Pee Wee Reese, the Hall of Fame shortstop and Brooklyn Dodgers captain whose leadership and example helped ease the way for Jackie Robinson to break major league baseball's color barrier, died Saturday. He was 81.
The Los Angeles Dodgers confirmed Reese's death. He died at his home in Louisville, Ky. The cause was not immediately known.
Flags at Dodger Stadium were flown at half-staff for Saturday night's game against Atlanta.
Reese, who overcame prostate cancer years ago, underwent radiation treatment for lung cancer in March 1997 after doctors removed a malignant tumor. He also was recovering from a broken hip at the time.
An eight-time All-Star, Reese sparked the Dodgers to seven National League pennants. He led Brooklyn to its only World Series championship in 1955, fielding the final ball in a 2-0 victory in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.
"He loved the Dodgers, he always respected the Dodgers and the people who owned the Dodgers," pitcher Don Newcombe, who played eight years with Reese, said Saturday night. "The Dodgers were his life."
"He was always a leader and he was sincere and everybody respected him," he said.
Nicknamed "The Little Colonel," the Kentucky native batted .269 in a career that spanned 1940-58 and included the Dodgers' first year in Los Angeles.
But his offensive career totals 126 home runs, 885 RBIs did not begin to measure the value of Harold Henry Reese to the Dodgers, or to baseball.
Known for his calm leadership, sure-handed fielding and clutch hits, Reese played a key role in easing Robinson's road into the majors in 1947.
During one particularly tough time when the abuse was getting ugly at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Reese walked over and put his arm over the rookie's shoulder, a show of unity from a white to a black that spoke volumes.
"I've got a big picture of it, both of us laughing, hanging in my den," Reese said a couple of years ago.
That moment is cited as a turning point in Robinson's transition. Later, Reese and Robinson would play golf and tennis together on the road.
In his 1972 book "The Boys of Summer," author Roger Kahn hailed Reese as a "catalyst of baseball integration" for his friendship with Robinson.
Reese recalled that, hearing that the Dodger organization had hired a black man, he thought, "If he's man enough to take my job, I'm not gonna like it, but, dammit, black or white, he deserves it."
"There were times when I went over to talk to him on the field, thinking that people would see this and figure we were friends and this would help Jack," Reese told Kahn.
Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully recalled that day at Cincinnati after hearing of Reese's death.
"That was a message sent to one and all that a boy from the South puthis arms around a black man and says, `Hey, we're equal, we're teammates, and we're in this thing together.' And that was typical of Pee Wee," Scully said.
"He was the heart and soul of the `Boys of Summer.' If a player needed to be consoled, Pee Wee would console him. If a player needed to be kicked in the fanny, Pee Wee would do that, too. If a player really needed a friend, Pee Wee was there for him," he said.
Reese was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1984. A regular at the induction ceremonies at Cooperstown, N.Y., until recent years, he was not at the shrine three weeks ago for the festivities.
Reese was born on July 23, 1918, on a farm in Meade County and moved to Louisville with his family as a child. He gained his nickname, not because of his size he was listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds but from his prowess at marbles. One year he was the runner-up to the national champion in The Courier-Journal marble tournament.
Reese was first signed by the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in 1937.
Two years later, a group that included Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey purchased the Colonels for $195,000, largely because it wanted Reese's contract. Later that year, the club sold Reese to the Dodgers for the equivalent of $75,000 ($35,000 in cash and four players).
Reese broke into the major leagues in 1940 and displaced Dodgers regular Leo Durocher, beginning a 16-year tenure at shortstop interrupted by a three-year stint in the Navy during World War II.
He led the NL in stolen bases with 30 in 1952 and in runs scored with 132 in 1947. Reese also topped the league in double plays four times and in fielding average (.977 in 1949).
After his baseball career, Reese worked as a broadcaster with CBS, NBC and the Cincinnati Reds. He later became director of the college and professional baseball staff at Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of Louisville Slugger bats.
Reese married Dorothy Walton on March 29, 1942. They had two children, Barbara and Mark.
Funeral arrangements were not to be finalized until Sunday.
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