Virtual Voices

Traveling down the hero's road

Sports

Finding heroes can be as easy as driving down the road-if you pay attention to what road you're on.

I have five tickets and four sons, and tonight we'll be in Cincinnati cheering on our beloved St. Louis Cardinals as they battle the Reds for first place in their division. Since we'll all be wearing "Pujols" on our backs, we sincerely hope the hometown crowd will show some hospitality to guests of a different stripe. After all, fans have not always been inclined to be so kind.

It was on this date in 1947 that Cincinnati fans spewed verbal venom at Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major league baseball player in the modern era. It wasn't Robinson's first such encounter, but repeated exposure to hatred does not lessen its unpleasantness.

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That is when, according to history, legend, and lore, Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese walked across the diamond and put his arm around second-baseman Robinson's shoulder. The gesture stunned into silence some folks in the stands. Others catcalled even more, now adding Reese as an object of their scorn. In this simple, yet courageous act of defiance, Reese the Southerner showed his solidarity with Robinson.

In fact, Reese put his arm of friendship around Robinson so early and often in those difficult early years baseball historians say it's hard to prove exactly when it first occurred. Such is the nature of a heroic life. Individual acts of heroism, when repeated often, are blended together into the larger narrative of a hero's life.

For over a year, I drove down a road in Louisville, Ky., with a funny name, and I didn't think much of it. Who cares what they name the streets, as long as they keep the potholes fixed, right?

Then one day, my sons asked me about "Pee Wee Reese Road."

We Googled it and discovered the basic "famous baseball player from our city" facts of the story.

"Does Louisville name a street for everyone who gets to the major leagues?" they asked.

Good question. I grabbed a list of baseball's Hall of Famers and found Reese's name. There was my answer: "Not everyone, but Reese is in Cooperstown."

Additional questions began stacking up: "How good was he?" "Did he get into the Hall on the first ballot?" "What's he famous for?"

Together, we searched through baseball books and found the answers.

Reese helped lead the Dodgers to seven World Series, but lost six of them to the New York Yankees. He hit .269 and collected 2,170 hits, smacked 126 home runs, and drove in 885 runs over a 16-year career of 2,166 games. These are decent numbers, but nothing spectacular. Of course, Reese gave up three prime years of his youth (ages 24-26) when he enlisted in the Navy and served his country in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

After Reese retired from baseball in 1958, he failed to receive the votes needed for entrance into the Hall of Fame, but the Veteran's Committee enshrined him in 1984. He died in 1999, leaving behind a widow to whom he had been married for 57 years.

But there is something more at play in the Harold Henry "Pee Wee" Reese narrative than batting and fielding percentages. Many players far more accomplished than Reese are without a plaque in Cooperstown or a hometown street named in their honor. Reese earned this acclaim because, when given the opportunity to do the right thing at the right time, he did.

I live a mile from where Reese is buried. The epitaph on his tombstone closes with these words: "He eased the acceptance of baseball's first black player into the major leagues. He was a loved and gentle man."

The highway is jammed with broken heroes. No worries, though-I'm taking the Pee Wee Reese Road.

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