By Carter B. Horsley
From the late 1940s through the mid-1950s,
the Brooklyn Dodgers team was the most colorful in baseball and
one of the greatest and most legendary teams ever.
Harold ("Pee Wee") Henry Reese, who
died of cancer August 14, 1999 at the age of 81, was its shortstop
and captain and wore No. 1.
While he was overshadowed by Jackie Robinson,
Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider, his star teammates,
Pee Wee was beloved by all for his superb play, and sportsmanship.
In those glory days when a team was indeed
a team and not the nomadic band of mercenaries that constitute
the game today, there was tremendous camaraderie and loyalty and
nowhere more than in Brooklyn where Branch Rickey had the courage
to break the color barrier in the major leagues and played Jackie
Robinson (see The City Review article).
The Dodgers were larger than life and Pee Wee
personified this quality more than anyone because his nickname,
which he acquired by winning a pee-wee marble tournament as a
youth in Kentucky, was never derisive because he was so clearly
a man of stature despite his 5-foot-9-inch height.
Demeanor was something meaningful then and
the Dodgers were led by Reese. While their raffish, wacko fans
reveled in their quaint eccentricities, Pee Wee and the Dodgers
went about their sport with gusto, surviving outrageous fortunes
too often at the hands of the self-righteous and conservative
Yankees, bravely "waiting for next year." "Next
year" finally came in 1955 when the Dodgers finally defeated
the Yankees in the World Series, but unfortunately, their just
rewards did not last long as the team moved within a couple of
years to Los Angeles and the soul of baseball in New York vanished.
The rivalry between not only the Dodgers and
the Yankees, but also the New York Giants was fantastic in this
period, as these teams were always among the best in the country,
and all New Yorkers over the age of six or so were divided about
equally in their loyalties.
Although the Dodgers roster had more
stars, the intense debates between the fans went position by position.
Centerfield offered the greatest comparison because each team
had fabulous players in their prime: Duke Snider, Willie Mays
and Mickey Mantle. In retrospect, "Say-Heh" Willie was
the best but Duke and Mickey were very close behind. Campanella
was clearly better than Yogi Berra, although the latter was a
greater star in the World Series.
No one was better than Jackie Robinson, of
course, and Gil Hodges had no competition at first base.
Pee Wees Yankee adversary at shortstop
was Phil Rizzuto and their records were close, but Rizzuto never
had the leadership qualities that Reese did.
Pee Wee had a fine countenance and a marvelous
smile. He looked like all the grunts in Hollywoods war movies
who saw life in simple terms and were ready to do their duty.
Pee Wee personified The Happy American, not
always successful, but steadfastly game to give life his best
When the Dodgers took the field, led by Pee
Wee, they were a team.
What a team!
I grew up in Manhattan and idolized Duke Snider
and the big bats of Roy and Gil.
Jackie Robinson was the greatest Dodger, of
course, because he was so electric and heroic, but Pee Wee will
always be the most loved for his quiet grace. The Brooklyn Dodgers
were the greatest team because they were human, humble and honorable.