Harold Peter Henry "Pee Wee" Reese (July 23, 1918 – August 14, 1999) was an American professional baseball player. He played in Major League Baseball as a shortstop for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1940 to 1958. A ten-time All Star, Reese contributed to seven National League championships for the Dodgers and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. Reese is also famous for his support of his teammate Jackie Robinson, the first modern African American player in the major leagues, especially in Robinson's difficult first years.
Reese's nickname originated in his childhood, as he was a champion marbles player (a "pee wee" is a small marble). Reese was born in Ekron, Meade County, Kentucky, and raised there until he was nearly eight years old, when his family moved to racially segregated Louisville. In high school, Reese was so small that he did not play baseball until senior year, at which time he weighed only 120 pounds and played just six games as a second baseman. He graduated from duPont Manual High School in 1937. He worked as a cable splicer for the Louisville phone company, only playing amateur baseball in a church league. When Reese's team reached the league championship, the minor league Louisville Colonels allowed them to play the championship game on their field. Reese impressed Colonels owner Cap Neal, who signed him to a contract for a $200 bonus. While playing for the Colonels, he was affectionately referred to by his teammates as "The Little Colonel."
By 1938, Reese was the Colonels' regular shortstop and one of the top prospects in the minors, and so impressed Boston Red Sox farm director Billy Evans that he recommended the Red Sox buy the team. Evans and owner Tom Yawkey both knew that the Red Sox' regular shortstop, Joe Cronin, was nearing the end of his career.
However, Cronin was also the Red Sox' manager, and still thought of himself as a regular shortstop. When Yawkey sent Cronin to Louisville to scout Reese, Cronin realized that he was being asked to scout his own replacement. Cronin deliberately downplayed Reese's talent and suggested Reese be traded. It took a while to find a buyer, since the other teams assumed something had to be wrong with Reese if the Red Sox wanted to get rid of him. However, on July 18, 1939, Reese was sent to Brooklyn for $35,000 and four players to be named later. This trade is now considered one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history. As it turned out, Cronin was only a part-time player after 1941. Reese stayed in Louisville for the rest of the 1939 season, and was called up to Brooklyn in time for the 1940 season. In an ironic twist, he walked into a situation where his manager was also the regular shortstop—in this case, Leo Durocher. Unlike Cronin, however, Durocher was willing to give up his spot in the lineup to Reese.
Reese's rookie season in 1940 was curtailed by a broken heel bone that limited him to 84 games in what had looked to be a promising season (.272 batting average with 58 runs scored). He had a thrilling moment that year, hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the New York Giants. In 1941, he hit .229 and led the league with 47 errors. Even playing in the World Series that year was a forgettable experience for Reese, as he batted .200 and made three errors in the five-game Yankee win. It was in the 1942 campaign that he truly established himself, making the National League All-Star team for the first of ten consecutive years and leading National League shortstops in both putouts and assists.
Like many players of his era, he missed three seasons due to military service. Reese enlisted in the United States Navy in 1943 and shipped out to fight in the Pacific theater of World War II. While Reese was in the service, the Dodgers languished, finishing no better than third place and as poorly as 42 games out (in seventh place) in 1943. Upon his return in 1946, Reese immediately righted the ship as the Dodgers battled the St. Louis Cardinals in a tight pennant race. The two teams ended the season tied for first place and met in the 1946 National League tie-breaker series. It was the first playoff tiebreaker in Major League Baseball history. The Cardinals won the first two games of the best-of-three game series to capture the National League pennant.
Reese was a strong supporter and good friend of the first black Major League Baseball player, Jackie Robinson. He was serving a stint in the Navy when the news of Robinson's signing came. Although he had little or no experience interacting with minorities—according to Reese, his meeting Robinson marked the first time in his life that he had shaken hands with a black man — he had no particular prejudices, either. It is reported that his father had made him starkly aware of racial injustice by showing him a tree where a lynching had occurred. The modest Reese, who typically downplayed his pioneering role in helping to ease the breaking of the 60-year-old color line, said that his primary concern with regard to Robinson's arrival was the possibility of Reese losing his shortstop job. Robinson was assigned to play as the team's first baseman, and Reese retained his position.
In the spring of 1947, some Dodgers players began circulating a petition when word spread that Brooklyn intended to bring Jackie Robinson up from their farm team in Montreal. The players assumed that Reese, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, would sign. According to sportswriter Roger Kahn, who later become close friends with Reese, the petition essentially said, "If you bring up the nigger, trade us. We won't play." However, the popular Reese refused to sign the petition and it died.
When a sportswriter asked Reese if he was threatened by Robinson taking his position of shortstop, Reese simply responded, "If he can take my job, he's entitled to it." Reese was one of the few welcoming to Robinson, who endured horrible abuse from the crowds and fellow players, including pitchers who threw directly at his head and players who berated him with racial slurs. After spending a day with the Dodgers in 1947, sportswriter Jimmy Cannon concluded that, "Robinson is the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports.
When Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947 and traveled with them during their first road trip, he was heckled by fans in Cincinnati. During pre-game infield practice at Crosley Field (the then-home of the Cincinnati Reds), Reese, the captain of the team, went over to Robinson, engaged him in conversation, and put his arm around his shoulder in a gesture of support that silenced the crowd. (According to a 2013 article on ESPN, Brian Cronin argues that the incident actually occurred in 1948 in Boston.)
The gesture is depicted in a bronze sculpture of Reese and Robinson, created by sculptor William Behrends, which was placed at MCU Park in Brooklyn and unveiled on November 1, 2005. In a 2005 article, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert highlighted Kahn's statement that Reese's gesture to Jackie Robinson is "Baseball's finest moment."
Throughout that difficult first year in the major leagues, Reese helped keep Robinson's morale up amid all the abuse. As the 1947 season wore on, there was tacit acceptance of the fact that blacks were now playing big league ball and were probably there to stay. Reese became good friends with Robinson and was able to use humor to alleviate some of the tension and make Robinson laugh. Robinson still got pitches thrown at him, but, as Reese recounted to Kahn, "I told him, 'You know Jack, some of these guys are throwing at you because you're black. But others are doing it just because they plain don't like you.'" His role in nurturing Jackie Robinson aside, 1947 was a superb year for Reese, as he batted .284 with a league-leading 104 walks. He also had a career best slugging average of .426. Their rapport soon led shortstop Reese and second baseman Robinson to become one of the most effective defensive pairs in the sport's history. The friendship between Reese and Robinson is prominent in Roger Kahn's classic 1972 work, The Boys of Summer.
When Robinson died in 1972, Reese was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.
In 1949, Reese had his only league lead in a significant batting category, topping all National Leaguers with 132 runs scored. The Dodgers won the pennant again that year, but the Yankees continued to dominate in the World Series, winning in five games despite Reese's .316 Series average and team-leading five hits.
Reese became Dodgers' team captain in 1950. In 1951, he had his career high in RBI, with 84. In 1952, he led the National League in stolen bases with 30. That year, Reese had his best Series, batting .345 with 10 hits, one home run and four RBI. In Game 3, Robinson and Reese pulled off a double steal, with both later scoring on a passed ball.
The 1953 Dodgers won the National League pennant with a mark of 105–49 for a .682 winning percentage. Reese was a mainstay for the team, with 108 runs scored and a .271 batting average. The Yankees, however, again defeated the Dodgers in the 1953 World Series, four games to two. After the season, the Dodgers offered Reese the position of manager; when Reese declined the promotion, the Dodgers hired Walter Alston, who remained manager for more than two decades.
In 1954, Reese batted .309, the only season in which he hit over .300. Though 36 years old, he was still going strong during the 1955 season, scoring 99 runs. In that year, the Dodgers won their first World Series. Reese had two RBIs in Game 2. In Game 7, he singled and scored an insurance run. While on the field, he doubled Gil McDougald off first base after Sandy Amorós made a sensational catch of a Yogi Berra fly ball in left field and relayed the throw to Reese to help preserve the victory.
In 1957, Reese yielded his starting role to another black ballplayer, Charlie Neal. As the Dodgers moved west in 1958, Reese joined them as a backup infielder, retiring that year after batting .224 in 59 games. He coached for the Dodgers in the 1959 season, earning a second World Series ring.
In a 16-year major league career, Reese played in 2,166 games, accumulating 2,170 hits in 8,058 at bats for a .269 career batting average along with 126 home runs, 885 runs batted in and an on-base percentage of .366. He retired with a .962 fielding percentage.
Other than his Navy time between 1943 and 1945, Reese had no breaks in service and played at least 140 games in every year from 1941 to 1956. Consistently productive, he scored at least 75 runs from 1942 through 1956 and amassed 1338 lifetime, best of any Dodger. Though he never won a Most Valuable Player Award, eight times he ranked in the top ten of the Most Valuable Player Award balloting. He also was a home run threat during a time when shortstops seldom hit home runs. Reese amassed 252 stolen bases in a period when steals were not an integral part of the game. Defensively, he was an outstanding gloveman, leading National League shortstops four times in putouts and ranking in the top 10 all-time in putouts and double plays.
One of the most popular players with both his teammates and the fans, the "Little Colonel" was the Dodgers' team captain, and he, not the manager, brought out the line-up card at the start of their games. Reese and Elston Howard have the dubious distinction of playing on the most losing World Series teams (six each). Reese's only World Series win as a player, with the Dodgers in the 1955 World Series, occurred against Howard's New York Yankees during Howard's first World Series. No other non-Yankee ballplayer has appeared in that many World Series for the same team.
Following his retirement as a player, Reese enjoyed considerable success as a baseball play-by-play announcer. He called Game of the Week telecasts on CBS from 1960 to 1965 (with Dizzy Dean) and for NBC from 1966 to 1968 (with Curt Gowdy). Reese also broadcast the 1967 and 1968 World Series for NBC Radio, called Cincinnati Reds telecasts in 1969–1970, and served as a part-time television analyst for the Montreal Expos in 1972.
In his later years, Reese was employed at Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of Louisville Slugger baseball bats. He battled prostate and lung cancer during the final years of his life, and died on August 14, 1999 at his Louisville home. He is interred at Resthaven Memorial Cemetery in Louisville.
In 1984, Reese was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum along with Rick Ferrell. On his entry, his support of Jackie Robinson was cited as well as his playing performance as a testament to his worthiness of the Hall.
A statue of Reese was erected in front of the main entrance of Louisville Slugger Field.
A statue of Reese and Jackie Robinson was erected in Brooklyn, New York in November 2005, in front of KeySpan Park (now MCU Park) where the Mets (minor league) Class A Cyclones play. Their widows both attended the ceremony for the statue which memorializes the gesture of Reese and his teammates overcoming the racial barrier.
Reese was presented with the "SABR Hero of Baseball Award" at the Society for American Baseball Research's June 1997 national convention at Louisville, Kentucky.
Reese was married to Dorothy "Dottie" Walton on March 29, 1942, who outlived him by nearly thirteen years. They had two children, and Dottie died on March 7, 2012; just 22 days away from what would have been the couple's Platinum wedding anniversary.