Why We Love Baseball: The Embrace

September 7th, 2023
The Dodgers' starting infield in the 1947 season opener against Boston at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn (left to right): third baseman John Jorgensen, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, second baseman Ed Stanky and first baseman Jackie Robinson.

Enjoy this excerpt from Why We Love Baseball, the new book from distinguished baseball author Joe Posnanski.

The story of Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie Robinson at a moment in 1947 when Jackie was at a low point is one of the most celebrated in baseball history. And ... nobody is sure if it even happened. Well, that's not exactly right: There are people who are sure it happened … and there are others who are just as sure it did not.


Jackie Robinson moves to his position at first base and begins to throw the ball around the infield. Many in the crowd heap abuse. Pee Wee Reese jogs across the infield from his shortstop position and stands next to Robinson.

ROBINSON: What’s up?

REESE: They can say what they want. We’re here to play baseball.

ROBINSON: Just a bunch of crackpots still fighting the Civil War.

REESE: Hell, we’d have won that son of a gun if the cornstalks had held out.

Robinson laughs.

ROBINSON: Better luck next time, Pee Wee.

Reese puts his arm around Jack’s shoulder.

REESE: Ain’t gonna be a next time. All we got is right now.


This is the story of the Embrace, one of the most famous and celebrated moments in baseball history. It has inspired speeches and church sermons and children’s books. It is a centerpiece of Ken Burns’s documentary Baseball. A statue of Pee Wee Reese with his arm around Jackie Robinson stands in Brooklyn.

Here’s, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about the Embrace:

We don’t even know if it happened.


On May 13, 1947, Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers went on a road trip to Cincinnati. It was a Tuesday. There was rain that afternoon, but the weather cleared in time for the game. The game itself was unmemorable and, in baseball terms, unimportant. The Dodgers made three errors and lost 7–5. The Reds took two hits away from Robinson with nice defensive plays.

We recall this game for one reason only: It may have been the day that Reese embraced Robinson in the face of a jeering crowd.

Also, it may not have been.

We know that it was a delicate time in the early career of Robinson. This was his 21st game and his first in Cincinnati. Only a week earlier, there had been rumblings of a player strike against Robinson (it was quashed by National League president Ford Frick). Daily News columnist Ed Sullivan -- yes, the same Ed Sullivan of television fame -- reported that Robinson’s teammates were treating him badly, “making it tougher on the kid.”

Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey had just gone public with some of the threatening letters Robinson received and made clear that he was behind Jackie no matter what. “Robinson is our first baseman,” he said defiantly. “I hope this ends the matter.”

According to legend -- and yes, the movie 42 -- the embrace happened in the bottom of the first inning. The Dodgers took the field, and the Cincinnati crowd was particularly nasty, directing its racist rage not only at Robinson but also at Reese, who grew up in nearby Louisville and often heard from neighbors and old friends and even family that he should know better than to play ball with a Black man.

That’s when, as the story goes, Reese made his move. He had been raised to think of African Americans as inferior. He had grown up in a city where Black kids were not allowed in the park where he played ball or to drink from the water fountain where he drank. He would later admit: “I don’t guess that I ever even shook the hand of a Black man.”

And yet, in that moment ...

“Pee Wee went over to him,” Dodgers’ pitcher Rex Barney told author Peter Golenbock, “and he put an arm around him as if to say: ‘This is my boy.’”

“My father,” Pee Wee’s son Mark Reese said, “listened to his heart and not the chorus.”

“His walk across the diamond,” Jonathan Eig wrote in his book Opening Day, “his embrace of Robinson, would be described years later as one of baseball’s most glorious and honorable moments.

“But I don’t think it happened,” Eig added.


Did it happen? We are chasing ghosts now. Yes, Ken Burns prominently featured the embrace in his Baseball documentary, but as time went on, he became one of the most vehement and outspoken embrace deniers.

“There’s no image or write‑up anywhere,” Burns says.

He’s right. Not only is there no contemporary account of the embrace, but The Cincinnati Enquirer also took special care to write “Jackie Robinson was applauded every time he stepped to the plate.”

Ken Burns concedes that it would be unsurprising for the white press to not mention -- or even actively cover up -- the Embrace. But there’s also no mention of it in the Black press, and Burns insists that if it had happened, “The Black newspapers would have done 15 related articles.”

There’s more. Robinson’s 1948 book about his first season, called Jackie Robinson: My Own Story, does not mention the incident, nor does it make any reference to Pee Wee Reese being more supportive than others.*

More: Commissioner Happy Chandler was at the game, and considering that he was both a Kentuckian and a leading champion of Jackie Robinson, you would have expected him to celebrate the Embrace. As far as anyone knows, he never mentioned it.

(From left) Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson gather around a snowman on the diamond at Ebbets Field on April 14, 1950.

More still: In 1977, Reese himself wrote a remembrance of Robinson -- and he talked about playing cards with him in the clubhouse (“some of the Southern boys resented it,” he wrote) but never wrote a word about embracing Robinson during a game.

“We want to feel like white people had something to do with this,” Jonathan Eig says, “that we were open‑minded and that we saw what was right, and we wanted to make it happen. And Pee Wee Reese is our symbol for that. … The myth serves a really nice purpose. Unfortunately, it’s a myth.”

You can find dozens of similar quotes from people who are convinced it’s a myth.

So maybe it didn’t happen.

But maybe it did …

*In the book, Robinson lists nine teammates he said were “especially nice to me,” and Reese is among them.


In 1972 -- 25 years after he broke the color barrier -- Jackie Robinson wrote a memoir with his longtime collaborator, Alfred Duckett, called I Never Had It Made. He did not say anything about Pee Wee Reese embracing him in Cincinnati in 1947.

But he did write about a strikingly similar moment … in Boston in 1948.

“In Boston, during a period when the heckling pressure seemed unbearable, some of the players began to heckle Reese,” he wrote. “They were riding him about being a Southerner and playing ball with a black man. Pee Wee didn’t answer them. Without a glance in their direction, he left his position and walked over to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and began talking to me. His words weren’t important. I don’t even remember what he said. It was the gesture of comradeship and support that counted. As he stood talking with me with a friendly arm around my shoulder, he was saying loud and clear, ‘Yell. Heckle. Do anything you want. We came here to play baseball.’ … The jeering stopped, and a close and lasting friendship began between Reese and me.”

That sounds an awful lot like the Embrace.

Then again, if it happened in 1948, it’s still touching, sure, but it’s not quite the same thing. By 1948, Robinson was established in the game. There were other Black players, including Dodgers’ catcher Roy Campanella. The gesture meant enough to Robinson that he wrote about it many years later but it was not exactly like embracing Robinson at the height of the fight.

And our chase might end here -- with the perhaps unsatisfying conclusion that something similar to the Embrace might have happened but the details are all wrong.

Except: When it comes to baseball history, fans will not stop until they know.

And so, instead, the chase ends with one passionate baseball fan named Craig Wright. He is one of the early pioneers of advanced statistics in baseball and, more recently, an author of the excellent collection Pages from Baseball’s Past. Wright deeply believes that the Embrace did happen. So he dug and dug and, what do you know? He found something.

In 1949, Robinson cowrote a ten‑part series about his life for the Brooklyn Eagle, a daily afternoon newspaper widely read then. The eighth part is about Robinson’s early days with the Dodgers. Here is what Jackie Robinson wrote:

I’ll never forget the day when a few loud-mouthed guys on the other team began to take off on Pee Wee Reese.

They were joshing him very viciously because he was playing on the team with me and was on the field nearby. Mind you, they were not yelling at me; I suppose they did not have the nerve to do that, but they were calling him some very vile names and every one bounced off of Pee Wee and hit me like a machine-gun bullet.

Pee Wee kind of sensed the hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while. He didn’t say a word, but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that.

Slowly the jibes died down like when you kill a snake an inch at a time, and then there was nothing but quiet from them.

It was wonderful the way this little guy did it. I will never forget it.

Now, there’s no time or place in that story. Some of the details -- it was opposing players, not the crowd jeering; Reese did not so much embrace Robinson as stand close to him -- are a bit different from the story. But … come on. This is the Embrace. Craig was right. It happened.

“I remember Jackie talking about Pee Wee’s gesture the day it happened,” Robinson’s widow, Rachel, said in 2005. “It came as such a relief to him that a teammate and the captain of the team would go out of his way in such a public fashion to express friendship.”

So, yes, let’s make our stand: It happened. Of course it happened.

Maybe it wasn’t in Cincinnati, maybe it wasn’t a full‑on embrace, maybe it was just Pee Wee standing close to his friend. But it happened, something most ordinary and extraordinary, a plain kindness between teammates, a simple gesture from a man raised to be racist toward a Black man he came to admire and love.

“You know,” Reese used to say to Robinson, “I didn’t particularly go out of my way just to be nice to you.”

“Pee Wee,” Robinson replied, “maybe that’s what I appreciated most -- that you didn’t.”

From WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL by Joe Posnanski, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2023 by Joe Posnanski.