Posted on August 22, 2022

The Hug That Jackie Robinson Never Received

Jonathan Eig, Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2022

There may be no crying in baseball, as the manager played by Tom Hanks declares in an iconic moment in the movie “A League of Their Own,” but there is, occasionally, hugging.


But the most famous and important hug in the history of the game is the one that didn’t happen—or at least didn’t happen the way so many people would like to think it did.

On May 13, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers played the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Jackie Robinson, major-league baseball’s first Black player of the modern era, had made his debut with the Dodgers less than a month earlier, and he had not been greeted warmly. His own teammates petitioned management, saying they would rather be traded than play with a Black man. Opponents threatened to boycott. Pitches were thrown intentionally at his head. Death threats arrived by mail.

But a turning point came in Cincinnati, according to lore. As Robinson faced vile taunts from members of the Reds and their white fans, the story goes, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a white man from Kentucky, walked across the field and put an arm around his Black teammate, a simple gesture of brotherhood that hushed the crowd and sent a message across baseball and the nation.

It’s a beautiful story, one that’s been repeated many times in news stories, documentaries and sermons. It forms the centerpiece of a children’s book called “The Teammates.” It provides one of the most powerful scenes in “42,” the most recent movie about Robinson’s life. There’s even a statue in Brooklyn depicting the embrace. But repetition doesn’t change the fact that the story is probably bunk.

No newspapers reported the event at the time. In fact, the New York Post said Robinson had been “the toast of the town” in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Post reported the day after the game: “If anyone had any objection to Jackie’s presence on the field, he failed to make himself heard.” Writing in his weekly newspaper column, Robinson called his visit to Crosley Field “a nice experience.”

The story of the Cincinnati embrace surfaced decades later in an interview with one of Robinson’s teammates, pitcher Rex Barney. But Barney got one of the key details wrong. He said he was warming up to pitch in the first inning of the game when Reese shut down the hecklers. The fact is, Barney didn’t pitch that day until the seventh inning.

In interviews I conducted with Robinson’s wife, Rachel, for my book on his breakthrough season, she insisted that no such hug occurred in 1947. {snip}