In Carl Erskine’s “Tales from the Dodger Dugout: Extra Innings,” pitcher Carl Erskine wrote of his teammate, “Possibly the most popular player in Dodger history is Harold ‘Pee Wee’ Reese. Even his nickname is magic, especially to youngsters.”
The nickname does have a sense of wonder to it. Even though it was well after Reese’s playing days were over, that impression came to me as a youngster after seeing the name with three double e’s across the top of my father’s 1958 Topps Pee Wee Reese card. After expressing interest, my dad gave the card to me. As any collector would understand, it became my favorite.
I grew to further appreciate the card, which is Reese’s final card and the one with “L.A.” on his hat instead of the usual Brooklyn “B,” after learning more about Pee Wee’s career. Reese is perhaps best known for his friendship with Jackie Robinson as No. 42 endured breaking baseball’s color barrier.
Reese was the Dodger Captain, a listening ear and calming presence when troubles arose on the team. He was “always the gentleman,” Erskine wrote, and “whenever the manager wanted a player’s input, he would always go to Pee Wee first.”
Reese was not admired just by teammates. The back of his ’53 Bowman card says that “Pee Wee is one of the most popular and respected players in baseball.” And the ’58 Topps card reads, “He is one of the most popular players ever to wear a big-league uniform.”
Of course, Reese’s card backs also say a little about him as a player. Just as the shortstop’s career was about to wind down, his ’57 Topps card notes, “Pee Wee has been the Dodger’s sparkplug for 15 years. He’s one of the finest fielders and timeliest hitters in baseball.” The ’58 Topps says, “Since he forced Leo Durocher to the sidelines in 1941, Pee Wee has become one of the game’s all-time great shortstops.”
THE BABE OF MARBLES
Durocher, the player-manager, knew he had something special when Reese first joined the Dodgers.
“What I got in this young feller is the Babe Ruth of marbles,” Durocher said, as quoted by Roger Kahn in his book “The Era, 1947-1957.”
“On our ballclub, he’s a rookie. In the world of marbles, he’s an old man.” (According to a 1949 New York Times article, Reese was once presented with a bag of marbles at a team banquet and impressed Durocher with his skills when a game started up on the floor).
We get a glimpse of Pee Wee’s marbles skills on the back of his ’58 card, where there is a cartoon of two boys battling it out around a marbles ring. The caption states that Reese’s nickname comes from his childhood marble-shooting days.
Indeed, the name Pee Wee Reese does have a “ring” to it: three of Reese’s five Topps cards mention marbles, as does one Bowman. Reese’s ’52 Topps and ’54 Bowman both call him a former marble champ, and a comic panel on the back of his ’56 Topps card even says the Pee Wee nickname comes from being a national champ.
Reese, who died in 1999, talked about the nickname with Radio Baseball Cards, which in 1987 aired across the nation prior to baseball broadcasts. Reese explained that a pee wee “was a small marble they used in tournament play, and they used to have a lot of tournaments when I was a kid.”
Pee Wee, however, did not get as far as the national finals. “I was beaten in the state finals of Kentucky,” he told Radio Baseball Cards.
“But I won a pair of tennis shoes,” Reese added with a laugh. “You know what, that was pretty big at 12 years old when I grew up in the Depression. If you had won a pair of tennis shoes, you felt like you won something big. It did mean something.”
The tournament Reese spoke of was a local Louisville contest which, according to the May 21, 1933 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal, spanned over five weeks with participants from no less than 80 schools. The finals of this contest were held at Louisville’s Central Park, and Harold Reese (14 at the time) is mentioned in the newspaper article as tying for second. The winner, 13-year-old Bobby Minton, proceeded to a Western regional meet in Chicago, where he would compete for an opportunity to play for national honors in New Jersey.
Unlike today, marbles were all the rage when Reese was growing up.
“It was something to do when the kids didn’t have television to watch,” Pee Wee said. “You’re out in the park. You’re out in the backyard. We had no grass in our yard (because of) guys playing marbles.” (Photo: Use Reese marbles photo here. Cutline: Pee Wee Reese with the 1951 marble champ. Photo Credit: “The Pee Wee Reese Story”/Wide World Photos)
Although Harold Reese did not make it to the national finals, marbles historian Stan Flewelling guessed that at least 5,000 competed in the Louisville contest alone.
“That’s still pretty good in Louisville,” Flewelling said of Reese’s second-place results. “So, he would have had his moments of fame from that.
“It probably stayed with him, and anybody else who made an accomplishment like that. They probably just reminisced about that for a lifetime, because it was a big deal for the kids, being as young as they were.”
Kids from all walks of life competed. “Major cities had their 80 or 100 schools and playgrounds, and in each of the schools and playgrounds there were dozens of kids trying to win that local tournament,” Flewelling said.
Flewelling wrote an interesting article titled “Kings (and Queens) of the Ring: Early Days of the US National Marbles Tournament,” which can be found on the website of The Museum of American Glass in West Virginia (magwv.com). One discovery noted in the article is that the national contest “was integrated a quarter-century before Jackie Robinson’s famous debut with the Dodgers.”
‘THE LITTLE COLONEL’
So, when did baseball become the game of Jackie Robinson’s double play partner? The way that author Gene Schoor describes it, young Harold Reese was the smallest kid who was picked last in the sandlot games and immediately sent out to patrol some overgrown area in the outfield. It was in Reese’s other sport where he was taken seriously.
“Oh, oh, here comes Harold. We’re sunk now,” grumble the boys gathered around a marbles ring in Schoor’s 1956 book “The Pee Wee Reese Story.”
In fact, Reese was not even a standout on his high school baseball team and played in just a handful of games his senior year. But after graduation he put on muscle by climbing up and down telephone poles, learning how to be a cable splicer. He shined in the infield for the New Covenant Presbyterian Church team, leading the team to a city championship. Then he became a star with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association and was dubbed “The Little Colonel.”
Reese became property of the Boston Red Sox when Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, with others, purchased the Colonels. The prize of the Colonels was the Little Colonel. But the incumbent Boston shortstop, player-manager Joe Cronin, was able to keep his spot on the field as Reese was soon sold to the lowly Brooklyn Dodgers.
But with Pee Wee, who wore uniform No. 1, Brooklyn became a regular in the World Series. Reese hit .269 with 126 home runs, 885 RBI and 232 stolen bases in 16 seasons in Brooklyn, leading the Dodgers to seven World Series appearances, including a World Championship in 1955. He hit .272 in seven postseason appearances.
His contributions were often not captured by the box score. “Intangible qualities of subtle leadership on and off field” is how Reese’s Hall of Fame plaque puts it.
He was called a colonel, a captain, and even the Babe Ruth of marbles. But I still think the name across the top of his ’58 Topps, Pee Wee Reese, is the one with the most “magic” to it. Sure, that nickname may have come from marbles, but where it looks best is on the front of a baseball card.
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PEE WEE’S MARBLES
A look at recent online sales of Reese’s “marbles cards,” or cards that mention his marbles game.
1952 Topps: $1,814 (PSA 4); $1,845 (PSA 6)
1954 Bowman: $84 (PSA 4); $79 (BGS 5.5)
1956 Topps: $118 (PSA 5); $77 (SGC 4.5)
1958 Topps: $60 (PSA 5); $75 (SGC 7)