For 55 Years, It's Been Life of Fun, Fungoes

Fifty-five spring trainings ago, the manager of the New York Yankees, Bob Shawkey, went to his rookie second baseman to ask a favor.

The second baseman was James Reese, just up from the Pacific Coast League.

"Shawkey said to me, 'You'd be a good influence on the Babe, why not room with him?' " Reese says now.

"They were dreamin'."

Reese accepted the assignment, though. They got to be good pals, Jimmie Reese and Babe Ruth, although Reese didn't much slow down the Babe socially.

Fifty-five spring trainings later, people still come to Jimmie Reese for favors, and he's still trying to be a good influence.

Need some vitamins, some nuts? See Jimmie, the health fanatic. Need some extra conditioning or fielding work? See Jimmie, baseball's fungo bat virtuoso.

Maybe you just want someone to talk to? A cheerful word? Look up Jimmie, No. 50 in your Angel program. His next grumpy day will be his first in eight decades of baseball.

Jimmie Reese has had a pro baseball uniform on his back and a bat in his hands since 1917.

This particular boy of summer will be 80 in October.

That number seems irrelevant. In the seven years I've been around the Angels, I've never heard any player mention Reese's age.

Still, his age may lead baseball fans to believe he is merely a living relic the Angels keep around for sentimental reasons.

Try to tell that to Gary Pettis, who credits a good part of his spectacular play in center field last season to a rigorous daily pregame fungo session with Reese.

Try to tell that to Nolan Ryan, who joined the Angels the same season as Reese and kept his legs in shape chasing Reese's fungoes around the outfield.

How good is Reese with his customized fungo bat?

As a novelty, he used to "pitch" batting practice standing on the mound and hitting balls over the plate.

Now he does his fungo hitting in the outfield before games, running the pitchers, and he charts pitches during games.

One recent spring morning, he took time out to sit in a dugout and remember back.

"I became batboy for the Los Angeles Angels in 1917," he said. "I lived in Hollywood, and I would go to Wrigley Field every day and sneak into the games.

"Finally, Frank Chance (of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance fame), the manager, made me batboy. Every Sunday, Frank Chance gave me a dollar and a baseball."

Reese played baseball at San Pedro High and signed with the Oakland Oaks in 1924. The Yankees bought his contract in '27, but they kept Jimmie in Oakland until '30.

He played for the Yankees in '30 and '31, rooming with Ruth both springs.

"Babe was a wonderful man," Reese said. "He loved social activities. He would get 15 calls or more every day. Everyone would call.

"This was during prohibition, and Babe would take me with him to speakeasies in New York. They were brownstones with peepholes in the door, and when they saw it was Babe, they'd open up. We'd go in and have the finest dinner you can imagine for $1.50.

"I'd go to his home often. He and his wife had the entire floor of a big hotel, with their own elevator.

"One room was the pool room, and Babe hated to lose. One day we were playing, and Mrs. Ruth called out that dinner was ready.

"We were playing for a dime a game, and I had him beat for 20 cents. He said, 'I'm not quittin' until I'm even.'

"I don't remember if I lost on purpose, but he finally got even. He said, 'Now we'll eat.' Then the next day he'd go out and spend hundreds of dollars like it was nothing.

"He hated to lose at anything. One night on a train trip, on the way to an exhibition game, we were playing bridge, Babe and Harry Rice against me and (Lou) Gehrig.

"At about 11:30, Gehrig, who was a stickler for conditioning, said 'I gotta go to bed.' We were up $1.25 and Babe said, 'It's only an exhibition game, Lou.'

"Lou said, 'I need my sleep.' Babe said, 'If you go to bed now, I'll tear the (score) sheet up.'

"Gehrig stayed and we won the next hand and now Babe owes us $2.50. Lou says, 'I'm going to bed.' Babe got mad and tore the paper up. He still owes me $2.50.

"It wasn't the money. We'd walk down the street and Babe would meet people he'd never seen before and give 'em $10, $20. He never refused anyone. He said to me, 'I don't want you to ever put this in the papers. People would think I do it for the publicity.'

"And he never turned down an autograph. He invited me to dinner one Sunday after a game at the Stadium. When we walked out, there must've been 1,000 kids waiting for him. He said, 'You wait in the car.'

"He had a 16-cylinder Cadillac and I sat in it over an hour while he signed for every kid.

"When we were playing in Washington, he took some of us to Baltimore, where he grew up. He took us to his old school and showed us the leather straps this thick (about four inches wide) hanging from the ceiling that they used to beat him with.

"He was wearing a silk shirt, he was beautifully dressed, but the kids wanted him to hit. So he stood out there in the hot sun 20 minutes hitting balls, sweating. He loved kids."

Reese also remembers Ruth's stubbornness.

"We were playing Washington and their third baseman, Ossie Bluege, played about halfway in from third on Ruth, daring him to hit it that way instead of pulling the ball.

"Babe said, 'What the hell is goin' on?' (Herb) Pennock told him, 'Just ignore him and pull the ball, Babe.' The pitcher was throwing the ball in on Babe's hands, but he wanted to hit Bluege. Babe said, 'I'll get that so and so.'

"He went hitless the first three times up, trying to hit Bluege. Finally the last time up, the ball got away from the pitcher and out over the plate. Babe flicked at it and hit it into the left-field bleachers.

"After the game he's mad. He says, 'I wish I'd've got the ball down, I'd've killed that so and so.' "

Reese was also befriended by the veteran Lou Gehrig.

"Gehrig was a plodder," Reese said. "He just kept battling, battling. He was in a slump once, which means he went 0 for 4. He said, 'I gotta find out what's wrong.' So we went to breakfast early, then to the ballpark. I pitched him batting practice for about 10 minutes and he said, 'I think I've got it.' That day he hit four solid line drives.

"Gehrig's idea of a big evening was to say, 'Jimmie, let's celebrate. Let's go have a beer with dinner.' "

When Reese finally broke into the Yankee lineup, he batted second, followed by Ruth, Gehrig and Bill Dickey.

"The pitchers would throw me strikes. I got a lot of fastballs. I hit .346 that first year, then they started throwing Uncle Charlie (the curveball), and the next year I hit .246 or so."

The Yankees traded him to the Cardinals, where he played one season behind Frankie Frisch. Then Reese was traded to the Triple-A Angels.

He played in the Coast League for about 14 seasons, setting a league record for career fielding chances, 9,890. When the all-time PCL team was selected a few years ago, Reese was the second baseman.

Jimmie retired as a player, then coached for 14 more years, then scouted briefly.

In 1972, Harry Dalton, then general manager of the California Angels, phoned Reese, and asked him to come to spring training as a designated fungo hitter.

Jimmie became fast friends with Nolan Ryan, and a favorite of other players. He worked the pitchers into shape, and has been in an Angel uniform since.

Last year, he got a package in the mail from Ryan. It was the baseball from Ryan's fifth no-hitter. And when Reggie Jackson tied Gehrig on the all-time homer list at 493 last season, Jackson gave the bat he had used to Reese.

Late last season, after a long trip, Reese suffered "either a mild heart attack or exhaustion. I couldn't believe it could happen to me. They want me to slow down, but I don't know how I can."

He'll start by skipping some trips this season, and by staying in a hotel near Anaheim Stadium instead of commuting from his home in Westwood.

When the team is on the road, he'll pass the time making custom picture frames in his workshop. Since '70, Jimmie has made 22,500 frames for players and friends, all free.

But when the Angels are home, you can catch his pregame fungo recital in the outfield.

"How can anyone ask for more, if they enjoy doing what they're doing?" Jimmie says. "The good Lord's got his arm around me, no?"

Yes.

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