THEY WERE called the Boys of Summer, from the title of Roger Kahn's beloved baseball book on the Brooklyn Dodgers. But although they played a game for a living and were led by a fellow called Pee Wee, this was a team that was doing some of the country's more serious business in the years after World War II. Pee Wee Reese, who died last week after a long struggle against lung cancer, was the captain of the Dodgers, not because he was their dominant player but because he possessed that combination of qualities which, however we try to parse it -- integrity, honesty, consistency, inner confidence -- has the simple effect of causing people to trust and follow someone.
Mr. Reese was coming out of the Navy after World War II to rejoin the Dodgers when he heard that his team was planning to break the race barrier by bringing up a black player named Jackie Robinson. In the next few years, a great deal depended on what Pee Wee Reese, a southerner of working-class origins, did -- not only for baseball but for a country that had just won a war against racial persecution on a monstrous scale and now had some work to do on its own race problems. There was a lot of nastiness to be endured by Jackie Robinson during his first few seasons in the majors, some of it, unfortunately, in his own dugout. One of the Dodgers began circulating a petition to protest Mr. Robinson's presence. When it got to Mr. Reese, he made a point of not signing it. Eddie Stanky, another southerner, joined him in befriending Mr. Robinson.
The petition drive quickly fizzled, but the hostility elsewhere in the National League continued. One day when the heckling in Cincinnati was particularly cruel, Mr. Reese called a timeout, walked from his position to join Mr. Robinson near second base and put his arm around his shoulder. "Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while," as Mr. Robinson later recalled it. "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."
Despite the nickname (which came from a type of marble he'd used as a kid), Pee Wee Reese was of average size. Eddie Stanky was a little smaller. He died this past June, having had a long and legendary college coaching career in Alabama during which his primary goal was to get every kid who wanted to play ball into a uniform and at least one game. Both were sizable figures in a boys' pastime that sometimes demands the best of a man.