Did Reese really embrace Robinson in '47?

This statue of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson memorializes a subject of historical debate. AP Photo/Kevin Reece

In 2005, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped unveil a monument outside the Brooklyn Cyclones' home field depicting Hall of Famers (and former Brooklyn Dodgers) Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson with Reese's arm around Robinson.

It was designed to commemorate a moment that occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 13, 1947, the first game of just the second road series during Robinson's inaugural season, which saw him break the color barrier to become the first African-American major leaguer.

In the new Robinson biopic, "42," the scene is also prominently given the Hollywood treatment.

It is certainly a great story. The question is, did it actually happen the way the monument and movie said it did?

As the story goes, Cincinnati fans were giving Robinson a particularly tough time as the Dodgers took the field in the bottom of the first. In a show of support, Reese temporarily left his position at shortstop and traveled over to Robinson at first base and put his arm around the rookie, silencing the crowd, which was awed by the act of racial empathy by Reese, a popular All-Star from nearby Kentucky.

At the dedication of the statue, Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, stated, "It's a historic symbol of a wonderful legacy of friendship, of teamwork, of courage -- of a lot of things we hope we will be able to pass on to young people. And we hope they will be motivated by it, be inspired by it and think about what it would be like to stand up, dare to challenge the status quo and find a friend there who will come over and support you."

An important thing to realize about Jackie Robinson's historic first season with the Dodgers is there was very little reporting on it, at least not with any degree of depth. The major newspapers mentioned the historic nature of Robinson's season, but the way it was reported in many papers was as an afterthought.

For instance, in the day after his debut, Robinson was not mentioned in the first few paragraphs of Arthur Daley’s New York Time column, nor in its headline. Later on in the column, Daley noted, "The muscular Negro minds his own business and shrewdly makes no effort to push himself. He speaks quietly and intelligently when spoken to and already has made a strong impression."

This was certainly not the celebratory coverage to which we've become accustomed. It was only as the season ended, and the great experiment was shown to clearly be a success, that the media began flocking to the story. Robinson even made the cover of Time magazine at the end of September.

Only the great African-American sports writer Wendell Smith was covering Robinson's first season in great depth, as Smith traveled with Robinson and the Dodgers that first season and covered it extensively for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most country's most popular African-American newspapers.

Smith and Robinson were good friends, and due to segregation they were also compelled to be roommates and dining companions when the Dodgers were on the road. Smith ghost-wrote a column by Robinson for the Courier and later published a book titled "Jackie Robinson: My Own Story," which told the history of that first season.

Smith, however, was so interested in seeing the integration of baseball be a success that often in the column he had Robinson gloss over the negative reactions that he received on the road.

For instance, Robinson and Smith's column wrote about the infamous early-season matchup between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, in which Phillies manager Ben Chapman had his players berate Robinson with racial slurs. The column said: "The things the Phillies shouted at me from their bench have been shouted at me from other benches and I am not worried about it."

Therefore, when it comes to actually pinning down notable events in Robinson's first season, the degree of difficulty is astounding. Looking to the mainstream newspapers would not be helpful because they did not cover Robinson with great depth, and looking to the Courier, which did cover him, might not be as helpful because it sought to minimize certain incidents.

So the fact that no newspaper of any kind mentioned the Reese/Robinson moment in Cincinnati in May 1947 is not necessarily proof that it did not take place. However, it certainly is not proof that it did, either.

What we do know is that two different people are on the record as saying they saw the incident occur. One was Lester Rodney, a reporter for the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker, which likely provided the best coverage among the non-African-American newspapers in Robinson's first season.

Another was Rex Barney, a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who recalled the story nearly 40 years later in Peter Golenbock's excellent oral history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, "Bums."

Barney recalled that he saw the event occur while he was warming up to pitch in the first. In 1947, Barney was working out of the bullpen and did not come into the game in Cincinnati until the seventh inning. (He did become a starting pitcher soon after in 1947 and was a full-time starter in 1948.)

The late Rodney is the best witness of the three, but even he admits that he never actually wrote about the story until years later, which has to make him at least somewhat suspect.

Now, as noted before, the press was certainly a bit suspect when it came to reporting on racial issues in baseball, but it is still worth noting that no one -- not a single newspaper of any kind -- reported on the event or even alluded to it in the weeks that followed.

The incident with the Phillies was downplayed by Robinson's column in the Courier, but they at least did acknowledge that it happened. Major events like that would still be reported, even if filtered through later reports. This isn't a matter of a player standing next to a teammate and putting his arm around him. The story is that Reese crossed the entire infield to make his gesture. That is a significant occurrence.

The odds are greater that the event occurred in 1948, a year which takes on less of an emphasis in the history of Jackie Robinson. It is not likely that racists just suddenly stopped being racists because the Sporting News named Robinson the Rookie of the Year in 1947, however. He still received abuse from fans in his second season.

In 1948, there was even less day-to-day coverage of Robinson. However, a number of factors make 1948 seem more likely as the date of the incident. In 1948, Robinson had moved to second base after the trade of Eddie Stanky, so Reese putting his arm around the player standing next to him on the diamond would more reasonably go unreported than Reese crossing the diamond to embrace his teammate in a very public gesture of support.

Perhaps most noteworthy, Robinson gave a magazine interview in 1952 in which he described the event as occurring in Boston in 1948. Robinson later repeated the same story in his 1960 book, “Wait Till Next Year: The Life Story of Jackie Robinson."

On Aug. 14, 1948, Barney started a game in Boston, which is the same year and place where Robinson said in 1952 and 1960 that it happened.

In addition, it seems that it was when Reese and Robinson became a double-play combination that the pair truly began to become close friends, which they remained for the rest of their lives.

Besides an incident when Reese allowed Smith and Robinson to join his group while they were all golfing during an off day in 1947, Robinson and Smith did not write much about Reese that season. In Jules Tygiel's book “Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy," about the history of the color barrier being broken, he quotes notes Reese claiming he didn't need any credit for his friendship with Robinson, even telling him, "You know I didn't go out of my way to be nice to you."

Robinson replied, "Pee Wee, maybe that's what I appreciated most."

When asked in 1997 about the quote by the New York Times, Reese replied, "I seem to remember a conversation along those lines. Sounds right."

"Sounds right" describes the attitude that prevailed in much of Reese's later discussions about the events of 1947. Throughout his life, Reese went out of his way not to seek out any sort of credit for his attitude toward Robinson. But as the story became repeated over and over as the years went by, it is not surprising at all to see him gravitate toward accepting it -- and placing the event early in the 1947 season, when it would have the greatest significance.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the confusion? Both Robinson and Reese, later in their lives, claimed the 1947 Cincinnati version as the truth. The great baseball historian Roger Kahn wrote in the New York Times that Reese confirmed the story to him late in his life, noting to Kahn that "I was just trying to make the world a little bit better. That's what you're supposed to do with your life, isn't it?"

It is not meant to diminish Reese's legacy or the lifelong friendship between the two players to speculate that Reese likely did not publicly embrace Robinson that first year.

However, as noted before, contemporary accounts of 1947 (not just by Robinson/Smith but also by Branch Rickey, the president of the Dodgers who was behind the "great experiment") did not single Reese out for praise.

As Jonathan Eig wrote in his excellent 2007 book, "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season," both rated Eddie Stanky as Robinson's earliest important backer. It was Stanky, Stuart Miller wrote in the New York Times in 2007, who threatened to fight the Phillies when they treated Robinson so awfully early in the 1947 season. Feig's book also reports that the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that Robinson "was applauded every time he stepped to the plate" in that inaugural game against the Reds.

The longer you wait for eyewitness testimony, the faultier it becomes. The earliest recorded eyewitness testimony we have is from 1952, which reported the incident as happening in 1948.

All told, no one can say with 100 percent certainty that the incident did not happen in Cincinnati in 1947. However, it appears that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that it occurred in 1948, either in Boston or in Cincinnati.

Therefore, the legend, as portrayed on the statue and in the movie, appears to be ...


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