Debunkers Strike Out

It's a swing and a miss for the attempts to tear down a Jackie Robinson moment immortalized in a Brooklyn statue

In front of KeySpan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones on Coney Island, there stands a statue of Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese with his arm around his teammate Jackie Robinson. The statue was commissioned to commemorate a moment that has become part of baseball folklore: During infield practice before a game in Cincinnati in 1947, some fans were peppering Robinson with racial slurs, and Reese walked over to Jackie and put his hand on his shoulder in a show of fellowship—or so the legend goes. Or is that just folklore?

The story of Reese's gesture has stood for decades as a symbol of friendship and racial tolerance. Now, in the wake of celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, it has become the subject of controversy. In an April 14 New York Times op-ed entitled "Breaking the Truth Barrier," a writer named Stuart Miller sought to debunk the Reese-Robinson incident. "It's a wonderful folk tale," wrote Miller, "but likely only half-true. Robinson didn't mention the incident in an autobiography published after his rookie year. And in a 1952 magazine interview and his 1960 book, Wait Till Next Year, he placed it in 1948, in Boston . . . (In addition, the pitcher Carl Erskine has said he witnessed the moment, and he didn't join Brooklyn until 1948.)"

In his new book, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, Jonathan Eig takes an even stronger stance. Eig mentions that there was no account of Reese putting his arm around Robinson in any 1947 newspaper, white or black, and states: "No photos of the incident have ever been identified." Eig does cite a recollection from Dodger pitcher Rex Barney of seeing Reese walk over and put his arm around Robinson in the first inning of the Cincinnati game, while Barney was warming up in the first inning—though Barney, in fact, didn't pitch in that game until the seventh inning. Eig also refers to Lester Rodney, a reporter for the Communist paper The Daily Worker, who remembers the occasion taking place in 1947.

Sorry, doubters: Pee Wee and Jackie really did have a bonding experience.
photo: Cary Conover
Sorry, doubters: Pee Wee and Jackie really did have a bonding experience.

It's possible, Eig concludes, "that the Robinson-Reese moment took place just as Barney, Rodney and others remembered it, in 1947. But it seems unlikely. What's more likely is that Reese and Robinson slowly became friends, and after Robinson became a second baseman in 1948 . . . Reese, as warm and kind a man as there was in baseball, sometimes put an arm around Robinson's shoulder." The memory of the gesture, Eig contends, was placed in everyone's mental file under "1947," "when it would have resonated most strongly."

The truth about the Reese-Robinson arm on the shoulder may be forever lost to time. Eig is not the first writer to point out the discrepancies in the accounts. In his definitive 1997 biography, Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad wrote: "With such gestures, Reese played an important role . . . Perhaps his most single telling act was sensational, given the racism of that time: at one point, in full view of the public, he dared to put his white hand on Robinson's black shoulder in a gesture of solidarity. Exactly when and where the moment came is uncertain. It happened either in Boston (as Robinson recalled) or in Cincinnati, just across the river from Reese's native Kentucky (as others saw it). Robinson more than once placed it in 1948, but others remember it as happening in 1947."

That it did happen would seem to be unquestionable. Though Eig points to the lack of newspaper accounts and photographs, Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer and many other books dealing with New York baseball, insists that "American papers have always been notoriously slack about reporting matters of racial significance." (As Miller pointed out in his op-ed, the white-run newspapers even downplayed the importance of Robinson's major-league debut.)

Why, then, would an incident that took place in a 1947 pre-game practice have been either noticed by the press or photographed?

In fact, it was noted by one member of the press, Lester Rodney, who says, "I could kick myself for not having written about it at that time." Moreover, says Rodney, he remembers it happening in Cincinnati, because "[i]t was the only time all season that The Daily Worker sprang for expenses to send me on a road trip." That gives us two witnesses who at least remember it happening in Cincinnati in 1947; Barney's claim that it happened while he was warming up might actually be true if he was simply making some soft tosses during fielding practice.

As for Carl Erskine's memory that it happened in 1948, former Newsday columnist Stan Isaacs—who first suggested the idea of a statue to Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel—points out: "In 1947 Carl Erskine was pitching in the minor leagues and wouldn't have seen anything that happened in Cincinnati. If he says he saw Reese put an arm on Robinson's shoulder in 1948, maybe he did. But that doesn't contradict what everyone saw in Cincinnati."

Based on the available evidence, the story of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson appears to be as strong as the bronze statue that captures the moment in time.

 
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