Pee Wee Reese: The face of the Subway Series

The readers of this web site do not need a lengthy introduction to Pee Wee Reese. As a charter member of the Boys of Summer, a lifelong Dodger, a 16-year veteran, team captain (starting in 1950), and member of the Hall of Fame (1984), his record speaks for itself.

But there is one particularly distinctive facet of his career that is hiding in plain sight, yet is usually overlooked. For sure, Reese was a familiar face during the postseason, and he occupies an unusual niche in World Series history—but not because of his heroics or lack of same during those October contests.

Intra-city rivalries are always intense, but the all-New York Fall Classics have always been special. I don’t know how the rest of the country feels about them, but with New York as the biggest city in the country and the biggest media center, it is a big deal whether you like it or not.

In 1921, 1922, and 1923, it was the Giants versus the Yankees (three years at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan—one year at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx). 1936 and 1937 witnessed two more Giants versus Yankees clashes. The Giants had but one more match-up with the Yankees, but it was something of an anticlimax, as it came immediately after Bobby Thomson’s legendary home run in the 1951 playoffs.

Brooklyn joined the interborough fray in the 1940s, meeting the Yankees for the first time in 1941. So far the Mets and Yankees have met up only once in 52 years, but at least that got Queens on the board. That leaves Staten Island as the only borough out of the mix. But that’s a fact of life on Staten Island.

While the Giants got a head start, meeting the Yankees six times, the Dodgers eventually bested them, playing in their seventh subway series in 1956, their next-to-last season in Brooklyn. During a 16-year period, the Dodgers met the Yankees seven times (1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956). In those days, the chances of a Dodgers-Yankees series were almost 50-50. Of course, both teams went through plenty of personnel changes over that span, but one man played in all seven match-ups. That was Harold “Pee Wee” Reese.

Now there are plenty of players whose career at-bats in the World Series came against just one team. All players who make it to the Series just once would be in the same (very big) boat. A somewhat smaller boat would be adequate for players who played in two World Series against the same team. And so on for players who played in three, four, five or six World Series. By the time you get to seven, a kayak is all that is needed to hold the qualifiers.

Players—especially non-Yankees—who were fortunate enough to play in seven World Series are indeed scarce, but Pee Wee Reese not only played in seven World Series, he played against the New York Yankees each time! Even given the Dodgers’ and Yankees’ proclivity for winning pennants in the ’40s and ’50s, that defies the odds. And there could have been three more match-ups.

Indeed, a second Bums-Yanks confrontation was not out of the question in 1942, just one year after the first meeting. This was Reese’s last season before he entered the Navy for three years. The Dodgers finished the 1942 season with an eight-game winning streak to finish at 104-50 (a .675 winning percentage), normally more than enough for a pennant.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals were just a little bit better at 106-48. The Dodgers had an outstanding winning percentage against every NL team except the Cardinals, against whom they were just 9-13. The Dodgers “slumped” in the last two months of the season, with just a .621 winning percentage in August and a season-low .615 in September. So the Cardinals went on to meet the Yankees.

In 1950, the Phillies avoided a first-place tie with the Dodgers by defeating them in the last game of the season. Thanks to Dick Sisler’s 10th-inning home run, the Phillies went on to face the Yankees in the World Series. The following year, of course, Thomson sunk the Dodgers in the final playoff game and the Giants went on to meet the Yankees.

1946 also presented an interesting situation. The Dodgers and Cardinals tied for the pennant and the Cardinals won two playoff games to take the pennant. Had the Dodgers prevailed, they would have gone on to meet the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. In retrospect, it would have spoiled Reese’s all-subway-series record, but he likely relished the prospect of a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series.

Originally signed by Pittsburgh, Reese changed franchises when his minor league team, the Louisville Colonels, was sold to the Red Sox. He was a highly regarded prospect, but Bosox player-manager Joe Cronin also played shortstop and was not quite ready to retire as a player. So Reese was shuffled off to Brooklyn. This was arguably the worst Red Sox transaction between the infamous Babe Ruth (1920) and Jeff Bagwell (1990) deals. Reese made his debut with the Dodgers in 1940 at age 21, and the following season, he played in the first of seven Fall Classics against the Yankees.

So how did Pee Wee do in those seven match-ups? Obviously, he continued to do well enough during the regular season or he wouldn’t have been around long enough to participate in so many Series games. And he did well enough during the postseason. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each year:

1941

This was the year of Mickey Owen’s dropped strike, which continues to be a source of controversy. Was there a mix-up in signals with pitcher Hugh Casey? Was it a passed ball? Was it a wild pitch? Or was it a spitball? Either way the Dodgers lost in six games. In any event, Reese would have been overlooked, as he hit only .200 (4-for-20), even though he had gone 3-for-4 in the first game. This was his lowest World Series average. Perhaps ever more distressing, he committed three errors. The Dodgers lost in five games.

1947

The Dodgers dragged it out to seven games but the result was the same. The results were better for Reese, however, as he hit .304 (7-for-23 with four RBIs). Adding his six walks to the mix, he had an OBP of .448. There were several highlights in this Series. First, Game One was the first World Series telecast. Also, Jackie Robinson’s presence made it the first integrated World Series. In Game Four, Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens lost his no-hitter (and the game) with two outs in the ninth inning, thanks to pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto’s walk-off double. Game Six featured Al Gionfriddo robbing Joe DiMaggio with a circus catch at the 415-foot sign. Despite writing their names large in World Series history, Bevens, Lavagetto and Gionfriddo never played in the big leagues again.

1949

Casey Stengel got his first of seven titles as a Yankee manager. Pee Wee hit .316 (6-for-19) with a home run. A somewhat lackluster World Series, it went down in history as the first postseason to use artificial illumination (during the ninth inning of the fifth and final game at Brooklyn).

1952

This was the series that featured Billy Martin’s last-minute snare of an infield popup. The Dodgers stretched it out to seven games but the result was the same. The Yanks had their fourth consecutive title, but Reese had his best offensive Series, hitting .345 (10-for-29) with a home run and four RBIs. Had the Dodgers won that seventh game, Reese would have been a candidate for Series MVP… that is, if the award had existed in 1952. It didn’t come along till 1955.

1953

Hopes were high in Brooklyn, as the Dodgers had won 105 games during the regular season, but they lost the Series in six games. Reese hit just .208 (5-for-24) but fielded 1.000. Stengel, in his fifth year piloting the Yankees, became the only manager to win five consecutive titles, and the Series was the fifth straight Dodgers-Yankees match-up won by the latter. This may have been when Yogi Berra first uttered his famous phrase, “It’s like deja vu all over again.”

1955

This was the breakthrough year, the one and only title year for Brooklyn. Johnny Podres (aided by a legendary catch by left fielder Sandy Amoros), who shut out the Yankees in the seventh game, was the man of the hour—the first-ever World Series MVP. Pee Wee did his part, hitting .296 (8-for-27) and scoring five runs. Lost in the euphoria of the Brooklyn victory was Reese setting a record for participating in seven double-plays, a record for a seven-game Series.

1956

Just one year after their first title, the Dodgers were back in familiar territory, losing to the Yankees (in seven games). Reese’s final postseason was not one of his better ones, as he hit just .222 (6-for-27). The big story of that Series was (and still is) Don Larsen’s perfecto in the fifth game. The final World Series game ever played in Brooklyn was a real Dodger downer, as Johnny Kucks shut them out on three hits, 9-0. Pee Wee’s consolation prize was that he tied his own record of seven double plays in a seven-game series. This was the last Subway Series of the 20th century, though the Giants and A’s came up with a West Coast version in 1989.

But a pennant was better than nothing, which was what the Dodgers would get in 1957… well, not quite nothing, as they finished in third place with a record of 84-70. By 1958, Brooklyn baseball fans would have been more than happy with such a season.

Reese made the trip to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. He certainly had nothing to prove, and why he made the trip is a bit of a mystery, as age and injuries were beginning to take their toll. With the Dodgers easing Charlie Neal into the shortstop position, Reese’s total of 330 at-bats in 1957 was his lowest since his rookie year (312 in 1940). More alarming, he hit a mere .224, the lowest average of his career. As captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he had gone down with the ship; perhaps he felt he felt duty-bound to maintain his captaincy for the maiden voyage to Los Angeles.

The results in L.A. were no better. Again, he hit just .224, but this time he was a bench player, coming to bat a mere 147 times. Don Zimmer, then 27 years old, had all but replaced him as the starting shortstop while Charlie Neal was shifted to second base.

Reese retired after his one season in Los Angeles. It was a disappointing ending to his career, but no more disappointing than the Dodgers’ beginning (71-83, good for seventh place) on the West Coast.

A good thing Reese retired when he did, as the Dodgers won the pennant the next season. Had Reese been around for that postseason, he would have played not against the Yankees but against the Chicago White Sox. But Reese served as a Dodgers coach in 1959, so he still managed to get a World Series ring without spoiling his clean Subway Series record as a player.

Of course, since the Dodgers were in Los Angeles, even had they faced the Yankees, the match-up was now cross-country as opposed to crosstown—a totally different vibe, as the 1963 Yankees-Dodgers Series showed.

Reese’s composite record for seven World Series (44 games) reveals a batting average of .272 (46-for-169), an OBP of .346, and a slugging percentage of .349.

Now those aren’t extraordinary stats, but they bear comparison with his regular season stats. His lifetime slash line was .269/.366/.377. Interesting to note that he averaged a tad more than one hit per game: 46 hits in 44 World Series games; 2,170 hits in 2,166 regular season games.

In terms of fielding, Reese’s average was .955 in the World Series and .962 during the regular season. In the postseason he was strictly a shortstop; during the 1950s, he occasionally appeared at third base during regular season contests.

The fact that Reese was in the dugout or on the field for so many extraordinary moments in World Series history is the most remarkable aspect of his postseason career. Unlike Forrest Gump, he was a participant and not just a witness.

Altogether, Reese played 21 World Series games in Yankee Stadium, but he returned many times after he retired. Doing play-by-play on the Game of the Week for both CBS (1960-1965) and NBC (1966-1968), Reese manned the broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium many a Saturday afternoon.

The Game of the Week brought major league baseball to television viewers around the country who were not lucky enough to live in a major league market. Whenever I saw the Game of the Week during summer vacations in Virginia Beach, the Yankees were almost always involved, and Yankee Stadium was the favored venue. This could have been because it was logistically easier for CBS, headquartered in New York, or because the network solons assumed the Yankees were America’s team and would pull the best ratings. Perhaps both.

I’m guessing that during those telecasts, Reese often flashed back to those 21 games he and the Dodgers had played in Yankee Stadium. I’m guessing he probably played more games in Yankee Stadium than any other National League player, at least before the interleague schedule was adopted.

And if his achievements with the Boys of Summer weren’t enough to cement his Hall of Fame credentials, his yeoman work as Dizzy Dean’s straight man on the CBS broadcasts surely sealed the deal.

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Comments

  1. Carl said...

    Hi Frank,

    GREAT article.  Thank you for sharing.

    In the 1941 paragraph, you have two sentences that contradict each other.  One says the Yankees won in 5 games, the other says in six games.  I believe the Yanks won in 5.

  2. Dennis Bedard said...

    I don’t remember many Yankee games on GOTW.  From 67-72, a lot of Tiger, Oriole, and Twin games announced by Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek.  Later I believe Joe Garagiola took over the color spot.  Games were either at 1 or 4.  It was a great program. I read the Sporting News like a rabbi studying religious script.  The Saturday games were my only video exposure to baseball games not played by the Red Sox.  It was fascinating to see the box scores come alive.  Seems quaint by today 24/7 video feeds.

  3. Michael Green said...

    Great article.  About the Game of the Week, from 1960 to 1964, CBS (and NBC, with ABC along only for 1960) televised, but only into non-major league cities.  The Yankees were the marquee team, and that appealed to CBS.  Dennis, Gowdy and Reese were a team from 1966 to 1968.  Then Kubek replaced Reese.  In 1975, NBC split the GOTW between Gowdy and Garagiola, who then got it full-time in 1976.

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