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Pee Wee Reese was no Pee Wee

By Harvey Frommer

The death in 1999 of the old Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Harold Henry Reese at 81, better known as Pee Wee, brought back some of the old debates about how he got his nickname. Reese's funeral will take place today at Southeast Christian Church of Louisville.

Reese's major league debut was April 23, 1940. On the Dodger roster back then was Harold "Pistol Pete" Reiser. Writers at the time sought to have the two paired with alliterative nick-names - thus Reese was tagged with the nickname "Pee Wee."

Another explanation for the nickname was that Reese, at just 5-9 and 160 pounds, was "Pee Wee" size.

But the real reason for the nickname, according to Reese himself, was the skill he displayed as a youth when he was a champion marbles shooter. A Pee Wee was a type of marble used in playing this game which many youngsters could be seen participating in on street corners and back lots.

Reese was anything but "Pee Wee" in his influence on the Dodgers in over 16 seasons. He could run, hit, bunt, field, steal, throw, inspire and most of all win. And he was especially instrumental in easing the way for Jackie Robinson to break the color line in major league baseball.

When the 1947 season started, some opposing National League players gave Jackie Robinson a hard time. In Boston one day, Reese made a gesture of acceptance for all the world to see. He went over to Robinson and simply put his arm around Jackie. This was at a time when even Robinson's own teammates staged a short-lived protest against having him on the team.

"I get a lot of credit and I appreciate it," Reese said just a couple of years ago. "But after a while, I thought of him as I would Duke Snider or Gil Hodges or anyone else. We never thought of this as a big deal. We were just playing ball and having fun."

Reese spent his entire 16-year career with the Dodgers, appearing in seven World Series. He played 15 years in Brooklyn and followed the team to Los Angeles for one more season before retiring in 1958. His uniform Number 1 was retired by Los Angeles on July 1, 1984.

One of the magical moments in Reese's career took place on June 22, 1955. It was a day after he had recorded his 2,000th hit. "Pee Wee" was given a birthday party at Ebbets Field. It was the first and only night dedicated to a player up to that time when fans were asked not to contribute anything.

All they were asked to bring was cigars, cigarettes, lighters, candles - - anything they could light up for Pee Wee who remembered, "When I came to Brooklyn in 1940 I was a scared kid. To tell the truth I was twice as scared on my birthday night at Ebbets Field."

And then the moment arrived. Fans at that old Brooklyn ballpark watched the lights dim, lit up whatever they had brought and sang Happy Birthday to Pee Wee with varying levels of competency:

There are those of a certain age who still remember Pee Wee Reese bringing the lineup card out to home plate, raising the right arm, leading the Dodgers onto the playing field.

"Being Captain of the Dodgers," Reese recalled, "meant representing an organization committed to winning and trying to keep it going. We could have won every year if the breaks had gone right."

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