Before the 1947 season in baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers made it known they were going to call up Jackie Robinson from their farm team in Montreal and break the color barrier. The news did not sit well with many players on the team. They circulated a petition threatening not to play if a black man was going to don a Dodgers uniform. Everyone assumed the Dodgers’ popular star shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, would sign the petition, because he was from Louisville, Kentucky.
As team captain, however, Reese refused to sign. The petition was unavailing, and Robinson joined the team. He and Reese played the same position, so a sportswriter trying to stir up trouble asked Reese if he was threated by Robinson possibly taking his place at shortstop.
“If he can take my job,” Reese responded calmly, “he’s entitled to it.”
Being the best athlete on the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson could play many positions, and won instead the first base job.
That first season, the horrible abuse and scorn faced by Robinson from other players and crowds was something few would believe today. Vicious racial slurs and death threats were common. Pitchers threw at his head.
Road trips to cities like St. Louis and Cincinnati were especially tough.
During pre-game infield practice for a game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, fans were heckling Robinson unmercifully. Reese seized the moment to walk over to Robinson, engage him in conversation, and then for all to witness, in a watershed event, Reese, the known Southerner from nearby Kentucky, put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder as a gesture of gratitude and approval. This simple act of support and solidarity seemed to silence the vile racial slurs and quickly had the entire baseball world talking.
Years later, because he was often asked about that day, Reese said, “I was just trying to make the world a little better. That’s what you’re supposed to do with your life, isn’t it?”
Jackie Robinson passed in 1972, and Pee Wee Reese was one of the pallbearers.
In 2005 a bronze sculpture of Reese and Robinson depicting that moment in Cincinnati was unveiled in Brooklyn.
Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese died in 1999 at age 81.
At his funeral, Joe Black, Dodgers teammate, and one of the first black hurlers to play major league baseball, said, “Pee Wee helped make my boyhood dream come true to play in the majors, and the World Series. When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie that day, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time a white guy had accepted us. When I finally got up to Brooklyn, I went to Pee Wee and said, ‘Black people love you. When you touched Jackie, you touched all of us.’ With Pee Wee, it was number one on his uniform, and number one in our hearts.”