When Hollywood tells you a movie is "based on a true story," that means you're about to eat popcorn while watching lies. The Jackie Robinson movie,"42," begins with those words on the screen. OK, I buy in. I know nuance runs second to amped-up drama in big-budget movies. Still, let's talk about one scene.
During a game in Cincinnati, when Robinson is the target of racist harangues from the box seats, Pee Wee Reese walks across the infield grass. He walks slowly. The music suggests suspense. Reese walks from shortstop to first base. There he hangs an arm over Robinson's shoulders. They chat, the white man from Kentucky and the black man born in Georgia. Reese is smiling, laughing. Robinson's face shows confusion slowly reshaping itself into contentment. The music rises to let us know This Is The Drama, Folks.
What a moment.
Long before the movie, people raised money to immortalize the moment in bronze. At Brooklyn's minor league ballpark, a heroic statue shows Reese with his arm over Robinson's shoulders.
The moment was brave, caring, even sweet.
Except, most likely, it never happened.
At the time and in their retirements, Robinson and Reese never mentioned an embrace. There is no photograph of such a moment, and no teammate ever described it.
Still, something happened. Of that, there's no doubt. In 2005, at the unveiling of the Brooklyn statue, Robinson's wife, Rachel, told Ira Berkow of The New York Times, "I remember Jackie talking about Pee Wee's gesture the day it happened. It came as such a relief to him, that a teammate and the captain of the team would go out of his way in such a public fashion to express friendship."
In Arnold Rampersad's biography, "Jackie Robinson," Robinson recalled a moment but not an embrace: "Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of helpless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while. He didn't say a word, but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that."
In 1997 Reese told the Times, "Something in my gut reacted at the moment. Something about what? The unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don't know."
Whatever happened, maybe it happened in Cincinnati, maybe in Boston. It could have happened anywhere in the late 1940s when Jim Crow laws and customs divided Americans. In "42," it happens at Cincinnati's Crosley Field in 1947. Reese, portrayed as a Southern innocent, if not a yokel, complains to the Dodgers' boss, Branch Rickey, about a letter threatening him if he plays alongside Robinson. Rickey trumps that single letter with hundreds addressed to Robinson. Thus instructed, Reese realizes the burden that Robinson has carried alone through that season. So, hearing the Crosley Field racists, Reese crosses the infield to Robinson. The crowd is rendered silent.
OK, it's a movie, not a documentary, and the legend of that moment is inspiring. But some of us are satisfied with life's real drama, however quiet it may be. We prefer the real Pee Wee Reese.
Harold (Pee Wee) Reese was no innocent. He had grown up in a border state that thought of itself as gateway to the South. The first Saturday in May, before the Kentucky Derby, the assembled thousands sang the official state song, "My Old Kentucky Home," with its lyrics assuring everyone that the "darkies are gay." Before Robinson's debut in 1947, Reese already had been the National League's All-Star shortstop. He had returned to the Dodgers in '46 after three years in the Navy during World War II. At age 28, Reese didn't need Mr. Rickey (or Harrison Ford) to tell him about the world.
Reese's son, Mark, told Berkow, "My father had done his own soul-searching, and he knew that some fans, teammates, and, yes, some family members, didn't want him to play with a black man. But my father listened to his heart, and not to the chorus."
Reese had been the shortstop of a boy's dreams. I stayed home from school to see the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series (with Reese relaying a throw from Sandy Amoros in the left field corner to Gil Hodges at first base to double up Gil McDougald and defuse a Yankees' sixth-inning threat in Game 7). As a young reporter in Louisville, I came to know Reese in his retirement. In 1997, working on a column about the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut, I called Reese, then 78 years old.
"Aw, no," he said. "You know the Jackie stories better than I do by now."
"But, Pee Wee, I need your voice," I said.
"Just don't make me out to be a hero," Reese said. "It took no courage to do what I did. Jackie had the courage. If it had been me, a white man, trying to be the only one in the black leagues, I couldn't have done it. What he had to endure, the criticism, the catcalls -- I wouldn't have had the courage."
He also told me a story with no Hollywood in it, only baseball. It's what a shortstop says to his second baseman, especially if one's black and the other's white and it's the late '40s in Jim Crow's South. The story speaks to Reese's poise, wit and, yes, courage. It's why the Dodgers made him their captain and why, decades later, friends called him The Captain.
It happened in Atlanta in 1947. A letter had come to Robinson with a promise that the Ku Klux Klan would kill him if he showed up in that city's Ponce de Leon Park. That night, as the Dodgers warmed up, Robinson and Reese threw alongside each other. Reese looked at Robinson and said, "Damn, Jackie, get the hell away from me, will you? The guy might be a bad shot."
They laughed and went on warming up.
That would make a nice statue, too.