This column by Steve Flairty first appeared in KyForword.com.
When Louisville’s amazing baseball Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese posed with me for a picture standing on the dais of a Cystic Fibrosis recognition event back in the winter of 1988, it seemed like a pretty cool thing… but only one of many cool things that have happened in my life. Truth is, being both a baseball fan and a baseball card collector since my childhood, I knew that Pee Wee was one of the greats and a Kentuckian, but as a Reds fan, I didn’t particularly follow him.
But then I learned about an illuminating moment in his career. It quickly enamored me to Pee Wee. And looking back, our short time together on the dais at the Galt House, in Louisville, gets more special for me as time goes by. I’ll talk about the reason shortly.
Harold Peter Henry Reese was born in Ekron, a small community in Meade County (Kentucky), in 1918. The nickname “Pee Wee” came from his skill at playing marbles rather than his small size. His family moved to Louisville at age eight. Pee Wee didn’t play high school baseball at du Pont Manual High School until he was a senior when he only weighed 120 pounds and only appeared in six games. After graduating in 1935, he worked as a telephone cable splicer and played church league baseball. His team played a championship game at the home site of the Louisville Colonels minor league team and he so impressed the team owner that Pee Wee was signed to a $200 contract to play for them.
He played well for the Colonels (he was nicknamed “The Little Colonel”) and advanced to the majors in 1940 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had a pretty good first season going, but an injury curtailed it and he appeared in only 84 games. He had a poor season the next year but in 1942 made the National League All-Star team. Then, like other players at the time, he departed baseball for a stint in the military, serving the next three years in the United States Navy. Though rusty, Pee Wee continued his baseball career in 1946 and was recognized again as an all-star for the next nine years with the Dodgers.
He played his last major league game in 1958 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had moved their team from Brooklyn to the West Coast. He served as a coach on the same team in 1959. Ironically, in 1953 after the season was completed, he had been offered the job of managing the Dodgers and turned it down. The iconic Walter Alston took the job and now is considered one of the great managers of all time.
After his playing career, Pee Wee also became a respected baseball broadcaster and was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. But there was something else in Pee Wee’s body of work that ultimately became for what he is most respected. Taken from the Hall’s website, here is the account of a gesture by Pee Wee in support of the first black player in modern Major League Baseball history, Jackie Robinson, who was treated to all manner of racist attacks from fans and others as a pioneer in the struggle for equal rights for minorities:
In 1947, the Dodgers were visiting Cincinnati, and fans and opposing players were jeering rookie Jackie Robinson. Reports of the game state that Reese calmly walked over to Robinson, put his arm around his teammate’s shoulder, and chatted. The gesture is remembered as an important moment in both Robinson’s career and the acceptance of African Americans in baseball – and American society.
I’ve included an event picture taken over four decades later at the Louisville Galt House showing me along with four others. On one side of me is a woman and on the other side, standing almost behind my left shoulder is Pee Wee Reese. Look closely and you will notice his hand sitting on my right shoulder. Until years later when I came across the old picture, I had never noticed the irony.
And no, I sure am not Jackie Robinson.
And no, I can’t recall anyone in the audience jeering me that day, enticing Pee Wee to come to my rescue.
I don’t even know if that trademark gesture is something Pee Wee did regularly when out in public. I’m sure he was in big demand for photo ops and maybe he commonly did this.
And yes, I know… the picture and $4.50 will get me a nice cup of java at Starbucks.
But that same arm that helped put a Kentuckian in the Hall of Fame, and likely more importantly, helped inspire a generation to examine themselves about getting in touch with their better angels… was wrapped around my shoulders.
And now Pee Wee Reese is a part of my personal history — a really good part.
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”