Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Red Smith wrote of Pete Reiser, “Pete may have been born to be the best baseball player that ever lived but there never was a park big enough to contain his effort. He was a man of immeasurable skills and unconquerable spirit who played the only way he knew how – hitting, running, sliding, crashing into outfield walls, until he had literally broken his magnificent body to bits.”
When Reiser broke in with Brooklyn he was barely old enough to drink. The 21-year old hit .293 in 58 games for the second-place Dodgers who finished 12 1/2 games out of first.
The Brooklyn outfielder played with reckless abandon, sacrificing his body as he played with 100% effort.
The following season, Reiser was phenomenal. He led the league with a .341 average, far ahead of second-place finisher Johnny Cooney’s .319 clip.
Reiser also paced the Senior Circuit in doubles, triples, runs, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases, and WAR. Today’s voters would undoubtedly give him with the Most Valuable Player Award. In those days, homers and RBI were king.
Reiser’s 34-year old Brooklyn teammate Dolph Camilli led the NL in both categories and received the award instead.
In spring of ’42 Pete served as best man in the wedding of his Dodger roommate Pee Wee Reese. Reiser started the season with a hot bat. In mid July Brooklyn traveled to St. Louis for a four-game series against the second-place Cardinals.
The teams squared off in a doubleheader on July 19th. With a hit in each of his last 11, and 18 of 19, Reiser was hitting .356 on the year.
In the bottom of the 11th inning of the second game, Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter hit a long fly ball to center. Reiser raced full speed toward the wall. The ball found his glove and an instant later, Reiser collided head-first into the concrete wall at Sportsman’s Park.
The ball dropped from his glove. The Dodger centerfielder retrieved it and threw to the cutoff man Reese. Slaughter rounded the bases for a game-winning inside-the-park homer.
After throwing the ball in, Reiser fell to the ground. He suffered a separated shoulder, concussion, and fractured skull. Reiser hit .244 the rest of the season. The fleet-footed Brooklyn man led the league with 20 stolen bases, getting caught only once. However, as a player he was never the same.
In the offseason Reiser tried to enlist into the Navy and serve his country in WWII. He flunked the physical. Determined to join the war effort, he went to an Army recruiting office in January of ’43. This time he was accepted.
Reiser missed the next three full seasons. He returned in 1946 for his age 27-season. Reiser earned his way onto the All Star team for his third straight season, leading the league with 34 steals while posting a 4.5 WAR.
In ’47, Reiser and the Dodgers watched as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. On June 4 that season Reiser again tangled with a centerfield wall, this time in Brooklyn.
That day the Pirates’ Culley Rikard slammed a Ralph Branca pitch over Reiser’s head in center. The Dodger flycatcher caught up to it then slammed into the Ebbet’s Field concrete. He fell unconscious, bleeding profusely. The Dodgers rushed him to a nearby hospital.
Reiser missed a month of play. He finished the year with a .309 average and .415 on-base percentage. It was his last season as a regular.
Pete played 64 games for Brooklyn in ’48 and was traded to the Boston Braves in December. After two years in Boston, the Braves released him. Reiser saw action in a combined 108 games in ’51 and ’52 for the Pirates and Indians before retiring.
Exactly how many injuries Resier suffered is impossible to know. After more than a dozen violent collisions with outfield walls he did have at least four skull fractures. His dislocated shoulder gave him trouble throughout his career after 1942. Reiser’s leg problems included broken ankles, damaged knees, torn and muscles.
According to SABR, he was carried off of the playing field on a stretcher 11 times.
Pete Reiser had Hall of Fame talent. The intensity of his play and his disregard for his body’s safety sapped his Cooperstown chances.
In the collection is this picture from Resier’s first game against his former Brooklyn mates on May 13, 1949. Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese greets his best man and former roommate. The game that day went extra innings. In the bottom of the 10th Reiser was inserted as a pinch runner and came around to score the winning run for the Braves in the walk-off victory. Both men have both signed the photo.
Excellent commentary on Pete Reiser. I’ve been married to his daughter Shirley for 40 years. We’re in the process of doing a documentary on his life. Would appreciate your help.
I was young But a rabid Dodger fan in the early 40″ s. However I do know that he was one of the most respected players on the basepaths. Believe it or not. I seem to remember that time he hit the wall. He was as agressive as any ballplayer ever. Many thought he would have set records beyond those of present recordholders had he not been so injured. I thought only good things about your dad!