Today is March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day , and many people across this world are celebrating the Luck of the Irish, enjoying corned beef and cabbage, and getting their drink on.
This day also marks the 91st anniversary of the birth of the greatest natural baseball player who ever lived. A player so remarkable that the natural right handed hitter taught himself how to switch hit in the minors, and it only took him a couple weeks to get the hang of it.
He learned to hit lefty to take advantage of his blazing speed and after the switch, he would often beat out routine ground balls for base hits. On the advice of Hall of Famer outfielder Paul Waner, this player finally gave up hitting right handed and batted exclusively from the left side.
One of the greatest managers (and characters) in baseball history, Leo Durocher , said that this player was the only player he ever saw who was better than Willie Mays! This guy would hit line drives all over the field, and once proclaimed that he “could hit any pitcher that ever threw a baseball.”
This player could run, hit for average (in his rookie year, he won the National League batting title with a .343 average!), and hit for power. In that rookie season at age 22, he also led the league in runs scored (117), doubles (39), triples (17), slugging percentage (.558), OPS (.968), and had an OPS+ of 169.
He banged out 14 home runs, too.
He was Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Albert Pujols all wrapped into a solid 5’11”, 185 lb frame.
His defense was beyond reproach.
He had a cannon for an arm, and later in his career the natural right handed thrower even taught himself how to throw left handed.
He played shortstop in the minors and center field during his major league career, and rarely, if ever, did not track down a ball that was staying in the park.
Players on other teams would watch the outfield drills and marvel at his throws to third and homeplate.
He stated that he would stand in center field thinking to himself, “Hit it to me, Hit it to me.” He wanted the ball on every pitch, every play.
And that desire to succeed at all costs cost this player his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This players name was Harold Patrick (Pete) Reiser .
Reiser was signed by the Cardinals at age 15 after he attended a local tryout camp. He was cut after the first day, and went home disappointed. The Cardinals scout showed up at the Reiser household later that day and told Pete’s father they cut young Pete because they didn’t want other teams to see how good he was, and that they had their eye on him since he was 12!
Durocher said in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last: “There will never be a ballplayer as good as Willie Mays, but Reiser was every bit as good, and he might have been better. Pete Reiser might have been the best ballplayer I ever saw. He had more power that Willie. He could throw as good as Willie. Mays was fast, but Reiser was faster. Name whoever you want to, and Pete Reiser was faster. Willie Mays had everything. Pete Reiser had everything but luck.”
And that was the problem. Reiser was always bitten by the injury bug, actually not bitten, but destroyed by the bug. And Pete brought it on himself, by going all out on every play, in every game, no matter the score or where the Dodgers were in the standings.
The play that basically ended Pete’s career came in 1942, when in the 13th inning of a 0-0 pitchers duel* between Whitlow Wyatt of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Mort Cooper of the St. Louis Cardinals, Reiser tried to chase down an Enos Slaughter drive to center field. He had it but ran full speed into the concrete wall, and the ball came loose. Reiser picked up the ball, threw it to Pee Wee Reese and they almost got Slaughter at home.
* I can't believe those managers let those two pitchers throw that many innings. Lucky the pitching police (plus Tom Verducci) and the Pitcher's Abuse Points ratings were not around back then.
Reiser then collapsed on the field. He had a severe concussion and a fractured skull. How he threw that ball back to Reese is anybody’s guess.
At the time of that crash, the Dodgers held a 13 1/2 game lead on the Cardinals. But going all out was Pete’s style of play.
He was not supposed to play the remainder of the season, but that was not Pete’s way. He played after getting out of the hospital, lined a game winning single and collapsed again after rounding first base.
At the time of that crash and coming off of his awesome 1941 rookie campaign, Reiser and the Dodgers finished up two series on the western road trip in Chicago and Cincinnati. Pete has gone 19 for 21 in those games and was hitting .380. He eventually played again that season, but his average dropped to .310, and he was never the same player.
That was the worst wall crash, but it was not the only one. He was carted off the field 11 times in his career, and was once given last rites at the stadium.
Reiser was signed by the Cardinals but was granted free agency during one of Commissioner Landis’ purging of the Cardinals minor league system. Branch Rickey at the time had that vast minor league system and he was trying to keep Pete off the radar of the other teams.
Pete was signed by the Dodgers GM Larry MacPhail , grandfather of current Baltimore Orioles President Andy MacPhail. Some people say that Rickey broached MacPhail about Reiser and that the Dodgers would keep for three years and then they would trade Reiser back to St. Louis. In 1940 Cardinals star outfielder Joe Medwick was traded to Brooklyn in a big deal, which a player to be named later was going back to St. Louis.
Reiser was that player to be named later, but the Cardinals took more money instead.
But Pete’s play on the field did not allow that backroom deal to be completed.
Pete’s first taste of big league spring training was in 1939 when he was with the Dodgers. Durocher was in his first season as Dodger manager and immediately took a liking to Reiser. It was similar to the Casey Stengel – Mickey Mantle relationship a decade later. The hard nosed Reiser was Leo’s type of player.
Late in the Spring, Resier finally gets a chance to play and hits a three run homer his first time up, draws a walk, then hits two more singles. The next day Reiser singles, hits another three run homer, beats out a drag bunt and then wallops another homer. He leads off the next day with another line drive single!
His was 8 for 8 with a walk and three homes his first nine times up against major league pitching. Everybody was talking about “MacPhail’s Wonder Child” and after the Spring the Dodgers barnstormed north with the New York Yankees.
Yankee manager Joe McCarthy proclaimed about Reiser “you need only one look at the boy to know he is a hitter.” On that trip north Reiser said McCarthy told him the Yankees wanted to trade for Pete to make him their steady third baseman. That might have been the best thing for Reiser as he would never have run into those outfield walls.
But like that proposed trade back to St. Louis, the Yankee deal never happened, and Reiser played two years in the minors until he was brought up in 1940. Reiser was a shortstop then but was told by MacPhail that if he wanted to play in the big leagues, he would have to play center field.
And then after that great rookie campaign, it was all downhill.
A great career was not in the cards for Pete Reiser. What ifs are the real story of Reiser.
What if he was traded back to the Cardinals or what if he was traded to the Yankees?
What if he didn’t go all out in an extra inning game with a 13 ½ game lead?
His career would have been long and Hall of Fame quality.
When I was a kid, my favorite ballplayers were Pete Rose and Thurman Munson, primarily for their style of play. At this time in the 1970’s I used to read dozens of baseball books about baseball’s vast and storied history. When I came across the exploits of Reiser, I had a third favorite player added to the list.
In 1981, Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included Reiser in their book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. They explained what they called “the Smoky Joe Wood Syndrome,” where a player of truly exceptional talent had a career curtailed by injury.
A few decades ago, author David Markson (obviously a Pete Reiser fan) had some fun and described what Pete’s HOF plaque would show. It reveals Pete having retired with 4,197 hits, a .364 career batting average, including three seasons over .400.
He also “won” 11 batting titles, was voted player of the decade in the 1940’s and the 1950’s, and accumulated more hits, runs scored, doubles and total bases than any player in history.
There is no telling how many “counting stats” Reiser would have accumulated, but he would have had a great and storied career. The injuries and his three missed years to the war took their toll on his play.
And that was sad for the game of baseball.