos, pasted on cardboard and filled with thumbtack holes.
This should be understood about Jimmie Reese. He could have walked through life without ever touching a baseball and still been unforgettable to those who met him. He truly liked people, and in a way that is not given to many of us.
But baseball was his life. He loved the locker-room give-and-take. He challenged generations of young players with his precision fungoes, teased them, worked them, helped bring out the best in them, gave to each the sympathetic ear of a friend. The local Baseball Writers Association chapter gave him its “Good Guy Award” year after year after year. And it was the same with those of us outside of baseball. I don’t know where the lineage of “his” kids started. Maybe in the ’30s with the children of teammate Jigger Statz. In the ’50s Jimmie became godfather to little Bonnie Baker, the daughter of close friends and neighbors. As a child, she earned pennies using a magnet to find fallen nails around his workshop.[fn]“Jimmie Reese: An Extraordinary Life,” DVD reminiscence by Don and Bonnie Baker Blish, privately produced. [/fn] As for me, I think my favorite recollection of Jimmie would date to about 1990. It’s of him walking down the sidewalk toward Junior’s, towing each of our little boys by a hand, speculating happily about what kind of cookies they were going to find in the bakery case.
People do not name their children after just plain nice guys, they name them after the exceptional. One thinks of Nolan Reese Ryan, Connor Reese Narron, to mention just two names familiar in baseball circles. The friends—the extended family—of Jimmie Reese share this, the realization that we will probably not meet his like again, on the baseball field or off. When you were around Jimmie, you felt as if you’d walked into a Frank Capra movie. It was a wonderful life.
In August 1994, the ballplayers went on strike. They would not come back that season. On July 13, amid the rancorous runup to that strike, on a summer day when there was no baseball, Jimmie Reese died. He was 92. Two days later, on July 15, the Disney movie Angels in the Outfieldcame out. It was about a boy who grew up on his own a lot, who loved base- ball, who snuck into Angels’ games, and who saw something so wondrous on the field that it became a life-changing epiphany.[fn]July 15, 1994 release date for Angels in the Outfield. the Internet Movie Database. www.imdb.com. [/fn]
And how’s that for bookends?
TOM WILLMAN was born in Los Angeles. His first magical view of a great ballpark was of LA’s Wrigley Field, watching the Pacific Coast League Angels. A longtime Southern California journalist, he spent some years collecting reminiscences of the game as it was played in the 1910s and ’20s. He last wrote about Jimmie Reese in “Baseball History in Northern California”, the SABR 28 convention publication in 1998.