There have been many iconic moments throughout the storied history of baseball. Every team has their collection of defining moments, immortalized in photos hung on the walls of stadiums across the nation. And then there are those transcendent plays that everyone knows, like when Babe Ruth pointed to a spot in the bleachers, calling his shot perfectly — a move that’s often imitated, but rarely ever repeated.
But fans of baseball know that the top two moments are universal and unrivaled: The greatest moment was when Jackie Robinson took his first step over the white chalk and entered the Major Leagues. The crowds heckled Robinson, game after game, until the Dodgers’ team captain, Pee Wee Reese, was fed up — which led to the second greatest moment: Reese placed his arm around Robinson, sending a message of friendship into the stands, silencing the jeers.
But their story didn’t begin on the diamond. It began when both Army 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson and Navy Chief Petty Officer Harold “Pee Wee” Reese served their country during World War II.
Reese had a fairly light military career compared to most. Before he enlisted, he’d already made a name for himself in the baseball world. In 1940, during his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he hit a grand slam against the New York Giants in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. He went on to play in the World Series in ’41 against the Yankees, but his team got swept, losing all four games. He gained national recognition when he made the ’42 All-Star Team. He missed the next three seasons as he signed up to take to fighting in WWII as a U.S. Navy Seabee.
But he never got the chance to see combat. Despite his constant petitions, Pee Wee Reese was stuck playing for the U.S. Navy’s baseball team, which, as you can imagine, was mostly for recruitment purposes. While he was playing in Guam, Reese learned that a black baseball player — Jackie Robinson — had been signed by the Dodgers, and was up for his old shortstop position.
This bothered Reese — and not because of Robinson’s race. In fact, others were mad at him for refusing to let race be a concern of his when evaluating a purely baseball decision. In response to critics, he said,
“If he’s man enough to take my job, I’m not gonna like it, but, dammit, black or white, he deserves it.”
Your wartime experience may differ.
Robinson didn’t enjoy the same luxuries while in the Army. Previously, he had attended UCLA and became the school’s first athlete to win a varsity letter in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track and field. He used this to apply for OCS, knowing that the Army had just changed the OCS guidelines to be race neutral — but it still wasn’t easy.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Robinson was placed in a segregated Army cavalry unit at Fort Riley. It was through a friendship with fellow OCS candidate, the professional boxer who KO’ed Nazi Germany’s favorite fighter in the first round, Joe Louis, that both men were allowed to attend OCS.
His career was unceremoniously cut short after an entirely one-sided court martial was levied against him. Even though Robinson was a commissioned officer of the United States Army and segregation on military buses was banned, the MPs arrested him after he refused to give up his seat when he was taking his friend’s wife to the hospital.
He put up no fight but was cuffed, shackled, and strapped to a hospital bed because they believed he was “intoxicated.” He wasn’t. The charges he faced were slowly dropped before his court-martial. He was narrowly acquitted. Despite this, he was sent to Camp Breckinridge, KY, as his former unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, was deployed. It was the first black tank unit to see combat in WWII. Instead of seeing action, he was quietly mustered out with an honorable discharge months later.
Members of the 761st Tank Battalion “The Black Panthers” would go on to earn a Medal of Honor, 11 Silver Stars, and almost 300 Purple Hearts.
So, Robinson went back to playing professional baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs, a team in the Negro American League. It wasn’t long before Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, saw how talented he was. The news quickly got out that the Dodgers had signed the first black ballplayer.
Fearing fan backlash, they sent him to their Minor League affiliate team, the Montreal Royals. With Robinson on the team, the stands were packed during Royals games. Fans came in droves to see him play — so they called him up to play for the Dodgers, who’d taken Reese back after the war’s end.
Then, on April 15th, 1947, the Dodgers faced off against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. Robinson stepped onto the field and became the first black player to play in the MLB since 1884. For the most part, the home crowd loved him. Away games, however, were another story entirely.
Through his own talent, he’d prove them wrong by earning Rookie of the Year in 1947.
It’s been said that while playing the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson received death threats. Understandably, this made him very nervous. He’d turned the other cheek so many times before, but with his life at stake, this wasn’t so simple. Reese saw what was happening and decided to take a stand.
Reese and Robinson had become best friends over the games they played together. They bonded in the locker room and on the field. They would talk and share stories for hours at a time about what they had in common — military service being one of them.
As the Cincinnati crowd and players on the Reds hurled obscenities at Robinson during pre-game infield practice, Reese raised a hand in the air and walked from shortstop to first base and placed his arm around Robinson’s shoulders. The two didn’t say anything — they just stared into the dugout and the bleachers. The jeering stopped.
The captain of one of the greatest baseball teams at the time had shown the world that these two men were teammates, friends, and brothers-in-arms — and that race didn’t affect any of that.
This led way for many more black baseball players to join the MLB and their friendship would serve as a proof that desegregation of the military was possible through Executive Order 9981.
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