Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese played as part of the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers team that soared into contention in the 1940’s and 1950’s before leaving the East Coast for a new home in Los Angeles.
Reese’s elite-level play at shortstop helped elevate the Dodgers to seven National League pennants between 1941 and 1956. He also famously supported Jackie Robertson as the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947. He became a 10-time All Star, a captain of the Dodgers and part of the team that beat the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
The Early Life of Harold Reese
Born Harold Henry Reese on July 23, 1918, he earned the nickname “Pee Wee” because he became a great marbles player (a pee wee is a small marble). He finished as the runner-up in his preteen years in a marbles championship sponsored by the local newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky. Born in a small community south of Louisville, Reese grew up in the city after his family moved there when he was seven years old.
He played baseball for the Louisville Manual High School team, but was so small (about 5 feet, 9 inches and 140 pounds) that he couldn’t get a starting job on the team. He ended up going to work with the local phone company as a cable splicer, but continued to play baseball in the local church league on a team representing the New Covenant Presbyterian Church.
This turned out to be the decision that changed his life. His church league team played in the 1937 league championship on the field used by the local minor league club, the Louisville Colonels. The Colonels owner saw Reese play and signed him to a minor league contract.
Reese played for the Colonels in 1938, hitting .277 and stealing 23 bases. The Boston Red Sox bought the Colonels in September of that year, but Reese never got called to the majors because player-manager Joe Cronin played shortstop. Instead, the Red Sox sold Reese to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939 for $35,000 and four players to be named later.
It’s not a deal remembered by Red Sox fans fondly.
Pee Wee Reese’s MLB Career
After spending 1939 at Louisville, The Dodgers called Reese up in 1940. In 312 at-bats, he hit .272 and stole 15 bases. He trained for the position with player-manager (and former shortstop until Reese arrived) Leo Durocher.
Reese said later the older player gave him great advice: play like yourself and don’t try to play like Durocher.
While Reese showed promise in 1940, a broken heel bone at the end of the season led to a rough 1941 season in which he committed 47 errors and hit only .229. But in 1942, Reese emerged as a star, making the All-Star team for the first time (he ended up making the team 10 years in a row). He scored 87 runs and stole 15 bases.
Reese, like many players, missed 1943-1945 because of service in World War II. He joined the U.S. Navy.
Jackie Robinson and Success
When Reese returned in 1946, he immediately returned to form, but the Dodgers lost a tiebreaker series against the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League pennant.
Jackie Robinson joined the team in 1947. In a now-infamous scene, fans and players in Cincinnati greeted Robinson with jeers and taunts. Seeing that the situation could get ugly, Reese went over to Robinson, draped his arm around his shoulder and chatted with him for a while.
In 1947 America, that was a big deal. Seeing the legendary Pee Wee Reese stand by Robinson stopped the crowd and players from yelling and defused the situation. A statue at MCU Park in Brooklyn commemorates the moment.
Reese later admitted he had never even shaken a black man’s hand before meeting Robinson, but that his father had made him aware at a young age of racism by showing him a tree in Kentucky where the locals had lynched a black man.
When Robinson died in 1972, Reese was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Success With the Dodgers
The Dodgers won the National League pennant many times during Reese’s tenure, only to lose to the New York Yankees in the World Series. This included losses in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953. It’s a remarkable thing in its own right, although a terrible memory for Brooklyn fans.
That changed in 1955, however, when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees. Reese hit .296 in the series, scoring five runs. He also made the final putout on a grounder by Elston Howard. The Yankees won a rematch in 1956, but the Dodgers win led to an era where the Yankees lost more World Series than they won.
Reese stayed with the Dodgers for one season after the move to Los Angeles in 1958. earned a second World Series ring as a coach for the Dodgers in 1959.
He became a broadcaster in the 1970’s, calling play-by-play for CBS, NBC and the Reds. He did the NBC Radio broadcast for the 1967 and 1968 World Series. He later became an employee of Hillerich & Bradsby, the Louisville company that makes the Louisville Slugger bat. He represented the company at events and directed its college and professional baseball workforce.
At the age of 81, Harold Reese died Aug. 14, 1999, at his Louisville home.