Happy Birthday Pee Wee Reese
It is true the Brooklyn Dodgers for my generation was something special. Happy Felton and his Knothole gang. Red Barber and Vin Scully at the mike. Ebbets field with all its quirks. The Dodger Symphonia, which was one of those quirks. Seats whose sightline to the field was blocked by blue steel girders, good ole Gladys Gooding at the organ, and the worst hot dogs, Stephens’, imaginable. They were grey. And the most talented vendors anywhere could hit you in the hands with a bag of peanuts thrown the length of a row or from several rows below your seat. Yes, it was a place. Note that I’ve said nothing about the team.
Collectively we rooted for the team. We rode the emotional and statistical roller coaster with them. They, like the field, were a separate entity. They had a personality. They had their own quirks as a team, like winning pennants and losing the Series. But when they took the field, they were ours, and we were theirs.
Yet, as proved by the collecting of baseball cards, the players were yet a third entity. Every kid who rooted for the Dodgers also rooted for someone on the Dodgers, sometimes more than one. I had a bunch, each for a different reason. And so, we come to this missive and a bunch more to be interspersed over time. I know some of you were, may God save you, not Dodger fans, and had players on the Giants or Yankees or other teams that were special to you. I had some too. Some I loved, like Stan Musial. Some I hated, like Eddie Stankey or Sal Maglie (how disruptive to my equilibrium to see him end up in Dodger Blue!). What columns on this subject will do is share the human side of being a player’s fan; it won’t be a collection of stats, just the ones that molded that player in my mind. Why start with Reese? Well, I looked up the player’s birthdays from the ’55 team. Reese’s was closest to when I got the idea.
Pee Wee Reese was a skinny little kid; I could relate. He was not a giant of a man, nor did he blow the pages off the stats book. He was one of several Dodgers who were always being compared to their counterparts on the Yankees. For Reese, it was Phil Rizzuto. Rizzuto was Italian. He had flare. He had personality. Like his Italian teammate Yogi Berra, he had a lot to say and most of it was said in a way that made it memorable. He was an excellent shortstop. He played in a solid, business-like infield. I always thought rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for IBM.
Pee Wee was a shy, quiet gentleman from a little place called Ekron, Kentucky. Famous for his support of Jackie Robinson (”You can hate a man for many reasons, but not for his color”), Reese was not at first spectacular in the field. In fact, in his second or third year he made the most errors of any shortstop in the majors—47. He did get better. Like many others, he missed two years serving during WWll. When he came back, he came back to a team in the doldrums. He rescued them. How? By his presence. Reese was so good, so solid, so calm that a casual observer of the game might miss him. But his guys knew he was there. So did the sportswriters and players. He was named ten consecutive times to the All- Star team, from 1942-1952. He was the team’s captain, literally and figuratively.
Reese didn’t hit the dingers for distance, though he’d manage nine or ten a year and, oftentimes, they were difference makers, usually low line drives into the left-field seats. He hit a game-winning grand slam. Many players have done that, but few of the feats were as surprising as Reese’s because you just did expect it. Steady he was playing for 18 years, notching 2166 games. It wasn’t his 268-batting average that got him into the Hall of Fame, or his 1200 walks (“If I had it to do over again, I’d swing more. No one is going to remember those walks”), it was his steady as you go, do it when it was needed, smart-headed playing (he was great on the bases, knowing when to run, and one year led the league in runs scored).
It wasn’t because he signed an autograph for me that I had a special place for him in my heart. It was because he was a role model that some kid like me could emulate.
Happy Birthday, Pee Wee, and RIP.
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