erik lundegaard

The Better Pee Wee Reese Story

Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson in "42"

The myth, as portrayed in “42.” 

Some part of me thinks Ken Burns needed to see this “New Rules” bit from Bill Maher before he finished (or started) his Jackie Robinson documentary, which ran on PBS a few weeks ago. Maher goes off on liberals who dump on their own whiteness to make themselves feel better, and, based on the doc, I think Burns is suffering from some version of this. Maybe he feels guilty that, in his seminal “Baseball” doc 20 years ago, he bought into the Pee Wee Reese myth—that the Dodgers captain put his arm around Jackie Robinson at Crosley Field in Cincinnati to quiet his hometown racist crowd—so now he has to dump all over that narrative. Before, it happened. Now, it didn't. Unequivocally. Both times.

Here's Burns in Mother Jones:

Pee Wee is supposed to have walked across the diamond from shortstop to first base, which would've never happened, and put his arm around him. ... It didn't happen. There's no mention in Jackie's autobiography. There's no mention in the white press, and more importantly, there was no mention of it in the black press, which would've run 25 stories related to this.

It's the certainty that bugs me. It feels off. But who has time to double-check?

Joe Posnanski, it turns out, in a piece for NBC Sports called “The Embrace.” It's worth reading the whole thing.

Of the hand-on-shoulder story, Pos writes:

There is a compelling absence of evidence here. There isn't a single contemporary account of the embrace in any of the newspapers or magazines. This is enough for [author Jonathan] Eig, for Miller and particularly for Burns to conclude that the story, at least as popularly told, is a myth.

I would add that while primary sources are well and good, journalists, even good journalists, can often not only bury the lede but miss the story. Bill Madden talks this up in his book, “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever.” The first time both World Series teams fielded African-American players (1954, Game 1), most sportswriters didn't even comment upon it. And a shortstop talking to, or putting his arm around, a first baseman prior to a game? I wouldn't be surprise that that didn't make the cut. What was the score? That's what fans wanted to know.

Posnanski then goes into the “why” of the myth. As in: Why do we need it? And from where did it spring?

The answer to the second question is interesting. A baseball historian, Craig R. Wright, of whom no less a figure than Bill James says, “I would trust Craig's opinion a great deal more than Ken Burns,” has researched the matter and believes that it did happen in some form. And he points Posnanski to a 10-part series that Jackie Robinson did with the Brooklyn Eagle's Ed Reid in 1949, where Jackie says the following: 

I'll never forget the day when a few loud-mouthed guys on the other team began to take off on Pee Wee Reese. They were joshing him very viciously because he was playing on the team with me and was on the field nearby. Mind you, there were not yelling at me; I suppose they did not have the nerve to do that, but they were calling him some very vile names and every one bounced off of Pee Wee and hit me like a machine-gun bullet.

Pee Wee kind of sensed the hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while. He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that.

Slowly the jibes died down like when you kill a snake an inch at a time, and then there was nothing but quiet from them. It was wonderful the way this little guy did it. I will never forget it.

Not fans; not necessarily Crosley Field; not hand on shoulder; but otherwise, there it is.

It's actually a better story. It's less paternal and feels truer. It comes straight from Jackie within two years of breaking the color barrier. And Jackie's widow, Rachel, corroborates, according to Posnanski.

So why didn't Burns pivot to this, the more interesting story, in his doc? Why was he so insistent about denying Pee Wee Reese completely? How did he manage to get it wrong twice?

Moments of grace are rare in this world. Why not celebrate them? 

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Posted at 06:42 AM on Fri. Apr 29, 2016 in category Baseball  

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