Father of the Boys of Summer
In The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn recalls the warning he received as a young sports reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. Assigned to cover the 1952 Dodgers, Kahn's editor cautioned him against the "transpontine madness," a form of mental illness that afflicted otherwise sober folk who crossed the bridges connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn. His editor feared that the borough's contagious infatuation with their Dodgers would infect Kahn too. Much to our benefit, Kahn succumbed, penning his classic meditation, a cri de cœur for the avatars of a lost age of baseball, a time before free agency, when many great ones spent their entire careers with one team.
In 1958, Walter O'Malley hijacked the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the borough diminished. As Peter Golenbock put it in Bums, "The heart had gone out of Brooklyn. The soul had fled. It's a place to live now, that's all. It's a place to hang one's hat. It's just across the river, a place where people sleep." Yet, if we grasp the reins of memory, we may recreate a razed ballpark and animate a company of ghosts.
I can still see Pee Wee Reese, for example, poised on the dugout's top step in Ebbets Field, his blue number one just visible from the first base stands, waiting for Gladys Gooding's organ rendition of Follow the Dodgers. The music begins, Reese leads the team onto the field. In his wake jog Robinson, Hodges, Campanella, Furillo, Snider, Gilliam, and Amoros. Perhaps Erskine or Newcombe, or rookies Koufax or Drysdale, walk slowly to the mound. These are names to conjure with, denizens of a vanished era.
Of course, charismatic contemporaries starred in other ballyards: Williams in Boston, Banks in Chicago, Mays in New York, Mantle in the Bronx, Feller in Cleveland, and Clemente in Pittsburgh. But for those fortunate to grow up in that Brooklyn, the Boys of Summer were constant companions.
Pee Wee Reese was both the father of the boys of summer and the moral center of that extraordinary team. The first assertion is easily demonstrated. [End Page 185]
If one examines the position players on Brooklyn Dodgers teams from the National League championship squads of 1941 through 1953, and the World Championship team of 195, there is one obvious constant spanning fourteen years: shortstop Pee Wee Reese, captain of the Dodgers, and father of the Boys of Summer.
That Reese was also the moral pivot of the Boys of Summer is a more nebulous claim, but one hinted at on his Hall of Fame plaque, which cites "Intangible qualities of subtle leadership on and off field." After games won or lost, Reese would sit in a rocking chair in the clubhouse, the Captain's privilege, and hold court. Never be in a hurry to leave the clubhouse he advised; those who leave early might leave baseball early too. He used to say, "If you rush in and out of the clubhouse, you rush in and out of baseball." What transpired on the field was more than a game; it was a part of their lives and had to be understood, committed to memory in both mind and muscle so that successive iterations could be handled with efficiency and grace. "He was the heart and soul of the Boys of Summer," longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said. "If a player needed to be consoled, Pee Wee would console him. If a player needed to be kicked in the fanny, Pee Wee would do that, too. If a player really needed a friend, Pee Wee was there for him.''
I recall here Robert Mayer's novel, The Grace of Shortstops, concerning a young boy growing up in 1947 for whom Reese is a paragon and his imitation an obsession. This is not the place to unpack the busy plot of Mayer's tale, but its title epitomizes Reese's qualities on several levels. There is the physical, of course, where Reese was one of the most accomplished defensive shortstops ever to play the game. The dictionary definition of "grace" applies: "seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement." And again for his attitude toward others, "a sense of fitness and propriety," and "a disposition to be generous or helpful." For explicit recognition, we turn again to the Hall of Fame citation: "Instrumental in easing acceptance of Jackie Robinson as baseball's first black performer."
A unique moral dimension attached to the Boys of Summer because of Jackie Robinson. It was not something intrinsic to a particular collection of players, but rather an onus laid upon them by Dodgers president, Branch Rickey. Rickey maintained that an early instance of prejudice toward a black player on his Ohio Wesleyan team convinced him that the evils of discrimination in baseball had to be eliminated. However, across two decades as General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals he did nothing to upset the status quo. St. Louis, southern in its outlook, was not the right town. Brooklyn, with its heady melange of Irish, Italians, Jews, and African Americans was different, a baseball-mad cauldron of ethnicities. In 1943, a year after Rickey took over [End Page 186] the Dodgers, he sought and received permission from the Dodgers Board of Directors to begin the search for an appropriate black ballplayer. As fortune had it, when that search produced Jackie Robinson, a natural leader like Pee Wee Reese was in place to support him.
Rather than reiterate the well-known saga of Robinson's "discovery," his year at Montreal, accession to the Dodgers, and almost instant stardom, let's consider Reese's role through the prism of a statue in Brooklyn. In 2001, the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Class A Mets farm club, set up shop in Coney Island. It wasn't the Dodgers, but professional baseball was back in Brooklyn. Once a year, usually late in the season, my wife and I drive across the Verrazano bridge to Brooklyn in search of transpontine nostalgia. We meet our friend Jay, an accomplished novelist, dine at Gargiulo's, a venerable Italian restaurant, or sometimes go native and eat hot dogs at the original Nathan's. Then we walk the few blocks to MCU Park, where the Cyclones play in the lee of the eponymous amusement park ride.
Just outside the entrance is sculptor William Behrends's 2005 statue of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. Reese stands with his arm around Robinson's shoulders, depicting a moment in 1947 when Pee Wee quieted a jeering crowd by this gesture of friendship. We know it is meant to be 1947 because Robinson wears a first baseman's mitt, and 1947, Robinson's rookie season, was the only time he played first base for Brooklyn. Some believe the incident occurred in Cincinnati, others suggest Boston, while still others believe it occurred in 1948, or never occurred at all. Robinson recalled that Reese came over and stood next to him, omitting the shoulder embrace and the time and place, while Jackie's wife, Rachel, said, "It came as such a relief to him, that a teammate and the captain of the team would go out of his way in such a public fashion to express friendship." In 1997, Pee Wee told the New York Times, "Something in my gut reacted at the moment. Something about what? The unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don't know."
Regardless of its historic provenance, the statue casts a powerful presence. The youngsters photographed in front of it receive a civics lesson, while septuagenarian viewers recall the unsettled postwar years of their childhood, when Robinson broke baseball's color line and, as Red Barber put it, "all hell broke loose." The statue reminds us of the moral dimension attached to the 1947 Dodgers and Reese's central role, a role that consisted of many incidents which, taken together, reveal Reese's consistency and generosity of character.
It began when Reese, returning from the war, was told that the Dodgers had signed a black shortstop. Kentucky-born Reese thought about this and decided that if the new shortstop was better than he was, he deserved the job. Famously, during spring training in 1947, several southern players drew up a [End Page 187] petition to prevent Robinson from playing. Reese refused to sign. Pee Wee deprecated his influence, telling Jackie that he did not go out of his way to be especially nice to him. And he didn't hesitate to twit Robinson on his abrasive manner: "You know Jackie, some people don't like you because you're black, but some people don't like you because you're Jackie Robinson." There developed an easy camaraderie between them, particularly after Robinson moved to second base in 1948, and they became an outstanding defensive double-play combination. He could joke with Jackie in ways others could not. Once, the team received a threatening note from the Ku Klux Klan; if Robinson played, he would be shot. Warming up together before the game, Pee Wee told Jackie to move away from him: "What if that guy is a bad shot?" Jackie said, "After the game we went our separate ways. But on the field there was that understanding. No one can convince me that the things that happened on the ball-club didn't affect people. The old Dodgers were something special, but of my teammates, overall, there was nobody like Pee Wee Reese for me."
Late in his life, Reese confided to Roger Kahn, "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?" Reporter Dave Kindred says Pee Wee told him, "Just don't make me out to be a hero. It took no courage to do what I did. Jackie had the courage. If it had been me, a white man, trying to be the only one in the black leagues, I couldn't have done it. What he had to endure, the criticism, the catcalls—I wouldn't have had the courage." The grace of shortstops needs no explanation; it is a gift bestowed.
At Reese's funeral, teammate Joe Black said, "Pee Wee helped make my boyhood dream come true to play in the Majors, the World Series. When Pee Wee reached out to Jackie, all of us in the Negro League smiled and said it was the first time that 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." Duke Snider added, ''He was very concerned about each individual on the ball club and their happiness. Whenever anyone was having family problems, or in a slump, he'd help them out. He was the tradition. He was the greatest Dodger of them all.'' Sandy Koufax put it simply: "He was a teammate for four years; a friend for forty."
The Boys of Summer have nearly all passed now, although a few pitchers survive: Erskine, Newcombe, and Koufax. We are forced to consider the full first line of Dylan Thomas's poem, from which Roger Kahn plucked only a lovely phrase. It reads, "I see the boys of summer in their ruin." And yet, there remains another definition of "grace" in the dictionary: divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration. Something like that happened nearly seventy [End Page 188] years ago in a ramshackle bandbox of a ballpark in Brooklyn, where Reese and Robinson played baseball for the Dodgers. What they did, together with their teammates, was truly of lasting value, and the Boys of Summer endure. [End Page 189]
robert a. moss is the Louis P. Hammett Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. He still wears his Brooklyn Dodgers cap.