Today’s history installment is a bit different. You’ll see why in a moment.
First, let’s lay it out how the event in question is normally explained. I’m quoting this from Nationalpastime.com, which is one of the several “today in baseball history” sites I read prior to compiling each day’s post:
May 13, 1947: During the pregame infield practice, a barrage of racial slurs is directed at Jackie Robinson by the Cincinnati fans during the Dodgers’ first visit to Crosley Field this season. Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky with friends attending the game and captain of the team, engages the black infielder in conversation, and then put his arm around his teammate’s shoulder, a gesture that stuns and silences the crowd.
That website is far from the only place where that anecdote can be found. It’s been repeated countless times over the years, in fact, and is still often repeated to this day:
- Robinson himself told the story later in his autobiography, but he’d say it happened in Boston in 1948, not Cincinnati in 1947;
- Reese told the story too, but it was often at the prompting of others;
- It was told in Ken Burns’ seminal “Baseball’ documentary;
- The scene was dramatized in the Jackie Robinson biopic, “42”;
- The most famous “telling” of the story comes in visual form: in the statue of Reese with his arm around Robinson that stands in Brooklyn (see photo above), commemorating the event.
In “42” it was depicted as happening in June, but that was creative license. It’s usually attributed to May 13, 1947, because that was the first time Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers on the road in Cincinnati.
Except the event almost certainly never happened. Or, if it did happen, it likely didn’t happen where and when it is commonly told, and those differences could very well have changed the nature of the event itself. Again, if it even happened.
Rather than try to re-tell how that story came into the popular consciousness or explain how it has come into doubt, I’m going to outsource this to my former colleague Joe Posnanski who, a few years ago wrote about “The Embrace” in great detail for NBC. It’s a far better account than I could put together today. Another great investigation into it was done by Brian Cronin of ESPN back in 2013. You should read these to get the full flavor of it all.
The short version: there was no mention at in the newspapers talking about that game, including the black newspapers of the day which almost certainly would’ve mentioned it. Indeed, the accounts of the game claim that Robinson received far more cheers than boos from the Cincinnati crowd that day.
Also: the only two people who were around Robinson and the Dodgers at the time who consistently said that they witnessed it happening in Cincinnati in May of 1947 are less-than-perfect witnesses.
One was Lester Rodney, a reporter for the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker, who covered Robinson all season and in great detail. He would later tell the Reese embrace story with great detail and would imbue with great significance, but he didn’t write about it at the time and had no good explanation for why he didn’t.
The other was Rex Barney, a Dodgers pitcher who said he saw it while he was warming up to pitch in the first inning. The problem: he was a reliever at the time and didn’t come into the game until the 7th. He’d become a starter in 1948. Maybe he saw what Robinson described in Boston?
Ken Burns himself, revisiting the topic for his Jackie Robinson documentary, explained that he had been wrong about the event ever occurring, saying in interviews at the time, “. . . we did perpetuate it in 1994’s ‘Baseball.’ But it never happened. We know more now.”
To be sure, as both Posnanski and Cronin note, this much is true: Reese and Robinson were very close, and Reese was arguably the strongest supporter Robinson had on the Dodgers. As such, debunking the story, to the extent has been debunked, is not about denying Reese’s support of Robinson.
But it does change the story.
Robinson’s account that Reese putting his arm around him in 1948, more than a year after Robinson’s debut, and after several other black players entered the game, transforms Reese’s act from one of support in the face of near universal opposition mere weeks after Robinson broke the color barrier — which is how it’s often described — to one of still valuable yet, by then, more everyday friendship and support. Laudable? Absolutely. Historic in the same way the statue and the traditional telling of the story suggest it is? Not as much I don’t think.
It’s also worth noting how the popular account, unfortunately, re-centers the story from Jackie Robinson’s bravery to someone else’s — a white someone else’s — bravery. Maybe that’s not a conscious thing necessarily, but it’s a very, very common trope in storytelling to turn stories about people of color into stories about white people coming to the aid of people in color. To insert themselves into a narrative in ways in which make them more prominent than they probably should be I mean, “Greenbook” won best picture last year doing just that. It’s a situation in which something that may have a core of truth to it — Robinson and Reese’s friendship — is made it into something more significant than it was. And it would help explain why, despite there being no account of it occurring as it has been traditionally described, it came to be told in that manner.
None of this takes away from Pee Wee Reese’s friendship and support of Jackie Robinson, but it certainly does make for an interesting examination of an event which, probably, did not happen the way people tend to say it did. Go read Posnanski and Cronin’s pieces to that end. I think you’ll be glad you did.