Pee Wee Reese deserved
better treatment than this

By Jack Major
Time was we trusted documentary films. That was a mistake, of course, because documentaries often were — and are — used for propaganda. But in recent years television has been overrun by documentaries. Name the person or subject, chances are there's a documentary about him, her or it.

Documentaries are re-producing as fast as reality shows. There's even a documentary series that spoofs documentaries.

Still, the documentary form is a better way of telling certain stories than a full-length motion picture or television series.

One problem with biographical films is the clumsy fashion in which certain, seemingly pertinent facts are introduced.

BIOGRAPHICAL films are notorious for making up things for dramatic effect and creating composite characters who don't do justice to the real people they represent.

Casting is a problem. I can think of three film biographies of Babe Ruth. All were miserably miscast — with William Bendix, Stephen Lang and John Goodman playing The Babe. Comedian Steve Allen, because of a physical resemblance and despite a lack of acting ability, played the title role in "The Benny Goodman Story." And while James Stewart was one of my all-time favorite actors, at 49, he was all wrong in the role of 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh in "The Spirit of St. Louis," one of the non-classic films often shown on Turner Classic Movies.

But I digress. The topic here is Jackie Robinson (who, coincidentally, played himself in the 1950 movie, “The Jackie Robinson Story”).

ROBINSON is the subject of Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, shown weeks ago. That means nothing today, because, thanks to streaming, you can watch almost everything according to your personal schedule, not one determined by a network or TV station.

I’ve always had the greatest respect for Robinson. If it were up to me years ago, and the choice was establishing a national holiday to honor Jackie Robinson or Martin Luther King Jr., I would have picked Robinson, the first of his race to play major league baseball since Fleetwood Walker in 1884 (when Toledo and the American Association were considered part of the major leagues).

Robinson had to win his battle all by himself in front of thousands of people, day after day, though he did have the support of a truly remarkable woman, his wife, Rachel Isum Robinson.

Robinson’s fiery nature didn’t surface for a couple of seasons, which made him more impressive for having the discipline to hold his emotions in check until the bigger battle was won, and Negroes had secured their place in major league baseball, as they would in basketball and football.

THE ONLY TIME I saw him play in person was during his 1946 season with the International League Montreal Royals. That was his first year in organized baseball, the white variety. Robinson was a marked man, but not always in a bad way.

It was for historical reasons that my father took me to a Syracuse Chiefs game to see Robinson and the visiting Royals. I was only eight years old at the time, so I wasn’t looking for indications of prejudice or hatred from the fans. I was surprised to read years later that Syracuse was considered one of the most hostile places Robinson visited that year.

The only unpleasant incident I recall from a Chiefs game in 1946 involved another Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra, who was catching for the Newark Bears, a New York Yankee farm team. Berra protested after an umpire ruled the catcher had made the tag too late on a Chiefs’ runner who slid across home plate. Berra’s protest brought a chorus of boos from the fans, and a lecture from my father who told me booing was bush.

AS WITH MOST things that deal with race, Ken Burns’ documentary, I thought, was overly accommodating, or, at least, overly cautious, as though he were afraid to put a foot wrong. But he did, anyway.

Most annoying was the time spent on an urban legend that resulted in the statue outside the Coney Island stadium, home of the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.

That legend is Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson in 1947 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, where an anonymous threat had been made on Robinson’s life. This gesture supposedly eased the tension.

Here’s what bugged me: I had never heard this tale until it was told in Burns' 1994 documentary, “Baseball.” So I figure the whole point of debunking the story was an attempt to correct his own error.

If the incident didn't happen in 1947, then why interrupt the story of Robinson's rookie season? It could have been mentioned as a program afterthought. "Oh, by the way, we really screwed up 22 years ago ... "

AND WHY NOT admit that, years later, both Robinson and Reese claimed such an incident did occur, though their memories tricked them about the year and place.

A reason advanced by the documentary that the incident could not have occurred in 1947 was that Reese played shortstop, Robinson first base, and it would have been awkward and unusual for the shortstop to stroll all the way across the infield for such a purpose.

However, in 1948, Robinson played second base, next to Reese, and it seems during one game at Boston's Braves Field, Reese did drape his left arm over Robinson's shoulders when the Dodgers took the field in the first inning.There was no ESPN at the time to record the scene for posterity, and baseball writers didn't mention such things in their game accounts.

There’s an interesting piece by Brian Cronin on espn.go.com which covers this story in depth.

IT ALSO seemed to me Burns took another slap at Reese, by mentioning how upset Robinson was when some idiot hung a Confederate flag from the grandstand at Ebbets Field on Pee Wee Reese day. As though this were Reese's idea.

From the get-go Pee Wee Reese supported Robinson. They weren't best buds by any means, but what was missing from Burns' four-hour program — during the portion that covered Robinson's years with the Dodgers — was more of a look at how he fit in with the team, not how he was excluded.

(And while the reason may have upset me, if I were a member of a major league baseball team, I would have celebrated the news I wouldn't have to deal with a roommate on road trips and would take after-game showers all by myself. Trivia note: Way back in the day, major league players not only were paired up at hotels, but each pair slept in the same bed.)

BURNS' DOCUMENTARY broke the "shocking" news that pitchers threw at Robinson and players spiked him.

Welcome to major league baseball, Ken.

In a documentary you expect documentation. There was none. So I looked it up. Robinson was hit by nine pitches during the 1947, four more than any other Dodger (Eddie Stanky, nicknamed “The Brat,” was hit five times).

One National League player was hit by more pitches — Whitey Kurowski, third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, who had ten bruises to show for the season. Did this indicate a prejudice against Polish players? Or was the reason Kurowski’s .310 batting average and 27 home runs?

That year, Phil Rizzuto, Italian by nationality (and, at five-foot-six, a more difficult target) was hit eight times, tops in the American League.

I have no doubt Robinson was a tempting target, but the fact he drew a lot of walks and wound up scoring 28 more runs than anyone else on his team may have been part of the reason for so many brush-back pitches.

WAS HE spiked? Yes, at least once, by Enos “Country” Slaughter, a North Carolina native and one of the sport’s most competitive players. It happened during a series between Brooklyn and the St. Louis Cardinals during the heat of the pennant race. The Cardinals had won the pennant and the World Series in 1946, and were expected to repeat. Instead they finished five games behind Brooklyn.

Did Slaughter intentionally try to hurt Robinson? Perhaps. But I wish Burns had found a different example. With a pennant on the line, Slaughter probably would have spiked his mother if she were on the other team. He was a throwback to the days of Ty Cobb, who slid into bases with one leg raised to spike anyone who tried to tag him out.

The documentary claims Robinson changed the way the game was played in the major leagues because of the way he ran the bases and taunted pitchers.

There’s no doubt Robinson had an impact, but his 29 stolen bases, which led the National League during his rookie season, were five fewer than the appropriately named Bob Dillinger had that season with the St. Louis Browns, to lead the American League. (Interesting, too, is the fact Pete Reiser of the Dodgers had stolen 30 bases the season before.)

NOT MENTIONED was the arrival of second baseman Hank Thompson with the Browns, one of two Negroes who played in the American League that season. The other was Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, who was mentioned. (Doby is the subject of his own documentary, "Pride Against Prejudice: The Larry Doby Story." It's well worth watching.)

Burns' documentary's look at the 1955 World Series, when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally became champions, implied Robinson's steal of home in a losing effort in Game Four was a key to their eventual victory. A great play, that, but the person most responsible for the Dodgers' victory was pitcher Johnny Podres, whose name was mentioned only in the background by the game announcer when Podres pitched a shutout in Game Seven, his second win of the series. (Podres was named the World Series Most Valuable Player.)

It was a wonderful moment for Robinson, but Doby had earned a World Series ring and a winner's share of the payoff in 1948, with the Indians, the immortal, 42-year-old Satchel Paige making a brief appearance for Cleveland in Game 5. (During the season Paige appeared in 21 games, started seven of them, completed three, with two shutouts, posting a record of six wins, one loss.)

WHILE A FEW other black players were mentioned, I thought the program could have spent more time on the ripple effect of Robinson's entry into the major leagues.

Not needed was being told Dodger third baseman Billy Cox was upset in 1954 because African-American Jim "Junior" Gilliam had joined the team and could take over Cox's position.

It was Robinson who lost his second base position to Gilliam, while Cox was pushed aside for Don Hoak. Cox played the following year for Baltimore. Robinson, meanwhile, spent 1954 playing left field, right field, and occasionally second and third base.

THAT ROBINSON was traded by the Dodgers to the New York Giants on December 13, 1956 for pitcher Dick Littlefield and $30,000 was truly a kick in the teeth for the future Hall of Famer.

Robinson refused to report to the hated Giants. Instead, he retired, which sent a remarkable athlete into a whole different world as a business man and a civil rights crusader.

This part of his life took up the second half of the Burns documentary. Robinson's success in business eventually may have limited his influence on many civil rights activists. He supported Richard Nixon for President in the 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy (though he did not support Nixon eight years later).

His influence with some folks, particularly young black activists in the 1960s, also was limited, I think, because his speaking voice was high-pitched and nasal. He almost always said the right words, but his message was seldom as powerful as it should have been. He occasionally was heckled.

JACKIE ROBINSON was an upstanding, admirable person, and one thing I appreciated about this documentary was how it reminded me what a great all-around athlete he was. Having grown up near Syracuse, I've been inclined to regard Jim Brown as the greatest athlete of all time for his skill in football, basketball, lacrosse and track. But Robinson also excelled in at least four sports — baseball, football, basketball and track — at UCLA.

I also appreciated the documentary for often putting the spotlight on Robinson's widow, still amazing at the age at the age of 93.

One tiny complaint, however. Rachel Robinson said she attended every Dodger home game in 1947. I would have liked to hear more about what she experienced, and how she got along with other Dodger wives as the season wore on.

Jackie Robinson died in 1973 of a heart attack. He was only 53.

I still wish we celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. He was born January 31, 1919, but the holiday would be just as appropriate on April 15, the date in 1947 that he played his first major league game.

As far as the Robinson-Reese incident is concerned, Burns can attempt to straighten it out in his next baseball-related documentary, though maybe he should just apologize for bringing it up in the first place.


 
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