- 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...