The Men Behind #42; Branch Rickey and Pee Wee Reese
In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, becoming the first black player in the history of America’s great pastime. While violently opposed at the time, his accomplishment later was revered after views on civil rights changed in the 60′s.
From the moment he entered the Brooklyn Dodgers’ locker room during spring training in 1947, Robinson knew that was wasn’t wanted, was reviled, even hated — and all because he was not white.Some of the Dodgers players started a petition that said they would not play with a black man. When they asked their highly respected captain, Pee Wee Reece to sign he said “No way! I’m not signing that.” and the matter died.
As important as that moment in the Dodgers’ locker room was for Robinson, the defining moment for he and Reese was yet to come. In games that first season the Dodgers players watched Robinson quietly endure pitchers that threw at his head, opposing players that tried to trip or step on Robinson with their sharpened steel cleats and a constant stream of personal and racial slurs and insults, even spitting from fans at every ballpark, including some in Brooklyn.During one game, thought to be in Cincinnati, the attacks on Robinson were so fierce and nasty that at one point in the game Reese simply walked over to Robinson, put his arm around him, smiled and turned to face the source of the verbal abuse. The hecklers stopped.”Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while,” Robinson said in his biography, “Jackie Robinson.”The moment was immortalized in 2005 when a statue of the two was unveiled in front of a Brooklyn, New York baseball field.
The Jackie Robinson saga actually began in 1943 when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey decided to recruit a black player for his baseball club. Robinson, who had made national headlines in college athletics and was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the negro league never imagined the proposition he was about to receive when he met with Rickey in New York in 1945. “Do you think you can do it?”Rickey was to ask Robinson if he would play for Montreal, a minor league team in the Dodgers organization. If he survived that ordeal, he would have a shot at playing for the Dodgers, Rickey promised. It was no small offer and accepting would make Robinson the center of a mailstrom that neither man could ever imagine. But both were ready. Both felt up to the incredible challenge. “Mr. Rickey,” Robinson said, “they’ve been throwing at my head for a long time.”
Through the years both Pee Wee Reese and Brand Rickey would support Jackie Robinson in very different ways from very different positions. Reese, close and personal would be the first to play cards with Robinson in the clubhouse, showing teammates that he was just another guy. Rickey would casually remind reporters and fans of the courageous, even noble way Robinson faced his tormentors, while silently doing all he could to help the besieged player.
There is no doubt that Jackie Robinson with great courage and endurance is worthy of the many honors he has received. It is fitting that his jersey number, 42, is retired by every major league club, and that on games played each April 15th every player wears a uniform sporting that number.For their part, both Reese and Rickey in some small part made Jackie Robinson’s incredible journey just a little more tolerable. His story might be very different without these two men.
On a personal note…For years when my son Nick was in his teens I helped coach a select baseball team comprised of african-american, hispanic and white players. It was an enlightening experience.I always said that our boys were color-blind. They knew they were different from each other, but chose to ignore those differences when we were together. They competed together, lived together, ate together, played together and showed no sign of racial tension.We coaches, on the other hand, lived in the unprotected real world. I was the one white coach surrounded by two black coaches, Mike and Vernard, on a racially mixed black, brown, and white team First hand I saw evidence of bigotry that I thought had long ago died away. And not just from adults but from the young players as well. It was a great lesson for me to learn and a great opportunity for us to teach our young boys about prejudice and how to rise above it. For a white man there were scores of tiny gestures, usually to small to be noticed that appeared when the Monarchs were together.One of the most ironic was our “oreo” play. The three of us (coaches) would stand outside the dugout fence at any ballpark where we played across the country. Location didn’t seem to matter. We stood with me in the middle, flanked by Mike and Vernard. Almost every time an umpire, tournament official, or opposing coach came to us they would walk straight to me and ask their question or make their greeting. Never Mike and Vernard. Never the black coach, always the one white coach. As humans we speak volumes by the seemingly insignificant things we do. So on this day when we honor a man who was horrifically abused for much of his life, we should look at the small things we do every day and ask ourselves what we communicate by those actions. More importantly, we should ask what we are teaching our children, or what prejudice we are perpetuating by these small but visible gestures.Change those almost insignificant gestures and we will finally, truly honor the memory of Jackie Robinson.