Friday, August 30, 2013

Branch, Jackie, and Pee Wee

Earlier this month June and I watched “42,” the new movie about Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African-American to play in major league baseball.
Strangely, I don’t remember much about him specifically. His being a black player seemed to be no big deal four years later when I saw Robinson play. My Aunt Mary took me and a friend to St. Louis in June of 1951, and the first day there we saw the Cardinals play the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson (as well as Pee Wee Reese) was in the starting lineup.
The movie “42” also features Branch Rickey, who became general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942. He determined in 1945 to bring an outstanding “Negro” player to the major leagues.
In “42” Harrison Ford did a wonderful job portraying Mr. Rickey (1881-1965), as most people called him. Since Rickey’s parents were staunch Methodists, they named him Wesley, but he generally went by Branch, his middle name, taken from John 15:2.
According to the movie, Branch liked Robinson as a strong candidate for the first black major league player (and there were many others) partly because of Jackie’s religion. “He’s a Methodist,” says Rickey. “I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist!”
In his first season with the Dodgers, Robinson played first base, and one of his teammates and main supporters was “Pee Wee” Reese, the shortstop and captain of the team. Little did I know when I saw them play in 1951 that eight years later I would become pastor of the Baptist church in Ekron, Kentucky, the town nearest to where Pee Wee was born.
This month I discovered that Pee Wee’s grandmother died in 1924 and was buried in the cemetery right behind the church where I conducted several committal services during my four-plus years as pastor in Ekron.
Pee Wee was born in 1918 and lived near Ekron until he was eight years old when his family moved to Louisville. However, his father Carl Reese died in 1938 and was buried in the Buck Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, about three miles from Ekron.
When we lived in Ekron, I remember hearing some of the old-timers around Buck Grove talk not just about Pee Wee but about his father. Some said Carl was probably a better baseball player than his son but just never had the chance to play professionally.
One of the touching scenes in the movie portrays the real-life incident that occurred when the Dodgers played in Cincinnati for the first time in the fall of 1947. Jackie was the target of considerable hostility, and Kentuckian Pee Wee even received hate mail before that first game with the Reds in Crosley Field.
With the crowd booing as the Dodgers took the field, Pee Wee ran over to first base and put his arm around Jackie in an act of friendship and solidarity.

That touching event is depicted in a statue unveiled at MCU Park in Coney Island in 2005. Sadly, that statue was defaced with swastikas and racial epithets earlier this month.
Still, societal conditions are certainly much better now than they were in 1947—or in 1963. But as the President and others reminded us Wednesday at the Lincoln Memorial, there is still much to be done for racial equality and justice in this country.


  1. Glen Davis, a Thinking Friend (and good personal friend) from Canada, wrote,

    "I saw 42 earlier this summer and enjoyed it. I did not know about the Methodist connection of Mr. Rickey.

    "Unfortunately racism is still a reality in your country as well as mine. What I am finding here though is that much of the racism is now directed towards people of Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds. Perhaps we need more reminders that Jesus was a Palestinian!"

  2. Baseball is still one of my favorite sports. One of my favorite baseball professionals was Buck O'Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs, and later on the management team with the Kansas City Royals. He was not just a professional, but also a good man who made a huge difference in his community - including coming several times to my wife's classroom to challenge students to achieve their best.

    Sadly, with "Justice" also comes name calling by those who want change now. Just this week I was told by a fellow missionary kid that I am a disgusting racist because I was born white, in the wealth of the United States. He was not the first to find that attribution. Gasoline never helps put out fires that really do exist - especially throwing it on a fellow firefighter. This is just bigoted prejudice, and a poor paradigm which is hard to overcome. The best extinguisher for this and so many fires, comes from personal friendships.

    Personal linkages build personal stories worth telling and hearing. Yours is a good one.

  3. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman wrote,

    "Tried to enter this comment on your blog. 'Leroy's writings remind us how connected we are.'"

  4. Since you wrote about baseball, I will share my experiences. I had no African American acquaintances, let alone friends, until I went to William Jewell and had baseball teammates that were black. I also had teammates in minor league ball. So, I credit baseball for breaking my color barrier.

    Baseball also exposed racism up close. On our spring trip to Texas, our black outfielder was not comfortable going to all the places his white teammates were. I could not believe that was still a problem in 1981. Of course, it was not limited to Texas, but that is where I experienced it.

    Baseball gave me a better education that this white suburban kid would have gotten otherwise.

  5. Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan wrote, " I have a special interest in Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers and the fact that he broke into the Dodger lineup as a first baseman."

    He went on to say that the first baseman Jackie beat out was Eddie Stevens, who was from Dan's home town, Galveston, Texas. Dan said Eddie was a close friend of his brother.

    I didn't remember Ed Stevens at all, so I found the following part of a long article about him most interesting, especially in light of what I had written above about Pee Wee Reese.

    "Ed Stevens was always sure of himself at the plate with a bat in his hands, but he did not carry that same level of confidence early on with his glove. While fielding hard-thrown balls from his infielders that either were in the dirt or took a short hop in front of him, he would make a quick stab down at the ground with his mitt. Occasionally he would come up empty, resulting in an error on either him or the other infielder."

    "It was not until 1946 that the Dodgers’ shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, just back from World War II, pulled Stevens aside one day and tutored him on the art of fielding. Pee Wee told Ed he should get in a crouched position with his glove touching the ground, and field the ball while bringing his glove up vertically, exactly the opposite of how Stevens had been practicing. The tip greatly improved his fielding and allowed him to be more comfortable at the plate as a result. Back then, it was not normal for a veteran to help a rookie, so it really made an impression on this young ballplayer, and he became a lifelong Reese friend and fan as a result."

    1. I have just now found that Ed Stevens wrote a book called "The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story." The blurb about the book says,

      "How did you let a black man take your job?' This is the question I've been asked more times than I care to admit. And despite its inherent prejudice, its misunderstanding of history, its naiveté, I'm compelled to respond. My name is Ed Stevens. In baseball circles I was known as Big Ed Stevens, and I played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, '46, and '47. I was the first man to be replaced by a black player in the history of Major League Baseball. This is a story about the Brooklyn Dodgers, and a secret I have kept for over fifty years."

    2. Here is more from Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan, who knew Ed Stevens:

      "That is truly amazing. Ed Stevens dropped out of school in Junior High School. By the time he was 14 or 15 years old, he was 6' 2' and weighed over 200 pounds. . . .

      "The last time I saw him, he was a scout for some big league team, and he came to hear me preach in Houston. He was a deacon in the church. He was very distinguished looking and the ladies would say, very handsome.

      "We enjoyed a good conversation about my visits to his house when I was a boy of nine or ten. He had boxing gloves at his house, and my brothers used to set me up to box guys a lot bigger that I was.

      "When I met him in the foyer of the church, he asked me this question: 'Are you the little put bulldog who used to beat up on all of the other little kids at my house?'

      "I said to him, 'I don't know who you are, but if you don't tell people about my sins, I won't tell them about yours.' Then, he stuck out his hand and said, 'I am Eddie Stevens.'"

  6. The first response I received yesterday was from an esteemed friend in the D.C. area. He wrote,

    "Good piece Leroy. I loved the movie too. I recently read a little book by Jimmy Breslin titled, 'Branch Rickey: A Life.' Very good. I recommend it if you have not read it."