Jackie and Pee Wee: An Embrace Against Racism
By F. R. |
Brooklyn, New York is home to one of New York City’s most iconic locations, Coney Island. On Coney Island, you find attractions such as the Coney Island Beach and Boardwalk, the New York Aquarium, Luna Park, the Cyclone rollercoaster and the original Nathan’s Famous. If you walk down Surf Avenue, past these famous attractions, you will reach MCU Park, a baseball stadium and home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Minor League baseball team. Standing near the stadium entrance, accessible to everyone, even those not attending a game, is the Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese Monument, a bronze and granite statue sculpted in November 2005 honoring the late great baseball players. Pulitzer Prize winning sports writer Ira Berkow observes, “the statue captures a significant moment that is much remembered” (NYTimes). The moment captured is Pee Wee Reese’s embrace of Jackie Robinson, in 1947, on Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. At the base of the statue are brief biographies of both Robinson and Reese, as well as a description of their embrace, and its impact on racial tensions in the game. The recent film 42, named for the jersey number Robinson wore, tells the story of the events leading up to their historic hug.
Released in 2013, 42 is a biographical depiction of Jackie Robinson’s historical journey from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues. In the 1947 season, Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. The team he played for was the Brooklyn Dodgers, which makes the Coney Island section of Brooklyn an ideal location for a monument honoring him and his teammate and friend, Pee Wee Reese. In the film’s opening scene, it is 1945. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, announces his intention to break one of baseball’s unwritten rules by signing an African-American baseball player. After researching many Negro League players, Rickey decides to sign Jackie Robinson, citing his young age, military service and collegiate background.
Initially, Jackie Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, is rejected by coaches, fans, opponents and teammates simply because he is African-American. He is repeatedly threatened, berated with the N-word along with other derogatory chants by opponents and fans, and is intentionally thrown at by opposing pitchers. Amid all the abuse, Jackie Robinson never retaliated, claiming all he wanted to do was play ball. He also never allowed the abuse to affect his play on the field. He quickly became one of the best players on the Brooklyn Dodgers and led them to the National League pennant. With time, his resilience won over the sympathy of his teammates, the same teammates who had signed a petition in protest of playing alongside him. While most teammates disliked Robinson simply because he was African-American, Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black, only cared about Robinson’s baseball skills. In an act of camaraderie, Reese placed his arm on Jackie’s shoulder in front of a packed stadium of loud disapproving fans and reassured him “we’re just here to play ball.” This act of interracial unity and understanding is the inspiration behind the Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese Monument.
42 is not simply a Jackie Robinson biopic; it is also a great representation of the African-American ascent into Major League Baseball and a precursor to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1947, Robinson’s first year in the Major Leagues, segregation was still in effect. The film does a great job providing historical context to the struggles African-Americans faced in segregated America. While it has all this to recommend it, 42 does not delve deeply into the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. On July 17, 1977, Reese wrote an article for the New York Times, reflecting on his first impressions and eventual friendship with Robinson. After initially not thinking much of Robinson, Reese grew to admire, respect, and understand the huge social impact Robinson would have not only in baseball, but throughout America. He writes, “He was a great friend, a great baseball player and a great influence on our lives.”
Although the Brooklyn Dodgers have long since relocated and are now the Los Angeles Dodgers, I feel the monument is right at home in Brooklyn. Baseball is “America’s pastime” and Jackie Robinson is an everlasting civil rights advocate within the game. The jersey number he wore, 42, has been retired by every Major League Baseball team, meaning it can never worn again by anyone except on April 15, the anniversary of his Major League debut. On this day, every player wears 42 in honor of Robinson. The Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese Monument states, “In the face of hostility, he remained steadfast, winning his way into the Hall of Fame and the hearts of baseball fans. Robinson was a champion of the game of baseball, of justice and of civil rights.” With New York City’s rich baseball history, I feel it is only befitting there be a monument paying homage to him, here, in the city he made history in.
Berkow, Ira. “Two Men Who Did the Right Thing.” The New York Times 2 November 2005. Web.
Helgeland, Brian, dir. 42. Warner Bros. Pictures, DVD 2013.
Reese, Pee Wee. “What Jackie Robinson Meant to an Old Friend.” The New York Times 17 July 1977. Print.