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Today in Baseball History: Pee Wee Reese allegedly puts his arm around Jackie Robinson

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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.

As unrest continues, Major League Baseball and its clubs have been mostly silent

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The police killing of George Floyd on May 25 has sparked outrage against police brutality both across the country and around the world. Protests which began in Minneapolis spread to multiple cities over this past weekend. In the saddest of ironies, these protests against the unlawful and excessive use of force has led to police employing even more unlawful and excessive use of force against protesters, most of whom have engaged in peaceful, constitutionally-protected activities. This has all lead to additional deaths, countless injuries, thousands of arrests, and the targeting of journalists by police and government authorities. As of this very moment, that unrest continues.

As Bill noted yesterday, a great many of ballplayers and managers have spoken out against police brutality and in support of those rallying against it. We have heard almost nothing, however, from Major League Baseball and its clubs.

Major League Baseball has issued no official statement in response to the unrest. Only four teams — the Twins, Athletics, Giants, and Blue Jays — have issued statements of their own. The Miami Marlins released a statement from CEO Derek Jeter, but as you can see below, they make a point to say that it’s Jeter’s sentiment, not that of the club. The Dodgers, well, scroll down and we’ll see what they’ve done. It’s kinda awkward. UPDATE: The Mets have just added a statement of their own.

The Twins’ statement on Friday was in specific reference to George Floyd’s killing:

The Blue Jays’ statement is the most recent:

The Giants released this yesterday:

As we noted yesterday, the Oakland A’s paired their statement with the announcement of a charitable donation:

Here’s Derek Jeter, tweeted out by the Marlins, who have made no statement on behalf of the club:

The Mets:

Finally the Dodgers:

That’s obviously not about Floyd’s killing or any of the unrest, but I take that as a tacit acknowledgment of it all and the judgment that maybe today is not a good day for a Zoom party. Which, hey, is better than the 24 other teams whose Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and websites would have you believe that nothing has happened in the country in the past week.

Contrast that with the NBA which, as of late this morning anyway, has seen 23 of its 30 franchises release a statement on their Twitter feed related to George Floyd’s killing

Not that the five baseball teams who have said something are deserving of full laurels here. Notable in their statements — even in the Twins’ statement which specifically references Floyd — is the complete absence of any reference to law enforcement or police brutality. For that matter, only five of the NBA teams who spoke out specifically mentioned that. One of them is the Washington Wizards. Here’s how easy it is to say such a thing:

 

Given that the very impetus of the events upon which the teams and leagues are attempting to speak out is the behavior of law enforcement and police brutality, its rather amazing that so few mention it. Indeed, it’s impossible to see these statements as anything other than organizations trying extraordinarily hard not to mention that.

Many of you are probably asking right now (a) why it should matter if professional sports teams or leagues speak out; and (b) if they do, why it should matter if they specifically mention police brutality. Let’s talk about that, shall we?

A broad answer to that is that sports teams and leagues are citizens like the rest of us and are comprised of citizens like the rest of us. They’re important members of the communities in which they play and their leadership and example are important to a great many people. They routinely release statements about things such as natural disasters, global pandemics, notable deaths, and any manner of other of non-sports event which impacts their communities. How massive public uprisings that are clearly affecting many of their own players is mostly given a miss is beyond me.

A more specific answer: the leagues and teams are never hesitant, for one moment, to comment on social progress, including racial progress, when it occurs and when they are a part of it. They are likewise quick to embrace and promote law enforcement when it suits their interests and puts law enforcement in a good light. Most teams host law enforcement appreciation nights, for example. Is it not fair to ask a baseball team that appreciates law enforcement for the good things it does to at least comment on the bad things it does? Is it not fair to ask why they are being so silent in this regard when the behavior of law enforcement is not anything to be appreciated?

One hopes that Major League Baseball’s silence on this matter is one of simple but understandable timidity to weigh in on a matter of such gravity. That the league and its teams are taking their time to craft just the right statements and that, when they got them down perfectly, they’ll be released.

One hopes, in contrast, that their failure to do so as of yet is not a function of their belief that these matters do not affect them, their players, their employees, their fans, and the communities which support them.