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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Of Outfield Walls and Concussions:
The Pete Reiser Story

By C. Paul Rogers III

A couple of years ago a Dallas sportswriter, impressed by Texas Rangers outfielder Rusty Greer's all-out, hustling style of play, remarked that Rusty was a Pete Reiser kind of ballplayer. Rusty, who is somewhat of a throwback, replied that he had never heard of Pete Reiser.

Rusty's ignorance is not at all surprising. Ask any current ballplayer who Pete Reiser was and odds are you will get Rusty's answer. That Reiser's name would be largely unknown is unfortunate. It again proves that modern ballplayers generally have little appreciation and even less knowledge about the rich history of baseball. And it is also sad, because Pete Reiser was one of the greatest natural talents to ever play the game and he should be remembered. Think Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle talent and ability. In his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last, Leo Durocher called Reiser the only ballplayer he ever saw who was better than Willie Mays.

Just a glance at Reiser's legendary 1941 season, when he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the pennant in his first full major league campaign, suggests that Durocher was not simply engaging in hyperbole. Reiser led the National League in no fewer than six categories: batting average (.343), slugging percentage (.558), total bases (299); runs (117), doubles (39), and triples (17). He was just twenty-two years oldóthe youngest man and first rookie to win a batting title. Durocher managed that ball club, so he knew of what he spoke.

Noted New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Arthur Patterson wrote of Reiser in 1941:

 

Any manager in the National League would give up his best man to obtain Pete Reiser. On every bench they're talking about him. Rival players watch him take his cuts during batting practice, announce when he's going to make a throw to the plate or third base during outfield drill. They just whistle their amazement when he scoots down the first base line on an infield dribbler or a well-placed bunt.

 

Reiser had all the tools. He could hit, run, throw, and field at the highest levels. Garry Schumacher, for years a New York baseball writer, thought Reiser was a better center fielder than Duke Snider or Mickey Mantle. Bobby Bragan, who played with and against Reiser for much of the 1940s and who spent his life in baseball, remembers Reiser and Mantle as the fastest men he ever saw running to first base. Reiser once won a hundred-yard match race in 9.8 seconds, running in his flannel baseball uniform and cleats.

So what happened then to such an incredible talent? Durocher succinctly gave the answer when he said, "Willie Mays had everything. Pete Reiser had everything but luck." Actually, Leo was only partially correct. Reiser did have luck, but virtually all of it was bad.

 

Pete was christened Harold Patrick Reiser and grew up in a family of twelve children in St. Louis. (He was nicknamed "Pete" as a youngster, after his favorite movie serial, Two Gun Pete.) His father had been a fine pitcher in the semi-pro Trolley League and encouraged all the kids to participate in sports. Young Pete took him to heart, excelling in football, soccer, and baseball. His early ambition, after hearing Knute Rockne on the radio, was to play football at Notre Dame. Pete was also a self-described St. Louis Cardinal nut, even though his baseball idol was Mel Ott of the New York Giants.

Those Cardinals had already taken notice of Pete by the time he was twelve, as he often played with brother Mike, who was five years older and a great prospect himself. It was then that Reiser had the first of what would be a lifetime of health problems. Mike had just signed a professional contract with the New York Yankees when he came down with scarlet fever. Pete was told to stay out of Mike's room but visited him anyway and caught the disease. They both developed serious throat infections and a doctor lanced both their throats right in their home. The doctor was particularly concerned about the possibility that young Pete's throat might hemorrhage.

The next morning it was Mike's throat that hemorrhaged, and he died later that day, just seventeen years old. Within forty-eight hours Pete was completely well, although he had been sicker than his brother the night before Mike died.

When he was fifteen, Reiser lied about his age so that he could attend a Cardinals tryout camp. About eight hundred kids showed up and Pete was sorely disappointed when he was cut after the first day, since his only activities were a hundred-yard-dash, throws from center field, and three swings at bat. A couple of days later Cardinals head scout Charley Barnett drove up to the Reiser residence. When Pete's dad asked why Pete had been cut, Barnett told him, "So nobody else would see him." Apparently, scouts from other organizations were at the tryout camp. The Cardinals had followed Reiser since grade school and when he showed up at the tryout, they did their best to hide him.

So Pete signed with the Cardinals, even though at fifteen he was too young to play for one of their farm clubs. Instead the Cardinals paid him fifty dollars a month to accompany Barnett all summer. Pete was officially listed as Barnett's chauffeur, although he could barely drive. On their first trip out of town together, Pete had his first meal in a restaurant. When they finished eating and Barnett went to pay the tab, Pete helpfully gathered up the money Barnett left on the table and proudly presented it to him. Pete was so green that he didn't yet know about tipping.

Whenever the two of them would reach a Cardinal farm team, Reiser would work out with the club before the game, taking infield and batting practice. Once the game began, however, he had to be out of uniform. More than one minor league manager told Barnett, "You can just leave that Reiser kid here."

"Sorry," Barnett would say, "can't; he's only fifteen."

"Then we'll change his name."

But Barnett wouldn't budge and off they would go to the next minor league town.

In 1937, when Reiser was still seventeen, the Cardinals assigned him to New Iberia, Louisiana, in the Class D Evangeline League. He played only seven games in New Iberia before being transferred to Newport, Arkansas, in the equally Podunk Northeast Arkansas League. There he hit .285 and made thirty-three errors in seventy games as a wild-throwing shortstop.

During this time, Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey had built a massive farm system, with fifty-plus minor league teams and more than one thousand players under contract. The Cardinals were essentially stockpiling players and breaking baseball's rules to do it, as they had when they signed Reiser at age fifteen. In the spring of 1938, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis stepped in and declared one hundred Cardinal minor leaguers, including Reiser, to be free agents.

Rickey was desperate to keep Reiser and concocted a deal with Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail whereby MacPhail was to sign Reiser, hide him in the Dodgers farm system for a few years, and then trade him back to the Cardinals. The Dodgers sent him to Superior, Wisconsin, in the Northern League, where he played shortstop and hit .302 in ninety-five games.

The next spring, 1939, Charlie Barnett called in a chit with his old friend Leo Durocher and got Reiser a courtesy invitation to Dodgers spring training. Pete immediately caught player-manager Durocher's keen eye with his speed and all-out hustle. When Leo contracted a chest cold, he took the opportunity to play Reiser at shortstop. In three exhibition games against the Cardinals, Pete reached base twelve consecutive times, slugging three home runs, five singles, and drawing four walks. The press quickly dubbed him "Pistol Pete," due to his bullet-like line drives.


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2002 issue.

—EFQ

C. PAUL ROGERS III is the co-author with boyhood hero Robin Roberts of The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant, and with Bill Werber of Memories of a Ballplayer: Bill Werber and Baseball in the 1930s. His real job is as a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

© 2002 C. Paul Rogers III

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