In 1939, the Boston Red Sox were searching for a shortstop prospect who could replace the Sox’s star shortstop Joe Cronin, who was in the twilight of his playing days — and the Louisville Colonels, a Triple A minor league club, had just the player Boston thought it needed: 19-year-old Harold “Pee Wee” Reese.
The only problem was Reese was under contract to Louisville and pretty much the franchise’s only marketable asset. He wouldn’t come cheap.
Reese, a hometown Louisville lad nicknamed “Pee Wee” after the shooting marble, was born in Ekron, Ky., but he grew up in Louisville, where he had starred at Manual High before signing with Louisville. In his first pro season, Reese had torn up the base paths, whacking hits to all fields, followed up with steals.
He turned singles into doubles, doubles into triples — and was an outstanding glove man at his position. Teammates dubbed Reese the “Little Colonel,” and the newspapers picked it up.
Suddenly, Reese had two nicknames — and a lot of scouting eyes watching his every move at Louisville’s Parkway Field.
Boston owner Tom Yawkey didn’t wish to take any chances losing out on Reese, so instead of dickering with Louisville owner Cap Neal for the rights to Reese (who was earning $200 a month), the Red Sox simply bought the entire Louisville team for $195,000 — lock, stock … and star shortstop.
Yawkey made the mistake of sending Cronin, the player-manager of the club, to assess his would-be replacement. And Cronin, perhaps not quite ready to hand over his spot on the Red Sox roster, returned with a less than glowing report on young Pee Wee Reese. Whereupon the Red Sox sold Reese’s contract to the Brooklyn Dodgers for $75,000.
And that, as they say, was the start of Pee Wee Reese’s Hall of Fame career — a life in baseball and beyond that folks are still celebrating — including Saturday, July 28, at Slugger Field, when the Louisville Bats will honor the late Reese on what would be his 100th birthday weekend.
Also honored will be Reese’s famous Dodger teammate Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier. Both Reese’s uniform No. 1 and Robinson’s No. 42 will be permanently retired. Every major league club has retired Robinson’s number. Louisville thought it was time its club did, too, and Pee Wee, too.
The new old Louisville Colonels
One reason Reese and Robinson are forever paired is Reese befriended Robinson in his first season. Robinson was subjected to terrible abuse at National League ballparks and even endured estrangement by some of his own Dodger teammates.
But Reese, who was adored by Brooklyn fans, chose a rough moment to walk across the diamond to put his around Robinson’s shoulders — a symbolic embrace that went a long way toward welcoming Robinson and African-American players into baseball.
On Friday and Saturday night, July 27-28, the Bats will wear replicas of Louisville Colonels uniforms. The Louisville franchise dates to 1875, when Louisville was a founding member of the National League. The club played as the Louisville Colonels from 1902-62 and 1968-72.
The first 2,000 fans at the ballpark Friday night (game time is 7 p.m., gates open at 6) receive a Colonels replica hat.
Saturday night (game time is 6:30 p.m., gates open at 5), the first 2,000 will receive a replica of Pee Wee Reese’s statue that stands outside the park at the Main Street entrance. It’s a wonderful action-depiction of Reese throwing to first, legs up to avoid the spikes of a sliding runner. The bronze statue was created by Louisville sculptor Raymond Graf.
Days in Dodger Blue
What happened when Brooklyn snagged him from Boston?
Well, Dodgers shortstop Leo Durocher was also the player manager of his team. But Leo the Lip was sharper than Joe Cronin every day of the week.
The first day, Durocher pulled himself out of the lineup and installed Reese. Brooklyn won seven pennants with Reese at shortstop, and the Little Colonel regularly ranked right at the top of the league in stolen bases and runs scored.
In a memorable seven-game World Series in 1955, Brooklyn beat the hated crosstown rival New York Yankees. It was Brooklyn’s first World Championship.
Besides Robinson, Reese played with Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and other stars in a strong lineup for Brooklyn. In his final season, as Brooklyn moved to Los Angeles, Reese welcomed star pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax to the Dodgers. A lot of talent around Reese, and he fit right in with it. Some fit in because of him.
After retiring, Reese joined Dizzy Dean in the NBC-TV broadcast booth. This was an era when there was just one baseball game nationally telecast each week, on Saturday afternoon. Reese was Diz’s “Podner” to millions of baseball fans.
Reese later served as an executive with Hillerich and Bradsby, the Louisville Slugger bat and golf clubs company, and was always around baseball’s clubhouses.
Among Reese’s many, many charitable credits is founding the Celebrity Dinner Party to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The event, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, is now hosted by Denny Crum.
Bats on a binge!
Meanwhile, the present-day Louisville team, which has dwelt in the International League cellar the entire season, has suddenly risen from its baseball grave to win nine straight games — through Wednesday night, including its first three games against the Buffalo Bisons in its current home stand.
The Bats (43-55) remain home through Sunday night, with Buffalo followed in on Friday by the Rochester Red Wings.
What’s turned the Bats around?
Good pitching always helps, and starter Robert Stephenson (10-6) won his fifth game in a row with a 4-0 shutout of Buffalo in the first game Tuesday. Then the Bats’ bullpen grabbed a 4-3 victory in the nightcap, with Kevin Quakenbush earning his 16th save of the season. Quakenbush has a 2.23 ERA, while fellow reliever Tanner Rainey’s ERA is 1.33.
The Bats get solid offense from Mason Williams, D.J. Peterson, Chad Tromp and Gabe Guerrero all hitting better than .275.
It’s not Murderers Row, but the Bats now seem able to put up some runs.