The Better Angels of our Nature

Robinson and Reese

When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract, the Brooklyn Dodgers split on the issue of having him join the team. A number of players from the North and West accepted his coming, a number of others signed the petition circulating through the clubhouse that demanded he not play. The Southern players, except for one man, all signed the petition. The exception was Harold “Pee Wee” Reese.

Reese joined the Dodgers in 1940, settling in as the regular shortstop. He remained there through 1942, including a trip to the 1941 World Series. In 1943 he left for military service, losing all of 1943, 1944, and 1945 to his country’s  war effort. In 1946, he returned to a much changed Dodgers team. Jackie Robinson had been signed to a contract and was playing in Montreal. Everyone knew that he was destined for Brooklyn in 1947. The problem for Reese was two-fold. Robinson was a shortstop and Reese was from Kentucky, traditionally viewed as a Southern state, at least in terms of race. Reese handled both problems well. When told the Dodgers had signed a black shortstop his response was that if the guy could beat him out for the job, then Robinson was welcome to it. And when a number of Dodgers players petitioned for Brooklyn not to bring Robinson to the big leagues, Reese refused to sign the petition. His exact comment is undisclosed.

With the arrival of Robinson in 1947, Reese remained at shortstop while the newcomer took over first base. The next season Robinson slid over to second base, which became his primary position on the field. The two men became fast friends and worked well together on the field. There are a number of stories of Reese coming to Robinson’s aid during the early days of the latter’s career. The most famous is following a particularly awful series of catcalls and boos aimed at Robinson, Reese is supposed to have walked over, put his arm around Robinson, and told him to forget it. There’s a statue in Brooklyn commemorating the event:

Robinson-Reese Statue in Brooklyn

 The obvious acceptance of a black player by a white one certainly helped ease Robinson’s transition to the Major Leagues. It also cemented their friendship, which lasted until Robinson’s death. Robinson’s widow, Rachel, represented him at Reese’s enshrinement ceremony at Cooperstown. Reese gets a vote from me as a man with true class. There aren’t a lot of those in any field, including baseball. Most of us really don’t listen all that often to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Reese did.

My favorite Robinson-Reese story goes like this (with an acknowledgement that the exact quote takes on a couple of different versions). The Dodgers were on the road when Robinson received a note saying someone was going to shoot him if he showed up to play ball that afternoon. During the team warm ups Robinson stood by Reese as was normal when Reese told him “Want to move a little further away?” Stunned, Robinson replied, “I thought you were my friend.” Reese’s response was, “I am, but that dumb SOB may have lousy aim, miss, and hit me.” Tension broken, Robinson went on to have a fine game. Now there’s a friend for life.

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4 Responses to “The Better Angels of our Nature”

  1. Joe Magennis Says:

    The late Maury Allen did a good book on Dixie Walker, the supposed author of the petition. It was something that came to be regretted throughtout the clubhouse over time …

    The challenges that Robinson faced are very hard for me to fully comprehend. I can never pretend to be able to completely understand the pain he endured, simply because of my own upbringing. But that’s a good thing.

    Thanks for reminding us of the definition of a teammate.


  2. William Miller Says:

    Reese was always one of my heroes, too. I believe the story you are referring to (about putting his arm around Robinson) took place in St. Louis, but I’m not 100% sure.
    Nice series you’ve got here, Bill

  3. verdun2 Says:

    Thanks to both of you for your kind words.

  4. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    My father grew up in Kentucky during the ’30s and 40’s. He was a great basketball player, and Adolph Rupp wanted him badly. My father, from Kentucky, refused to play for the University of Kentucky, because Rupp was racist and refused to allow black players.

    Thanks for showing that not everyone from the south during that time was a cracker.

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