Pee Wee Reese: A Shortstop Grows in Louisville

 

BASEBALL HISTORY is rich with stories of what could have been, and the supposed reasons why they were not – and arguably no team has as many of those as the Boston Red Sox. For instance, there’s the story of how Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees so he could finance a Broadway musical called No, No, Nanette. In fact, No, No, Nanette wasn’t produced until five years after Ruth was sold to the Yanks.

Another oft-repeated story is how Bill Buckner lost the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox. Sure, the ball rolling through Buckner’s high-top cleated feet in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 makes many a Sox fan weep. But what many fail to remember is that even if Boston lost Game 6, which they indeed did, they still had a fresh Game 7 in which they could win it all. So, Buckner’s misplay was tough, but it didn’t lose the Series by any means.

And then there is the tale of how Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese slipped away from the Red Sox and became a Brooklyn Dodger.

HAROLD HENRY REESE was born on a farm in Meade County, Kentucky in 1918. Though his birthplace is given as Ekron, the Reese family farm was in fact between the towns of Ekron and Brandenburg, about 45 miles south of Louisville. Harold was the fifth born of Carl and Emma Reese’s seven children. In the mid-1920s, Carl moved the family to Louisville, where he worked as a watchman for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.

The move to the big city not only allowed Carl to take a better job with the railroad, but he was also able to indulge his interest in baseball. The city of Louisville had a big baseball tradition. As a port city on the Ohio River, Louisville had baseball clubs dating back to before the Civil War. The city hosted a professional team of some level almost every year since 1876 when it was a charter member of the National League. Since 1902 the Louisville Colonels represented the city in the American Association, the highest level of the minor leagues.

Besides their pro team, Louisville was a hotbed of semi-pro talent, especially in the city’s church leagues. After moving to Louisville, Carl Reese joined the Berry Boulevard Presbyterian team as a second baseman. The league’s top club was sponsored by the New Covenant Presbyterian Church. The team’s star player was a slugging third baseman named Billy Herman. The future Hall of Famer’s professional career was launched when Louisville Colonels general manager Cap Neal discovered him playing for New Covenant. By 1931, Carl had moved over to the New Covenant team and brought his boy Harold along as the team’s new batboy.

Carl passed down his love of the National Pastime to Harold, and the boy began playing in Louisville’s Sunday School League. Unfortunately, Harold’s small frame prevented him from being more than just a bench player for Louisville’s Manual High School team. Despite the adult Reese’s 5’10” height commonly being noted as the origin of his nickname “Pee Wee,” the actual source of the name comes from a game – and it wasn’t baseball.

WHEN HE WASN’T playing baseball, Harold honed his skills as a marbles player. The game had been around for centuries, but the 1930s were the peak of the game’s popularity in the United States. There are various sized marbles used to play the game, with each having its own distinctive slang terms. While most players used the larger 5/8” “commie” or a 9/16” “regular” as their shooter, Reese favored the smaller ½” marble, called a “peewee.”

In 1933, Harold participated in the annual city-wide marble tournament sponsored by the Louisville Times. In the 8-round series, Harold won five matches, coming in second to winner Bobby Minton’s 6 victories. His second place finish in the tournament using the peewee as his shooter gave Harold the name he would forever be known by.

HAROLD GRADUATED Manual High in 1936 and began an apprenticeship with the local telephone company. The constant climbing of poles built up his slight body and added strength to his 5’10” frame. He continued to play ball, joining his father’s old New Covenant team as their shortstop. Reese hit .428 during the 1937 season and then bumped it up a notch to .464 when New Covenant made the Louisville Amateur Baseball Federation Championship Series.

Cap Neal, the Louisville Colonels general manager who discovered Billy Herman a decade earlier, took an immediate liking to the shortstop. As he would tell the Louisville Courier-Journal, “This boy Reese looks like a natural to me.” In the last week of October, Neal summoned Reese to his office at Parkway Field. Neal was taken aback when the teenager absolutely refused to sign a contract to play with Louisville for $150 a month. While most any American teen would have paid $150 a month to play pro ball, Reese had a reason for not wanting to be under contract to Louisville, telling the chagrinned Neal, “I don’t want to play with Brooklyn.”

At the time, Louisville had a working agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1937, the Dodgers had a terrible reputation. The team was on the verge of bankruptcy, made worse by the club finishing 33 ½ games out of first place. For years the “Daffiness Boys” had been the laughingstock of the league, with the sporting papers chock full of stories about the team’s ineptness – three guys winding up on the same base, outfielders being conked on the head with the ball, crazed fans terrorizing their own players with their incessant heckling, and umpires being attacked by irate rooters. To Peewee Reese, Brooklyn was the last place he wanted to play baseball.

When Cap Neal recovered from his initial shock at the kid’s brash refusal, he pointed out that he would have to start out in a lower minor league, and it would likely be two years before he would even be ready to play for Louisville. Reese countered by asking Neal if he intended to play the same lineup in 1938 as he had the year before. When Neal asked why, Reese responded, “I think I can play infield better than anybody you had out there.”

Despite the team’s ties to Brooklyn, Neal sweetened the pot with a $200 signing bonus and was able to convince Reese to sign a contract, with an invitation to join the team for spring training.

AT THE SPRING CAMP, Reese showed great talent at shortstop, though not up to American Association standards. This was to be expected of a teenager plucked straight off a church league team and deposited into the highest level minor league. Besides competing against the older veteran shortstop Ray French, Reese had to contend with Chris Katope, another teenage shortstop from Louisville who was brought to camp that spring. In fact, after watching the pair work out, Cap Neal wanted to keep Katope and release Reese. However, Colonels manager Bert Niehoff strongly disagreed. According to a March 25, 1940 story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Niehoff’s wife recalled, “Bert insisted on keeping Reese and his judgement didn’t prove wrong.”

Despite his inexperience, Bert Niehoff recognized talent, however rough, when he saw it. In the same March 25, 1940, Louisville Courier-Journal story, Mrs. Niehoff remembered, “I’ll never forget the day Billy Meyer brought his Kansas City team over for an exhibition game. Bert said to Bill, ‘See that kid out there at shortstop? I’ll just about open the season with him.’ Meyer looked at Bert as if he were crazy. ‘You can’t get away with something like that, Bert.’ Bill said ‘That kid’s just played in a church league.’ Bert told Bill just to wait and see.” In the Kansas City game Mrs. Niehoff was referring to, Reese came in as a 9th inning replacement for Ray French and promptly hit a single that ignited a 4-run rally.

However well Reese was playing that spring, the smart baseball move would have been to farm the rookie out to a lower level minor league so he could get used to playing professional ball. Casting off conventional thought, Neal and Niehoff made the decision to keep Reese with the Colonels. The thought was that he could learn much from watching the team’s veteran shortstop Ray French up close. The team could then gradually break the youngster in over the course of the summer.

WHEN THE SEASON opened on April 17, Ray French was the starting shortstop – though not for long. On April 27, Reese started his first game, going 3 for 4 with two doubles. By the first week of May, Ray French had moved over to third base, and Reese took over as the team’s starting shortstop. Though still inexperienced by American Association standards, Reese learned on the job. Mrs. Niehoff remembered, “Bert taught ‘Peewee’ about everything he knows about baseball and he had to tell ‘Peewee’ a thing only once. He caught on fast.”

For the season, Reese’s fielding percentage was .939, ranking him 6th out of the eight starting shortstops in the American Association. However, the veteran Ray French only posted a .904 fielding percentage in the 33 games he played at short before Reese took over. The bright spots were the rookie’s .277 batting average and his 23 stolen bases out of 24 attempts.

MEANWHILE, the Brooklyn Dodgers had let their working agreement with Louisville lapse, leaving Louisville without any big league affiliations. This meant that Louisville was free to sell their players to whichever team proffered the most money. The rave reviews Peewee Reese received throughout the summer of ‘38 brought a steady stream of major league suitors. The first team to make an offer was Cincinnati: $50,000 plus three players. Cap Neal said no. The Chicago Cubs made an offer with the same results. So did Pittsburgh and Brooklyn.

The Boston Red Sox, up until recently wallowing in the same cesspool of defeat as the Brooklyn Dodgers, had just made it to the first division of the American League. Powered by owner Tom Yawkey’s bottomless pocketbook, Boston had bought itself a contending team that featured veterans Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, along with youngsters Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr. All Yawkey’s scouts agreed that Peewee Reese would be the perfect understudy to the team’s current shortstop, player/manager Joe Cronin.

Yawkey sent his representative to Louisville to talk turkey with Cap Neal. The first offer of $20,000 was met with laughter. Every subsequent visit brought the same refusal despite a continued raising of the ante. Finally, Neal called the Red Sox man to a meeting and told him, “I’ve got a proposition for you.” As the Dayton Daily News’ Si Burick wrote in his August 16, 1940, column, “He tells the Yawkey ivory hunter an amazing story. Reese is not for sale at any price unless the purchaser takes the entire Louisville franchise, too.”

Buying an entire team was not what the Red Sox wanted, especially since they already had an agreement with another club in the American Association. But Cap Neal was adamant. Louisville Colonels owner Bill Knebelkamp had recently passed away, leaving his ball club to his daughters. According to Si Burick’s column, “The girls were anxious to get rid of the club. As far as the team was concerned, its only asset was this young shortstop, Reese. “If I sell Pee Wee,” says Cap, “then I might as well forget about tryin’ to sell this ball park, this franchise and everything that goes with it. You can’t get rid of your only asset when you’re trying to make a deal.”

The Red Sox rep went back to Yawkey who, in turn, dispatched Billy Evans, the head of Boston’s farm system, to look over Reese. Evans liked what he saw and reported to Sox GM Eddie Collins who then recommended the deal to Yawkey. Meanwhile, several other clubs were given the same option to buy the franchise, with the Cincinnati Reds being one that was reportedly putting together a serious offer.

On September 9, 1938, the Red Sox’s purchase of the Louisville Colonels was confirmed. The purchase was split three ways between Yawkey, former player and now minor league manager Donie Bush, and Frank McKinney, an Indianapolis businessman. The price was not made public, but the Sporting News reported the figure as $195,000.

BOSTON SHOWED their confidence in Reese by giving him a $400 per month contract. While getting a raise that more than doubled the 20-year old’s salary was a time to celebrate, all wasn’t well in the Reese household. In late November, Peewee’s father Carl fell ill with a kidney ailment. He underwent surgery but passed away two weeks later on December 4. He was just 51. Reese’s losing the man from whom he inherited his love of the game might have been weighing heavy on his mind when he reported to spring training in March of 1939.

IT’S AT THIS POINT that two different stories emerge as to why Pee Wee Reese didn’t go into Cooperstown wearing a Boston Red Sox cap.
The first version of how Boston let the future Hall of Famer slip away involves Red Sox manager and shortstop Joe Cronin. Cronin, a future Hall of Famer himself, had been in the majors since 1926 and had won pennants playing for the Pirates and Senators. Now 32, Cronin was still an everyday player and batted .325 for 1938. So, while Yawkey and the rest of the Red Sox management team saw Peewee Reese as the eventual heir to the shortstop job, Cronin believed he still had many years left as a regular. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch for Cronin, as the current player/manager, to think that him losing his starting shortstop job would suddenly take away half of his value to the ball club. Would his worth as a manager be enough to keep him in Boston?

With his job in danger, Cronin began devising a way to get rid of the organization’s brightest prospect.

As Rob Neyer wrote in his Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders: A Complete Guide to the Worst Decisions and Stupidest Moments in Baseball History, “Cronin still saw himself as an everyday shortstop. He was less than thrilled with the purchase of Reese, and after watching him make a couple of misplays in a spring training game between the Red Sox and Louisville, Cronin recommended to Yawkey that Reese be dealt.”

It would take some convincing – only months before Yawkey, Bush and McKinney had laid out $195,000 for this supposed rising star. According to the accepted story, Cronin repeatedly told Yawkey that Reese was just too small and frail to play in the majors.

And so Joe Cronin’s inferiority complex has gone down in baseball history as the reason for one of the Red Sox’s worst trades, second only to Babe Ruth’s being sold to the Yankees. But is it true? Dayton Daily News columnist Si Burick offers an alternate explanation.

In his August 16, 1940, column, Burick tells this story of spring training in 1939: “Yawkey, Collins and Evans make the trip to the Louisville training base. They all want to see Reese. Cronin is anxious to have a look at the kid who is going to succeed him at shortstop in a couple of seasons. What happens? Well, Reese looks awful. He has a terrible day. He not only fails to turn in every play but looks as though he has no idea how to make them. At bat he is a complete frost. Yawkey wonders if he’s been tricked. Evans clears his throat nervously and says, ‘There’s something wrong here; this isn’t the Reese I’ve saw last summer at Louisville. Let’s not judge him on one performance.’” Burick goes on the say that Reese did just as bad against the Red Sox in subsequent games and no better against minor league teams. By the time spring training ended, Boston had concluded they made a bad deal and they needed to get rid of Reese as soon as possible. Burick goes on to write, “It isn’t that he’s (Joe Cronin) jealous–as has been reported once or twice since Reese got away from the organization. It’s because the boy doesn’t show a thing.”

Wow, a mind-blowing version of events that totally upends the accepted history. But is it true?

I went back and gathered all the spring training box scores I could find. The Red Sox played three exhibition games against Louisville. In the March 20 game, Reese went 1 for 5 with a double and RBI while committing no errors. On March 27 he was 0 for 3 and was charged with two errors. In the final game on March 30, Reese was 1 for 4 with an RBI and zero errors.

If Si Burick’s version was to be believed, the March 27 game would have been the only game that fits his scenario of Reese being an automatic error machine and a no-show at the plate. After the 1939 season began, Boston stopped in Louisville in between games in St. Louis and Washington. In the May 13 exhibition, Reese went hitless in three at bats, but committed no errors in the field. So, when all is said and done, Reese batted an anemic .133 against the Red Sox in exhibition games. For the entire 1939 spring training, Reese fared a bit better, hitting .269.

ONCE THE SEASON STARTED, Reese started off slow. Meanwhile, Boston began shopping him around. Whereas the year before, teams were throwing money at Louisville to secure Reese’s services, now many of those same teams shied away. The reason for the apprehension was that for all the gaudy publicity surrounding Reese and for all the cash Yawkey and company shelled out – why would the Red Sox dump such a “can’t-miss” prospect? Surely there must be something wrong with Reese that was only discovered after buying him? As the season played on, Boston dropped their sticker price lower and lower.

In the meantime, Reese began playing up to par again. His fielding improved dramatically, and his bat came around. Several teams, reportedly the Reds and Cubs, sent in offers, but the amounts were ridiculously low, especially after what Yawkey’s group paid. No major league team was willing to shell out 1938 money for Reese.

MIDWAY THROUGH the season, the American Association had their annual All-Star Game. Unlike the majors who had American vs. National League teams, the American Association All-Star Game pitted the current league leaders, in this case the Kansas City Blues, against the best players from the other seven teams. Reese, batting .310 at the time, was a shoo-in for the All-Stars shortstop job. The American Association was one of the three top minor leagues, and the All-Star Game attracted scouts and executives from all the major league clubs who came to see the best up and coming talent. One of those executives who took the trip to Kansas City was Larry McPhail, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. McPhail had taken over the Dodgers the year before and was rapidly transforming the club into a contender. McPhail was a baseball revolutionary, bombastic and brazen, and willing to take a risk where others played it safe. In Peewee Reese, McPhail saw a player worth gambling on. According to the July 20, 1939, Boston Globe, “Larry S. McPhail, the dynamo who is the Brooklyn business manager, arrived for the American Association’s all-star game and plunked down $25,000 and four players for the youngster.”

When word reached Reese that his contract was purchased by Brooklyn he was stunned. Just a year earlier it looked like his fear of being a Dodger had been erased by Boston buying Louisville. Then it looked like the Cubs, pennant winners in 1938, or the Reds, on their way to winning the 1939 pennant, would scoop him up. But now Brooklyn? How in the world did Brooklyn get back into the picture?

Some books on the Dodgers have Reese outright bemoaning his being acquired by the Dodgers. In my research, however, I found only one contemporary quote in the July 20, 1939, Boston Globe that obliquely shows his remorse at going to Brooklyn: “Anyway, I am glad to be sold to the Dodgers,” chirped Reese today. “Brooklyn’s in a major league, isn’t it.” His resignation to his fate can be read between the lines.

PEE WEE REESE would finish out the season with Louisville, where he led the league in both stolen bases and triples and batted .279. The energy generated from the team’s link to Boston and the hometown hero shortstop saw the team drawing 234,990 fans to Parkway Field, breaking their all-time attendance record. Though the team finished fourth, they still qualified for the playoffs. The Colonels beat Minneapolis and Indianapolis for the American Association championship and then beat the International League champion Rochester Red Wings 4 games to 3 in the “Little World Series.”

OF COURSE Pee Wee Reese went on to become one of the Dodgers’ most popular and successful players, the anchor that held together two generations of great Brooklyn teams in the 1940s and 50s. His leadership both on the field and in the clubhouse kept the Dodgers cool and collected during some of the most competitive pennant races in baseball history, winning seven pennants and one World Championship. His place among the immortals of baseball history was recognized when the veterans committee elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1984.

But beyond that, it was Pee Wee Reese who became the example for his fellow ballplayers when it came time to integrate the team in 1947. When other players chose to shy away from making any statement about Jackie Robinson’s presence on the team, it was Reese, a southerner by birth, who had the courage to stand by Robinson’s side during that challenging 1947 season.

Talking to Roger Kahn, author of the classic Brooklyn Dodgers book The Boys of Summer, Reese said, “I was just trying to make the world a little bit better. That’s what you’re supposed to do with your life, isn’t it?

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EVOLUTION OF A NICKNAME

Throughout his career there have been various spellings of Pee Wee Reese’s unique nickname.

The common spelling for the marble Reese was named after was as one word: peewee. Thus, during his Louisville days he was known in print as “Peewee.”

After his purchase by Brooklyn in 1939, the spelling of “PeeWee” began to be seen in some newspapers.

However, by the beginning of his major league rookie season in 1940, New York newspapers had settled on the now familiar two-part “Pee Wee” which we still use today.

* * *

This week’s story is Number 44 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.

2 thoughts on “Pee Wee Reese: A Shortstop Grows in Louisville

  1. Gary, a couple of errors in your text. First, Louisville was a charter member of the National League long before 1882. Louisville played in the NL from 1876-1877, prior to the big scandal. Yes, Louisville was back in the NL from 1892-1899, but didn’t join the American Association until 1902, the first year of that league’s newest iteration.

    As for Pee Wee, his birthplace has never been listed as “Elkton.” Elkton is far away, in Todd County. It’s always listed as Ekron, which is located about 3.5 miles south of Brandenburg.

    1. Thanks Harry, my mistake and both have been edited. I had “Ekron” in my notes and have it on the back of the card I made, but I misspelled it in the text of the story. I had a friend from a town called Elkton in Maryland – I bet I had that on my mind when I was typing.

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