Pee Wee Reese, the Hall of Fame shortstop and hugely popular captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers who played on seven pennant-winning teams, died Saturday at his home in Louisville, Ky. He was 81.
He had been battling lung cancer since 1997, when he underwent radiation treatment after surgery, his son, Mark, said.
Reese was a superb fielder and an outstanding base runner for the Dodger teams that dominated the National League in the decade following World War II. He exceeded the 2,000-hit mark and he was a nine-time All-Star.
But he was remembered as much for attributes that transcended box scores. His plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1984, cites his ''intangible qualities'' of leadership.
Reese was indeed a presence, despite the suggestion of perpetual boyishness arising from his modest frame and from his nickname, gained when he won a tournament shooting pee-wee marbles while growing up in Kentucky.
He befriended Jackie Robinson when Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1947, easing his acceptance among Dodger teammates while standing up for him in the face of opposing teams' racial taunts.And Reese was the leader of a club with a formidable array of stars -- Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and Carl Furillo, and pitchers Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine and Preacher Roe, remembered with Reese as the Boys of Summer.
Reese wore No. 1, and that was how his teammates saw him.
On the day Reese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Campanella observed: ''He was the leader of the team. Everyone would look up to Pee Wee.''
''He could look at a guy with a half-snarl and burn his shorts off,'' Erskine said on Saturday. ''He never shouted, and he played every day. He didn't have to say anything, he just showed everyone.''
Harold Henry Reese was born on July 23, 1918, in Ekron, Ky., some 45 miles south of Louisville, the son of a railroad detective.
He was all of 5 feet 9 inches and 140 pounds when he began his professional career with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in 1938. Yet he was impressive at shortstop, and the Boston Red Sox later bought into the minor league team to insure the rights to Reese. But the Boston manager, Joe Cronin, was also the team's shortstop and was not ready to quit. So Reese was sold to the Dodgers for a reported $40,000 after his second year at Louisville.
Reese was brought up by Brooklyn in 1940, envisioned as the successor at shortstop to the Dodgers' manager, Leo Durocher. He was sidelined for much of his rookie season by a beaning and a broken foot, but in 1941 Reese became a regular, teaming with outfielder Pete Reiser for a youthful spark on an otherwise veteran team that captured the Dodgers' first pennant in 21 years.
Reese enlisted in the Navy after the 1942 season and played baseball on naval teams in Virginia and the Pacific. When he returned for the 1946 season, a new era was emerging in baseball, and he faced an unexpected test.
''I was aboard ship, coming back from Guam,'' he remembered. ''Someone on the ship knew who I was. He told me, 'Pee Wee, the Dodgers signed a black.' And I kind of laughed about it. I said: 'You gotta be kidding. They wouldn't sign a black.' They always said the blacks couldn't play under pressure; things got hot, they would fold up.
''Maybe an hour or two later, he came back and told me -- this same kid -- said he was not only a black, but he was a shortstop. Now, then, he caught my attention.''
But when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, Reese set a tone of tolerance. When another Southerner on the Dodgers, Dixie Walker, instigated a petition against Robinson, Reese refused to sign it. And he made a gesture that spoke loudly.
As Duke Snider recalled: ''One time in Boston early in that rookie season, some of the Braves players began to heckle Pee Wee being a Southerner and playing ball with a Negro. Pee Wee didn't answer them or even look at them. He just walked over to Jackie and put his hand on his shoulder and began to talk to him. That shut the Braves right up.''
''He was standing by me,'' Robinson later said. ''I will never forget it.''
Years later, Reese said: ''I wasn't trying to think of myself as being the Great White Father. It didn't matter to me whether he was black or green, he had a right to be there, too.''
After playing at first base as a rookie, Robinson shifted to second, combining with Reese for a superb double-play combination in the years to come.
Reese was enveloped in the fans' debates that punctuated the golden age of New York baseball. Alongside arguments among the worshipers of the center fielders Snider, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were the disputes over who had the better shortstop -- the Dodgers with Reese, the Yankees with Phil Rizzuto or the Giants with Alvin Dark.
The 1955 season would be the sweetest one for Reese.
On July 22, the eve of his 37th birthday, he was accorded the grandest tribute for a Brooklyn player: Pee Wee Reese Night. In a pre-game ceremony at Ebbets Field lasting 50 minutes, Reese received gifts including a freezer with 200 pounds of food. Seven different autos were driven onto the field and his 11-year-old daughter, Barbara, reached into a fishbowl and picked out one of seven ignition keys. (It fit the Chevrolet.) And in the middle of the fifth inning, two huge birthday cakes were wheeled onto the field. The lights were dimmed and the 33,003 fans struck matches or cigarette lighters, then stood and sang ''Happy Birthday.''
The ultimate satisfaction came on Oct. 4, 1955, at Yankee Stadium -- Game 7 of the World Series. At 3:43 P.M., the Yankees' Elston Howard hit a grounder to shortstop. Reese scooped it up and fired to Hodges. The Dodgers had a 2-0 victory and their first World Series title. After suffering through five World Series defeats at the hands of the Yankees, the captain had made the play that sealed a championship.
Vin Scully, the longtime Dodgers broadcaster, recalled Saturday: ''In the Dodger dressing room in Brooklyn, you had the metallic lockers and they all had stools. But Pee Wee had an armchair, and he would sit there smoking his pipe. He was not the senior citizen, because that would make him sound like he was an old man. But you knew as soon as you walked into the clubhouse, there's the king. There's the captain. There's the No. 1 man.''
When the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season, Reese went along to Los Angeles. He played one season there, then retired with 2,170 hits, 232 stolen bases (for teams that had little need to run) and a career average of .269 over 16 seasons. He was No. 1 in Dodger history in runs scored (1,338) and No. 2 in at-bats (8,058) and hits, behind Zack Wheat.
In addition to his son, of Los Angeles, and his daughter, of Louisville, Reese is survived by his wife of 57 years, Dorothy, of Louisville; three sisters, Elizabeth Green, Willie Carman and Cissy Pearl, all of Louisville; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Reese served as a Dodger coach in 1959 and then did baseball telecasts for CBS and NBC. The man also known as the Little Colonel later worked for Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of Louisville Slugger bats.
A quarter-century after he last led his teammates out of the Ebbets Field dugout for the start of a game, Reese reflected on how he still retained the admiration of the old Dodgers. He observed: ''Most of the players that are still alive to this day call me captain.''