Fake History Ethics, Baseball Division.

Yesterday was the anniversary of a famous day in baseball and American race relations history. From Nationalpastime.com:

May 13, 1947: During the pregame infield practice, a barrage of racial slurs is directed at Jackie Robinson by the Cincinnati fans during the Dodgers’ first visit to Crosley Field this season. Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky with friends attending the game and captain of the team, engages the black infielder in conversation, and then put his arm around his teammate’s shoulder, a gesture that stuns and silences the crowd.

This  episode in the well-known saga of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball has taken on the status of legend. It is in the (excellent) biopic about Robinson, “42.” It was re-told in Ken Burns’ documentary “Baseball.” Most enduring of all, the moment is memorialized forever in the statue outside Dodger Stadium—well, forever until Robinson or Reese is cancelled because something unforgivable is unearthed in their past, whereupon UCLA students will pull the thing down as progressives cheer.

I’m preparing a program for the Smithsonian Associates on how baseball has influenced American values, culture, politics, language and society, so it is of special interest to me that there is considerable controversy over whether Reese’s mid-game gesture ever happened. Writes much-lauded baseball essayist Joe Posnanski,

“There is no mention at all of the embrace in the newspapers. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that very day that Robinson “was applauded every time he stepped to the plate.” Meanwhile, there is no mention of it in the black press either; Burns insists that the embrace had happened, the black papers “would have done 15 related articles.” There is no photo of it. Robinson’s 1948 book about his first season called “Jackie Robinson: My Own Story” does not mention any such incident….There isn’t a single contemporary account of the embrace in any of the newspapers or magazines.”

Theories abound. The episode happened on a different date. It happened, but not in view of the fans. It is a story that accurately describes what Reese’s support of Robinson—Reese was a white southerner and a team leader, and he and Robinson did become close friends—meant to the black rookie as he battled abuse and racism in that first season of 1947, but there was no literal arm around the shoulder.  Craig Calcaterra, recycling  the controversy yesterday on his NBC blog, theorized,

It’s also worth noting how the popular account, unfortunately, re-centers the story from Jackie Robinson’s bravery to someone else’s — a white someone else’s — bravery. Maybe that’s not a conscious thing necessarily, but it’s a very, very common trope in storytelling to turn stories about people of color into stories about white people coming to the aid of people in color. To insert themselves into a narrative in ways in which make them more prominent than they probably should be I mean, “Greenbook” won best picture last year doing just that. It’s a situation in which something that may have a core of truth to it — Robinson and Reese’s friendship — is made it into something more significant than it was. And it would help explain why, despite there being no account of it occurring as it has been traditionally described, it came to be told in that manner.

Yechh. Craig is a recovering lawyer and an intelligent analyst, but somewhere down the metaphorical road he allowed his peers and colleagues at NBC to turn him into a shrill social justice warrior, and therein jerkdom lies. This is an especially nauseating example. The story centers on a white man’s kind and brave gesture because a white man made a kind and brave gesture to help a teammate under fire. Whaever Reese did, it was a canny  act of Cognitive Dissonance Scale manipulation:

Reese was high on the scale to white fans, especially Dodger fans, and Robinson, a black man breaking tradition and defying segregation, was far lower, below zero on the scale. Reese signaling his support and affection for Robinson would elevate his teammate, but also risked lowering his own status. Nobody has ever tried to make the case that Reese’s generosity and fairness regarding his black compatriot was in any way, shape or form on the same level as Robinson’s towering achievement of trailblazing and character.

My instinctual reaction to Calcaterra’s all too typical analysis is, “Oh, shut up, Craig. Why do progressives today have to turn everything into evidence that whites, men, Christians, Republicans or Americans are secretly out to undermine other groups, even when they are doing something that appears ethical and right? How did you let yourself get this way? Is there anything we can do to fix you? Because, frankly, you and people like you make American life seem gray, nasty, hopeless and mean.

Did “the embrace” really happen? I don’t care. Something happened. Reese signaled his support of Robinson to his team, and eventually to fans: there is no controversy over that. The statue is a symbolic representation of that fact, which was and is important; whether it is an accurate literal portrayal of history is irrelevant.

This isn’t even, as Posnanski suggests, another example of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” motto, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s undisputed that Pee Wee Reese offered support and friendship to Jackie Robinson when it was crucial for a white player to do so. That’s what matters, not whether he did it with an arm on the shoulder, a fanny pat, a hug, a locker room speech, or a kiss on the lips.

7 thoughts on “Fake History Ethics, Baseball Division.

  1. Maureen’s mother met Reese during one of her many outings to Ebbetts Field for “ladies day” when she was still in school. One of her teachers caught her sneaking out of school. “Where are you going, young lady?” “Ladies’ Day.” “Save a seat for me.” Reese and multiple other players autographed their cards for her. Jackie (her name) never really forgave her mother for throwing the cards away when Jackie got married. “You’re not a child anymore”. In any event, what is clear is that Reese supported Robinson and was one of very few who did. When Jackie Robinson died, Pee Wee Reese was a pallbearer., I wonder, Jack, if you — as an ultimate Red Sox fan, put any credence in Brian Cronin’s 2013 contention (ESPN) that sthe incident actually occurred, but in 1948 in Boston. Reese was a 10-time all star and the Dodgers won the pennant 7 tines with him playing shortstop, notwithstanding that he took 3 years off while he served with the Navy in the Pacific. So, star, patriot, and supporter and friend of Jackie Robinson. Anyone knowing much about Reese would necessarily agree with you, Jack: “Who cares” whether that specific feature actually happened. That’s not really the point, is it.

  2. One of those unfortunate times I can’t find a quote: Branch Rickey said something very close to, “Men of character will see the unfairness with which Robinson is being treated, and they will move to him and form a protective cord around him.” The Reese story sounds like an illustration of that principle.

    • A script for a movie called “Branch” contains this from the Rickey character, apparently in context of the Chapman hazing:

      “Fair men. Men of quality will soon
      rebel against the treatment
      Robinson is getting and they’ll do
      something about it. There will be
      an incident, perhaps a small one,
      perhaps something big. But they’ll
      be drawn closer to him and become a
      protective cordon around him.
      You’ll see.”

  3. Jack,
    Speaking of fake baseball history, i seem to remember a story that became fodder for a TV movie about a white player befriending and defending a black player during some pivotal juncture. The white player then later contracted some terminal disease (cancer, maybe?) and died with the (supposed) last words “Can you believe it, Mary (?), can you believe it all?” When, in reality, it was something more like “Can you believe all this shit, Mary?”

    Does that ring bells? The TV movie re-aired years ago and my father recounted the story, but the specifics have since gotten lost to memory.

    Hope you’re well.

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