The recent announcement that a statue of Camden native Larry Doby (along with Bernard Baruch) will grace the grounds of the Camden Archives and Museum came soon after the death of Duke Snider, one of the great baseball players of all time and one of the “Boys of Summer” as immortalized in the book by Roger Kahn.
Snider was a Dodger -- a Brooklyn Dodger before owner Walter O’Malley upped and moved the team from Flatbush to Los Angeles -- and during the 1950s one of the three outstanding New York centerfielders who were the subject of baseball’s most intense conversation of the time: “Who’s better -- Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?”
So there was baseball news and statue news, and it brought back memories of another baseball statue involving two of Snider’s teammates. Since both Doby and Jackie Robinson made baseball history, there’s a local connection here.
I told you about this several years ago, and I hope you don’t mind if I refresh the story, which involves a statue erected in 2006 outside Keyspan Park, home of the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones.
It depicts a turning point in baseball’s history -- the day entrenched all-star Pee Wee Reese, a white Kentuckian, draped his arm over the shoulder of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the Major Leagues, and in so doing signaled to the world that a new day had arrived.
It was 1947 and Reese, a Brooklyn Dodger, was one of the brightest lights on a team that a dozen years later would break the hearts of its loyal fans by heading west to Los Angeles.
Robinson had been hand-picked by Dodger general manager Branch Rickey to break the color line in big-league baseball, and in the early weeks of the new season, he’d been forced to endure insult upon insult from fans who preferred baseball the way it had been -- lily white.
As Ed Shakespeare of The Brooklyn Papers wrote, the Dodgers had just arrived in Cincinnati to start a series after a stop in Philadelphia where Ben Chapman, the Phillies’ manager, had viciously berated Robinson with despicable racist venom.
And now, early in May, fans in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field were lobbing insults and taunts at the Brooklyn first baseman. Over the past month, Robinson had been the victim of innumerable death threats, some of them naming the inning in which a grandstand sniper would supposedly pick him off.
In the midst of the epithets raining down from the stands, Reese left his position at shortstop -- he was one of the league’s most popular and respected players, and this was in the day when baseball was still <start ital> the <end ital> game -- and crossed the diamond to where Robinson stood near first base.
Reese slowly placed his arm around Robinson’s shoulder, and though no words were spoken, the gesture was at once immense and startling.
It is that moment the statue captures, and as Ed Shakespeare wrote, it certainly wasn’t an easy thing for Reese to do. The Kentuckian had himself felt the pressure to make this whole integration thing go away from friends, family members and teammates.
But Reese was captain of the team, and crossing that diamond was his way to show the world he would not join the hatred.
In the statue, and as Shakespeare told it, the two men are not looking at each other, despite their physical proximity. Instead, they appear to be peering either at the dugouts or into the stands, where a thoughtful silence was enveloping those who had been taunting Robinson.
Both men are dead now, Robinson having succumbed to the ravages of diabetes in 1972 and Reese having died in 1999. In his biography, Robinson was quoted as recalling the incident like this:
“Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of helpless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for awhile. He didn’t say a word, but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that.”
And decades later, Reese would tell the New York Times, “Something in my gut reacted at the moment. Something about what? The unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don’t know.”
Reese’s son, Mark, would later say, “My father had done his own soul searching, and he knew that many didn’t want him to play with a black man. But my father listened to his heart, and not to the chorus.”
As the Cyclones’ season starts in Keyspan Park this June, fans won’t find the Dodgers there, of course; they long ago fled Brooklyn for the more profitable environs of Los Angeles.
But just as Camden’s statue will recall Doby, the statue of Reese and Robinson will stand as a permanent monument to two of the greatest Dodgers ever -- and to the undying concept of the brotherhood of man.