By Glen Sparks
Pete Reiser crashed more times than a dusty Chevy at a Carolina smash-up derby.
The Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder chased flyballs all the way to the wall. Then, he kept going. Usually, he led with his head.
Not for no reason did Reiser max out at 137 games in one season (1941). He only played in more than 100 games four times. Accident prone? Reiser made Mr. Magoo look like a safety expert.
What might have been …
Born March 17, 1919, in St. Louis, Harold Patrick (for St. Patrick’s Day) “Pete” Reiser grew up with a bat in his hand. George Reiser tossed pitches to his young son, who crunched line drives at the local sandlot.
Reiser played sports at Beaumont high school on the city’s north side. He dreamed of getting a football scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, just like every other Catholic kid dreamed.
The Fighting Irish never called. The hometown Cardinals did, however, in 1937. They sent him to play shortstop for New Iberia, La., of the Evangeline League.
The following season, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis decided to break up the Cardinals’ prolific farm system. It was just too good. Reiser ended up with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Brooklyn’s player-manager Leo Durocher liked the lean, athletic new kid. Once, during spring training in 1939, Reiser went to bat 11 times over three games. He belted four homers, knocked four singles and walked three times. What was not to like?
Reiser debuted with the Dodgers mid-way through the 1940 campaign. In 225 at-bats, he hit an admirable .293 and added three home runs and 20 RBI. The following year, he led the National League with a .343 batting average to go with 14 homers and 76 RBI.
He also topped everyone else in runs scored (117), doubles (39), triples (17), slugging percentage (.558), OPS (.964), OPS+ (164) and total bases (299). Reiser, just 22 years old, finished second in the MVP race. It looked like Brooklyn had a superstar.
Nothing really changed until the 11th inning of a game in 1942 against the Cardinals. Reiser was batting .356 over the first 3 ½ months of the season. But on July 18, the Cardinals’ Enos Slaugher lined a shot to centerfield at Sportsman’s Park. “Pistol Pete” went back, kept going, and, finally and abruptly, ran into a wall made of concrete.
Reiser caught the drive, held onto it for a second, and most likely didn’t watch as it popped out of his glove. Slaughter rounded the bases; Pistol Pete suffered a concussion and fractured his skull. He left Sportsman’s Park on a stretcher.
Amazingly, he returned to the line-up just one week later. He only hit .244 through September, though. He still batted .310 for the year and led the N.L. with 20 steals. Unfortunately, Pete Reiser was never as good as he was before the collision.
Then came World War II. Reiser wanted to join the Navy, but he failed the physical. Uncle Sam declared him 4-F.
In time, the Army let the eager—but reckless—recruit enlist. Reiser spent most of his service time as an outfielder on the Fort Riley, Kan., baseball team. He went all-out there, too. Once, he fell down a drainage ditch while in pursuit of a flyball and separated his shoulder.
Reiser reported back to the Dodgers for spring training in 1946. Management knew something was wrong. The former all-everything ballplayer couldn’t throw, no doubt due to lingering effects from that shoulder injury.
He suffered through muscle pulls and strains in ‘46, and crashed into an outfield wall again, this time while sprinting after a drive hit by the Chicago Cubs’ Whitey Kurowski. His season mercifully—and ignobly—ended when he broke his leg trying to steal a base. Miraculously, he played in enough games to make the All-Star team for a third and final time. He also led the N.L. in stolen bases with 34.
The truth was apparent, though. Reiser was never going to be a Hall of Famer. He played six more seasons and got into more than 100 games just once. Over 419 games from 1947 until he retired in 1952, Pistol Pete played in 419 games and batted .271 with 20 homers. He hung up his spikes at the age of 32.
Reiser coached for the Dodgers, Cubs and other teams following his playing days. He earned a World Series ring while serving as a Dodgers coach on the 1963 team that beat the New York Yankees.
A long-time smoker, Reiser died of respiratory illness on Oct. 25, 1981, at the age of 62. Obits included quotes from the game’s experts. They said baseball had just lost a man who should have been a great star. Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig even included Reiser in their 1981 book, The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All-Time.
He never really fulfilled the promise of those early days when he was young and brazen enough to dive into concrete. Reiser banged into walls dozens of times and supposedly left the field on a stretcher 11 times. He suffered four or five skull fractures and a couple of broken ankles. Pitchers beaned him twice for goodness’ sake.
The Pete Reiser story is a bit sad, yes. But, it’s also exciting. Pistol Pete provided fans with thrills and suspense. His narrative tells us more than we many want to know about the reckless glory and vanity of youth.
Reiser crashed into walls. He knocked his noggin more than a few times. He played the game with an anxious enthusiasm, mixing joy with a young man’s contempt for mortality. We can both smile and grimace.