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He Didn’t Speculate in Color

Here are some lines from “The Boys of Summer” that I composed after a visit with Pee Wee Reese in 1970. For many years he had been team captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers. We talked on a screened-in porch and watched sunlight fall upon a garden.

[Able-bodied Seaman] Pee Wee Reese was riding a ship back from Guam when he heard the wrenching news that Branch Rickey had hired a black. Reese had lost three seasons, half of an average major league career, to the United States Navy and he was impatient to get on with what was left when a petty officer said, “It’s on the shortwave. His name’s Jackie Robinson. A colored guy to play on your team.”

“Is that a fact?” Reese said, deadpan.

“Pee Wee,” the petty officer said in a needling singsong way, “He’s a shortstop.”

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“Oh . . . ,” Pee Wee Reese said.

Across a brace of nights, Reese lay in a bunk, measuring his circumstances and himself. He’d won the job at short, in the double caldron of two pennant races.

Now the old man [Branch Rickey] had gone and hired a black replacement. The old man didn’t have to do that.

But wait a minute, Reese thought. What the hell did black have to do with it. They’d signed a ballplayer. They’d signed others during the war. White or black, this guy was gonna learn, like Cowboy Bill Hart and Fiddler Ed Basinski, that the war was over now and that the real Dodger shortstop was Pee Wee Reese.

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“Except--except suppose he beats me out? Suppose he does. I go back to Louisville. The people say, ‘Reese, you weren’t man enough to protect your job from a . . . .’ In the bunk only one answer seemed right. Bleep ‘em.

“I don’t know this Robinson,” Reese told himself, “but I can imagine how he feels. I mean, if they said to me, ‘Reese, you got to go over and play in the colored guys’ league,’ how would I feel? Scared. The only white. Lonely. But I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game.

“And that’s how I’ve got to look at Robinson. If he’s man enough to take my job, I’m not going to like it, but damn it, black or white, he deserves it.”

Reese did not speculate on the reactions of other white ballplayers, but before the Navy transport docked in San Francisco, he had made an abiding peace with his own conscience.

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