Novemeber 2, 2005
02 November 2005
Monument to Baseball Greats Robinson, Reese Unveiled
Statue depicts baseball teammates who transcended segregation
By Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- On November 1, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese Monument, a statue memorializing two teammates -- each a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame -- and a moment that foreshadowed the broader civil rights movement.
The monument depicts the late Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Harold Henry "Pee Wee" Reese draping his arm around fellow Dodger Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson, the first 20th century African-American major league baseball player. It stands before KeySpan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league franchise affiliated with the New York Mets.
Reese was a white Southerner, an established star and the Dodgers’ captain. Robinson was a rookie. His April 15, 1947, appearance in a Dodger uniform broke baseball’s infamous "color line," which, paralleling the legal segregation that prevailed throughout the American South and other parts of the nation, consigned black players to their own "Negro Leagues" and barred them from the white Major and Minor Leagues.
Robinson arrived in the "majors" more than eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama, bus. He was obliged to endure fierce opposition from both spectators and players, some of whom far exceeded the normal bounds of rough play in efforts deliberately to injure Robinson.
The event depicted in the new monument took place in Boston, where the Dodgers were playing the then Boston Braves. A number of Braves players began to heckle Reese for being a southerner and playing baseball with a black man.
In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made (1972), Robinson recounts what followed: “Pee Wee didn’t answer them. Without a glance in their direction, he left his position and walked over to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and began talking to me. His words weren’t important. I don’t even remember what he said. It was the gesture of comradeship and support that counted. As he stood talking with me with a friendly arm around my shoulder, he was saying loud and clear. ‘Yell. Heckle. Do anything you want. We came here to play baseball.’ The jeering stopped, and a close and lasting friendship began between Reese and me.”
Robinson endured with unparalleled grace hardships faced by no American athlete before or since. At the end of that 1947 season, he was named Rookie of the Year, an honor now called the Jackie Robinson Award that honors the best first-year major league players. He would be named to six All-Star teams and, in 1949, was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
More important, Robinson, in the words of his Baseball Hall of Fame biography, was "a symbol of hope to millions of Americans."
Pee Wee Reese was himself a 10-time All Star and also was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In addition to Mayor Bloomberg, among the 300 attending the statue dedication were Reese’s son, Mark Reese, and Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who shared with the crowd her hope that young people, on seeing the statue, would "think about what it would be like to stand up, dare to challenge the status quo and find a friend there who will come over and support you."
But possibly the greatest tribute to Jackie Robinson came from Reese himself, back in the hard times of 1947. "Frankly," Pee Wee told a sportswriter, "I don't think I'd stand up under the kind of thing he’s been subjected to as well as he has."
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)