He was Babe Ruth's roommate. He was Nolan Ryan's and Reggie Jackson's best pal. But to those close to him, Jimmie Reese will always be remembered for the man he was, not the men he knew.
His love of the game buoyed him through 78 seasons of professional baseball--from batboy for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League in 1917 to conditioning coach for the California Angels in 1994--and along the way he lifted the spirits of countless managers, coaches, players, clubhouse workers and sportswriters.
Reese, 92, died Wednesday morning at a hospital in Santa Ana. He was in his 23rd season with the Angels organization.
"I was very fond of Jimmie Reese," Angels owner Gene Autry said. "He's one of the finest men I've ever known. We will miss him, I'll tell you that. He was a wonderful, wonderful man."
Added Autry's wife, Jackie: "He represented the best part of baseball. . . . He was an extraordinary gentleman. We should get his fungo bat and put it in the Angel Hall of Fame."
A fungo bat, long and thin with an extra-long handle and occasionally one flat side, is used by coaches to hit grounders and fly balls while players practice fielding. Reese was known throughout baseball for his ability to use it to drop a ball on a dime.
Reese broke into professional baseball with the minor league Oakland Oaks in 1924 and six years later was purchased by the New York Yankees. With the Yankees, he roomed with the legendary Ruth, an association that provided Reese with a collection of tales that never failed to mesmerize listeners.
Through the years, he became mentor and close friend of players such as Ryan, Jackson and pitcher Jim Abbott, but few who crossed his path were untouched by his sincerity, his good nature and his uncanny ability to make people smile.
Reese, born in New York City on Oct. 1, 1901, spent three seasons in the majors--two with the Yankees and one with the old St. Louis Browns.
It was as the former roommate of the notoriously fun-loving Ruth, baseball's first great home-run hitter, that Reese gained most of his fame. And he enjoyed every minute of it.
"He used to always tell us," Jackie Autry said, "I didn't really room with Babe Ruth. I roomed with his luggage."
Reese once said that if he lived to be 100--and he didn't miss by much--he would never forget Ruth.
"My friendship with Babe meant that I walked the streets of New York with him," Reese said.
"Everybody wanted to be around him. People would yell his name or just run up and touch him. A lot of times people would ask him for money. Times were hard in those days. Babe would give a guy $10 and say, 'OK, you owe me.' But he knew he'd never see the guy again."
But hanging around Ruth had its price. Once when the Yankees were in St. Louis, Reese said, Ruth's wife ordered him to drive the Babe from the hotel to the ballpark. Make sure there were no stops, she said.
"We went out a side door and got in his 16-cylinder Packard," Reese recalled. "And there was a lady in a parked car. The Babe said we were going to take a little detour.
"We followed her a couple of miles to an apartment. The Babe told me to read a book or two. An hour or so later he came out puffing. He lit a cigar and said we better get to the park.
"Infield practice was on when we arrived. Manager Bob Shawkey said hi to the Babe. But to me he said, 'Where the hell you been, Reese?'
"Shawkey had to come up with something, so he told me, 'Reese, I think you're bad company for Babe to keep.' I all but fell over, but Babe thought it was a howl."
Another of Reese's favorites was Ryan. The former pitcher and Reese became friends when Ryan and Reese joined the Angels in 1972.
The first day of spring training, Reese ran Ryan all over the outfield with his famous fungo bat.
"Who is that guy?" Ryan asked. "He's going to kill me the first day."
They ultimately became close friends, and one of Reese's prized possessions was the baseball Ryan used to complete his fifth no-hitter.
"I have no idea how we became friends," Reese once said. "I must be at least 10 years older than he is."
From the time he was hired as batboy by the Los Angeles Angels in 1917, Reese never missed a summer's participation in the national pastime until 1991.
What doctors called a coronary occlusion threatened his career, but after missing almost the entire 1991 season Reese was back in 1992, celebrating his 76th summer in the sport.
The Angels announced at the time that Reese had been signed to a lifetime contract and would not have to do any more traveling.
In his day, though, he traveled lots. He was a second baseman when he began his playing career with the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks. In 1930, along with another infielder, Lyn Lary, Reese was sold to the Yankees. The price for the pair was $125,000, at the time a record figure.
Reese played 232 major league games, batting .278. He was a deadly pinch-hitter, getting 15 hits in 33 at-bats for a .455 average.
Ordinarily, a slick-fielding second baseman who bats .278 would last a decade. Unfortunately, Reese broke in the year the major leagues had their liveliest baseball. In 1930, nine of the 16 teams averaged better than .300.
Reese returned to the Pacific Coast League in 1933. He retired as a player after the 1938 season, having spent 13 seasons in the league.
After retiring as a player Reese served as scout, manager and coach, finally joining the major league Angels in 1972.
In 1927, after hitting .337 for Oakland, Reese was given a "Jimmie Reese Day," $1,000 and a suitcase full of clothes.
Sixty-two years later, there was another "Jimmie Reese Day." The Angels honored him--fittingly--before a Yankee game in 1989 as the greatest fungo hitter, nicest man and best living symbol of baseball tradition.
Reese said he was mystified by the day in his honor. All he ever wanted to do, he said, was play, watch, teach and talk baseball.
Reese had no survivors. Donations may be made in Reese's name to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, 3 W. 35th St., 11th floor, New York, NY 10001-2204, and to the Amigos de los Ninos, P.O. Box 2602, La Habra 90632-2602.
There will be visitation from noon to 7 p.m. today at Fairhaven Memorial Park, 1702 E. Fairhaven Ave., Santa Ana. Memorial services will be conducted at 1 p.m. Friday at the Samsvic Chapel, Calvary Church of Santa Ana, 1010 N. Tustin Ave.
Times staff writer Bob Nightengale contributed to this story.
* REACTION: The baseball world remembers the friendship, warmth and humor of legendary Angels conditioning coach Jimmie Reese. C1