Number 42 – But Who’s Counting?

Lincoln Terrace Park – Brooklyn, New York

A ten to twelve mile hike – who knew?

As I abruptly dug the hole for my brand spanking new, fifteen gallon Ficus Benjamina tree, I figured it out. Dad had been up to one of his many tricks as we walked and we talked on the way home after a more than glorious day at play together.
In case you’re wondering, I do some of my best thinking when I’m digging a hole to plant a tree. Trees make me smile. Noisy kids don’t, which is probably the reason I do some of my least productive thinking while trying to digest my food in a restaurant where kids are allowed. I also lose concentration when I’m told by an extremely detached waiter, “Yes, you did order it,” when I didn’t.
Like many people, waiters and restaurants annoy me. What runs through my mind in a busy, and therefore noisy, restaurant would not be suitable for print. Years ago, under my Father’s tutelage, I learned how to protect myself from everything except trees. Trees please me.
I know I mentioned my affection for trees earlier on, but since I’m the one writing, and you’re stuck merely as a reader, it becomes my call. In the event I occasionally repeat myself, do the smart thing – don’t read my redundancies.
Everything I guess has its ups and downs, and sometimes even its sideways. I wish I could just say, screw it this is what I’m going to do for the next few weeks, or even a month, or a full day free from interruptions. What follows is a short compilation of a mind going off into abstract land. If you like, take my tribulations seriously; if not its only one paragraph out of a lifetime of disorder. Read on for more semi insanity; after all isn’t that what life is all about?
(By now, your seething has subsided and I can carry on undisturbed by what you may be thinking.)
Dad always took great pride in having a son who was an athlete. See, we weren’t just dedicated to criticizing everything we came in contact with – I was a reflection and presented him with a great possibility. I’d be the family member who made it as a baseball player. If you think it’s tough making it to the top as a professional ballplayer in today’s marketplace, think again. Tough is what the aspiring immigrant Major Leaguers faced.
In 1927, the year Babe Ruth held the number one spot as the home run hitter of all time, there were only sixteen major league teams – eight in both the American and National League. Today, there are a total of thirty. The population of the United States tripled during my Father’s lifetime. More people in our country and almost every place in the world, made the competition for a spot on a Major League baseball team an incredible personal challenge. In other words, it wasn’t easy.
But, if you want to try on a tough shot, examine this one. When my Dad took me to Ebbets Field, in the borough of Brooklyn, I became privy to one of the most auspicious occasions I would witness in my lifetime. That day would stand-alone as a tribute to the perseverance of a human being.
The number on his back was 42.
Can you possibly imagine what his heartbeat was thumping out?
My Father had this gentle and prideful look on his face as we watched the game together. Dad had far more the intellect than the average man. He knew what was taking place. The thought of him sharing it with his son would remain his ongoing life’s emblem of success. Without words, he allowed me to drink in this epic. He understood the change that was taking place, not just at a ballpark but the change that would create the architecture for us as Americans for the rest of our lives. Jackie Robinson was far more than a baseball player making a team. He was a man on a road of such enormous magnitude, not even he could fathom it all until much later in his life. 
Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, Jackie Robinson & Preacher Roe
Sixty-six years ago, Jackie Robinson played his first game at Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
I can’t truthfully record the exact date that I watched him play for the first time. But, what I do remember vividly was the aura of a very special human being.
It was a night game. The Dodger’s were clad in the whitest satin uniforms you could imagine. My Dad and I made our way up the steel ramp towards the general admission seats; it was well in advance of game starting time. I had never seen that many people come to a game that early. When I caught sight of the field, I understood why they arrived early.
The Dodger’s were busily taking batting practice. Gladys Gooding kept a continuous flow of organ music as an upbeat background for the activities taking place in every nook and cranny of the park. From the moment my Dad raised his full height of 5 feet and one and a half inches straight up into the air to allow his extremely dexterous left hand to snatch a foul pop up off the bat of Pee Wee Reese, my second hero was instantly established. From then on it was Pee Wee Reese, the “Little Colonel,” the Dodger Short Stop who shared top billing with my Father for hero worship.
The so-called insiders were talking about how Robinson would never be able to handle the pressure of being the fist black man in the Major Leagues. All of my buddies shared what they had heard their Dads talking about at home. 
Brooklyn Dodgers V.P. EJ “Buzzie” Bavasi & Dodgers Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, Jackie Robinson & Roy Campanella
Get this picture, if you can. Most of the fans that frequented Major League baseball games had never even seen a black guy play the game, let alone in a Major League uniform.
“I used to tell Jackie (Robinson) sometimes when they were throwing at him, ‘Jackie, they aren’t throwing at you because you are black. They are throwing at you because they don’t like you.” – Pee Wee Reese 
My Father was one of those people who would be classified as a true baseball nut. Along with Dad, we lived and breathed in every aspect of the baseball season. Morning, noon, and night, 24/7, we shared an unabashed love for the sport. When the Dodgers were playing away from home, “on the road” as they referred to it, my Father and I would attend Minor League, and Semi Pro games all around Brooklyn and the far outreaches of the other New York boroughs. The advantage we had by going to the Minor League, and/or Industrial League baseball games was that they were all played at much smaller venues, which meant we were always really close to the players on the field. Even though I might have been a kid, I had a far greater understanding of what black athletes were capable of achieving because of my Dad.
Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey
So, when the time came for me to see Jackie Robinson play, my Father and I weren’t the least bit surprised at how skillful the man was. What I wasn’t aware of and what I was about to find out, like so many other Americans, was a simply stated fact of life. Jackie Robinson was so much more than a dominant baseball player. Branch Rickey wasn’t guessing. All that Mr. Rickey had explained to his confidants was going to come to pass and, not just in baseball. Jackie Robinson would arguably become one of our country’s greatest assets.
Of all the great things I will always remember about Jackie Robinson’s prowess as an athlete, they remain a step or so behind Harold “Pee Wee” Reese’s wordless response to the hatred directed at Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson & Harold “Pee Wee” Reese
“I was warming up on the mound, and I could hear the Cincinnati players screaming at Jackie… and then they started to get on Pee Wee. They were yelling at him, ‘How can you play with this n—-r?’ and all this stuff, and while Jackie was standing by first base, Pee Wee went over to him and put his arm around him as if to say, ‘This is my boy. This is the guy. We’re gonna win with him.’ Well, it drove the Cincinnati players right through the ceiling, and you could have heard the gasp from the crowd as he did it. That’s one reason Pee Wee was such an instrumental person contributing to Jackie’s success, Pee Wee more than anyone else, because Pee Wee was from the South. Pee Wee understood things a little better… They became very close friends, and they understood each other.” – Teammate / Pitcher Rex Barney 
This was an era of nastiness, a time when vile people became courageous with the crowds around them. The N word was used as a common matter of course. Make no mistake, racism wasn’t a product of our southern states exclusively, the north was also an equal opportunity vender of the vile.
Could you possibly imagine what would happen today if a fan blatantly encouraged his team’s pitcher to “Knock the N—-r on his ass”?
What followed, was exactly what that degenerate fan asked him to do. But, it never stopped Jackie Robinson. I was there. I experienced the man taking it on the chin and then going on to lead his team to victory. 
“Thinking about the things that happened, I don’t know any other ball player would could have done what he (Jackie Robinson) did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour and he’s got a split second to make up his mind if it’s in or out or down or coming at his head, a split second to swing. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.” -Pee Wee Reese
Jackie played well when he was mad.
It had been another of those fabulous Saturdays. Lincoln Terrace Park had been spectacular, jammed to the hilt with kids from Brooklyn. At this point, most of the men in the war had returned, maybe explaining the number of people in the park. Dad and I had competed with the world and were now on our way home, after first stopping at the malt shop, of course. By this time of day, I was tired and schlepping along. Once seated at the malt shop, my Dad asked, “The Dodgers are off the road this coming week, how would you like to see Jackie?”
Can you guess my answer?
The Jackie Robinson & Pee Wee Reese Monument outside KeySpan Park, Brooklyn, NY capturing the moment in May 1947, when Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie on Cincinnati’s field to show is support of his fellow Dodger – the first African American ballplayer in the Major Leagues.

Writer’s Note: To this day, Pee Wee’s picture hangs in a place of honor in my library.

One Comment

  1. ohhhhhhhhhhh, what a great recollection… i was there all the way with ya'… what a monumental memory, beautifully detailed…

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