Pistol Pete Led with His Head

Pete Reiser led the National League with a .343 batting average in 1941.

By Glen Sparks

Pete Reiser crashed more times than a dusty Chevy at a Carolina smash-up derby. The outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers 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) 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 in between his frequent outbursts.  “What kind of kid was I?” Reiser said to author Donald Honig in the superb book Baseball When the Grass Was Real. “Ornery. Mean. Nice. I was a nice mean kid. I had a bad temper.”  (Neighbors took to calling young Reiser “Pistol Pete” after the popular movie cowboy Two-Gun Pete.  The boy prowled his neighborhood block with a pair of toy six-shooters. Later, family and friends started just calling him “Pete.”)

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. “When I was ten, I was competing in football against fifteen-year-olds,” Reiser told Honig.

The Fighting Irish never called. The hometown Cardinals did, however, in 1937. The Redbirds signed him for $50 a month and sent him to play shortstop for New Iberia, La., of the Evangeline League.

The following season, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis broke up the Cardinals’ prolific farm system. The Redbirds were tying up too many players at minor-league parks across the country. Reiser ended up with the Dodgers.

Brooklyn’s player-manager Leo Durocher liked the lean, athletic new kid. Once, during spring training in 1939, Reiser batted 11 times over three games. The switch-hitter belted four homers, knocked four singles, and walked three times. What was not to like? “I just kept staring at him, wondering if it was all a dream,” Durocher wrote in his memoir, Nice Guys Finish Last. “‘Holy cats,’ I’m thinking, ‘This is a diamond, Leo. All you have to do is polish him.”

Reiser debuted with the Dodgers mid-way through the 1940 campaign as both a third baseman and outfielder. In 225 at-bats, he hit an admirable .293 and added three home runs and 20 RBI. The following year, now as Brooklyn’s starting centerfielder, he led the National League with a .343 batting average. Reiser hit 14 homers and had 76 RBIs.

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 to his teammate Dolph Camilli. He looked like a superstar-in-the-making.

Nothing really changed until the 11th inning of a game in 1942 against the Cardinals. Reiser was batting .356 at the time. But on July 18, Enos Slaughter lined a shot to centerfield at Sportsman’s Park. Pistol Pete went back, kept going, and, finally and abruptly, sprinted into an unforgiving wall.

Reiser caught the drive, held onto it for a second, and most likely never watched as the ball popped out of his glove. Slaughter rounded the bases. Reiser suffered a concussion and fractured his skull. He left Sportsman’s Park on a stretcher. The Cardinals’ team doctor, Robert Hyland, told Reiser to sit out the rest of the season. When Brooklyn GM Larry MacPhail heard about that, Reiser said, “He went through the roof. He began screaming that Hyland was saying that just to keep me out of the lineup.”

Amazingly, Reiser returned to action just one week later. He only hit .244 for the rest of the season, though. He still batted .310 on the year and led the N.L. with 20 steals. He also finished sixth in the N.L. MVP race. 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, Kansas, 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.

Years later, Reiser told Honig about the time a young Black lieutenant walked up to a senior officer at Fort Riley and asked to play on the camp baseball team. The man looked at Jackie Robinson and directed him to try out for the  “colored team.” Reiser said, “That was a joke. There was no colored team.” Robinson stood in place for a few minutes, watched as Reiser and some players worked out, and then left. “That was the first time I saw Jackie Robinson,” Reiser said. “I can still remember him walking away by himself.”

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 the lingering effects from that shoulder injury.

He suffered through muscle pulls and strains 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 and swiped home seven times.

The truth was apparent, though. Reiser would never be a Hall of Famer. Brooklyn traded him to the Boston Braves after the 1948 campaign, and he later spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians.  He only played in 245 games during his four seasons away from Brooklyn and batted .248 with 14 homers. He hung up his spikes at the age of 32.

Reiser later coached for the Dodgers, Cubs, and other teams. A long-time smoker, he 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 one of the game’s all-time greats. Lawrence Ritter and Honig included Reiser in their 1981 book, The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All-Time.

He never fulfilled the promise of those early days when he was young and brazen enough to dive into concrete. Reiser 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 at least twice for goodness’ sake.

The Pete Reiser story is sad, yes, but also exciting. Pistol Pete provided fans with thrills and suspense. He mixed joy with a young man’s contempt for mortality. He played much of his career while black-and-blue and rarely complained. “It was my style,” he told Honig. “I didn’t know any other way to play ball.” He added, “Hell, any ballplayer worth his salt has run into a way. More than once. I’m the guy who got hurt doing it, that’s all.” We can both smile and grimace.

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