Pee Wee

No. 1

By Carter B. Horsley

From the late 1940’s through the mid-1950’s, 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 Wee’s 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 Hollywood’s 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 shot.

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.

 

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