Only a handful of people who saw Pete Reiser play in his prime are still around today. Those who did have two things in common. They remember when Brooklyn belonged to the Dodgers—and they can’t watch an athlete streak toward an outfield fence without feeling just a little sick to their stomachs.

Pete was a comet that literally streaked across major league playing fields for a year and a half in the early 1940s. During that time, no one in the game could match his all-around skills—not Williams, not DiMaggio. No one. Pete stood a little taller than 5-10 and weighed in at a sinewy-strong 180 pounds, but he generated more speed, power and pure energy than seemed physically possible from his modest frame. The only thing that could stop Pete was an unpadded stadium wall. And that’s what did. As his manager, Leo Durocher, liked to say, “Pete had everything Willie Mays did. Except luck.

Harold Patrick Reiser was born on March 17, 1919 —St. Patrick’s Day (hence his middle name)—in St. Louis, Missouri. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) As a boy, his friends and family called him Pete, after the cowboy movie hero, Two-Gun Pete. He loved westerns and often walked around the neighborhood with a pair of toy six-shooters holstered to his belt. Eventually, his nickname became “Pistol Pete.”

Pete’s father, George, was a good semipro pitcher. He worked for many years at a printing company, taking the mound for its industrial league team on the weekends. George began flinging pitches to his son at an early age, and at an early age Pete could hit them.

Pete was one of 12 children. He and his brother, Mike, were the most athletic. Mike was several years older and often brought Pete along to play in his sandlot games. Mike was later signed out of high school by the New York Yankees, but he contracted scarlet fever and died shortly thereafter.

Pete was good at virtually every sport he tried. As a 14-year-old at Holy Ghost Parochial School, he impressed a local soccer scout enough to earn $50 a game—more than his dad was making in a week. Pete was a terrific football player, bowler and ice skater, too. On top of everything, he was also ambidextrous. Pete threw and batted right-handed as a boy, but he could swing around and do almost as well left-handed. His sports fantasy, however, did not take place on the diamond.  Raised in a devout Catholic family, he dreamed of becoming a football star for—who else?—Notre Dame.

Pete played shortstop at William Beaumont High School. He was not a big kid, but he was fast—Olympic-sprinter fast. He also had a powerful arm and a live bat. He was an animal on defense. Pete honestly believed that there was no ball he couldn’t track down. This was not a major issue in the infield, where players are encouraged to leap and dive and spin. In the outfield, where Pete would ultimately play, his imprudence would prove problematic, to say the least.

At 15, Pete snuck into a St. Louis Cardinals tryout, where he out-threw and out-ran more than 800 other boys. He was disappointed when he returned home without a contract. But later a scout from the team, Charlie Barrett, visited the Reiser home and explained that they hadn't made a big deal about Pete. The Cardinals didn't want word leaking out to the Browns or anyone else. Barrett also admitted that team had had its eye on Pete since grade school. The Cardinals knew he wasn’t old enough to sign to a contract, so they got permission from George to hire him as a “chauffeur.”

That summer, Pete drove around the South with Barrett as he visited the various farm teams in the St. Louis system. At each stop, Pete would take the field and test himself against the bush leaguers in practice. It was on these trips that he got his first glimpse of life on the road. Pete had never eaten in a restaurant in his life. He liked it.

Pete was snapped up by the Cardinals after high school in 1937. He played shortstop and outfield for New Iberia of the Evangeline League and Newport of the Northeast Arkansas League. He hit for average and power and stole a handful of bases.


Pete Reiser
     
 

Under Branch Rickey, the Cardinals had built a farm system so vast that they often had financial interest in two teams in the same league. By stockpiling talent in this way, St. Louis was able to compete at the major-league level with richer clubs in larger markets, like New York and Chicago, which had the wherewithal to simply buy the best prospects.

In 1938, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled that the Cardinals tied up so many young players in their system that it went against the best interests of baseball. Landis broke up the team’s minor-league monopoly by cutting loose dozens of players, who were then dispersed to other clubs through a kind of Depression-era free agency.

Of these players, Pete was arguably the best. More to the point, he was the one that Rickey wanted to keep. But now Pete had been cut loose and granted free agency. The St. Louis GM wasn’t going to give up that easily. He called his pal, Larry MacPhail, who was running the Dodgers. They worked out a gentlemen’s agreement that the Dodgers would sign Pete, hide him in the low minors for a couple of years, and then trade him back to the Cards. Rickey called Pete and told him to sign with Brooklyn no matter what they offered. This was all highly illegal. Had Landis gotten wind of the arrangement, there would have been hell to pay.

Pete followed orders, signed with the Dodgers for $100 and was sent to Superior of the Class-D Northern League. There he hit .302 with 55 extra-base hits. Pete played shortstop for the Blues alongside Wally Gilbert, a veteran third baseman who had seen time in the majors with Brooklyn and Cincinnati. Pete was still hitting right-handed at the time, but once he revealed that he was ambidextrous, coaches encouraged him to swing around to the left side. That would allow him to take better advantage of his speed. He would hit almost exclusively left-handed for the better part of the next ten years.

Pete first caught the eye of the Dodgers’ new player-manager, Leo Durocher, when he arrived at spring training in 1939. It was a hot day, and Durocher did not feel like playing shortstop. He asked Pete to step him for him. What happened next is a part of baseball lore that is still shrouded in intrigue. Major-league pitchers literally could not get Pete out. In 11 trips to the plate he collected three walks, four singles and blasted four home runs. Durocher, who had been pining for a left-handed power threat, had one dropped right in his lap—from Class-D ball no less!

With the Yankees scheduled for an exhibition series, Durocher planned to unleash Pete on the pinstripers. He was telling the sportswriters that the rookie would be his opening-day shortstop. Durocher was ready to take Pete under his wing, a la Willie Mays many years later.

When glowing articles started showing up in the New York papers, MacPhail started to sweat. He knew what was coming—sure enough, Rickey called from St. Louis accusing him of a double-cross. MacPhail sent Durocher a telegram instructing him to stop playing Reiser; phenom or not, he needed more instruction and should go to the minor-league camp.

Branch Rickey book
     
 

Durocher, who hated to be second-guessed when it came to players, ignored these orders. MacPhail then boarded a flight in a panic, so he could deal with his skipper face-to-face. Durocher was just as conniving as Rickey and MacPhail, but he also had a big mouth. MacPhail, therefore, was not about to tell him the real story behind Pete. They argued, Durocher punched MacPhail in the face, the GM fired him—and the next day everything was OK. This was more or less the nature of the relationship between the two. Whatever the situation was with Pete, Durocher could see that MacPhail was serious about it. He optioned him to the minors as ordered.

After the Dodgers headed north to start the season, Leo the Lip boosted Brooklyn’s fortunes’ almost immediately, even without his heralded rookie. The club had endured six straight losing campaigns. But with big years from slugger Dolph Camilli and veteran pitcher Luke Hamlin, the Dodgers would rise to third place on the strength of an 84–69 record.

Pete, meanwhile, suffered the first of many serious injuries he would endure during his pro career. Playing the outfield with Class-A Elmira, he felt a sharp pain while throwing a ball into the infield. He continued to play for two weeks until the pain became unbearable. X-rays showed that he had fractured his arm. He underwent an operation to remove bone chips from his right elbow and played in only 38 games that year. Toward the end of the season, he returned for a few games, throwing left-handed.

Pete returned to Elmira to start the 1940 season, but the Dodgers realized he had nothing left to prove there. He was batting close to .400 when they promoted him to their top farm team in Montreal, He later got the call-up to Brooklyn and appeared in his first game on July 23rd.

Pete played 30 games at third base for the Dodgers in the second half, five games at shortstop, and 17 in the outfield. The team finished in second place, well behind the Reds, who repeated as NL champions. Pete batted .293 and was one of Durocher’s most-used bench players, subbing for infielders Cookie Lavagetto and Pee Wee Reese when they were injured and spelling veteran corner outfielders Joe Vosmik and Joe Medwick.

The Dodgers began the 1941 season with high hopes. As things developed during spring training in Havana, Pete became a bright part of that picture. While Durocher favored keeping Dixie Walker in centerfield, MacPhail wanted someone with more marquee value. He acquired Paul Waner from the Pittsbrugh Pirates to play the position, but it soon became apparent that Waner was too old to man center every day.

When the Dodgers arrived in Brooklyn, thousands of fans protested the team’s benching of Walker. He was truly the “People’s Cherce.” MacPhail forbid Durocher to give in to this pressure, and they agreed that Waner would move to right and that Pete would be the new everyday center fielder. Medwick, the team’s big acquisition the year before, was set in left. Still a ferocious hitter, Medwick had worn out his welcome in St. Louis and the Cardinals had the talent—including a kid named Musial—to replace him.

The Dodgers also boasted a new double-play combination in 1941. Durocher had relinquished his infield duties in favor of Reese, and a couple of weeks into the season, Brooklyn traded for Billy Herman, who was unhappy with the Chicago Cubs. Herman was a top second baseman who could tutor Reese and do some interesting things batting in the two-hole.

As the season entered its second month, the Brooklyn lineup evolved into an efficient machine. The starting pitching, meanwhile, was superb. Kirby Higbe and Whit Wyatt gobbled up big innings and would finish the year tied atop the NL with 22 wins apiece. Curt Davis, a veteran picked up in the Medwick deal, looked sharp. And Hugh Casey delivered solid work both as a starter and reliever.

Leo Durocher, 1947 Street & Smith’s
     
 

On offense, the Dodgers were the class of the league in virtually every major category. Camilli was enjoying a career year at the plate and would finish as the league leader with 34 homers and 120 RBIs. Medwick sprayed liners all over Ebbets Field and, to the delight of  Brooklyn fans, Walker assumed right field duties after Waner was traded away just 11 games in a Dodger uniform.

But the man who made the Dodgers go was Pete. Still considered a rookie by the standards of the day, he started hot and stayed hot, torturing enemy pitchers at the plate and on the basepaths. In the outfield, he made remarkable catches and throw. Pete played the game with a wild, wide smile on his face. His teammates and the Brooklyn fans knew they were seeing something rare and special, thought secretly they wondered when his hot streak would end.

It never did. While Joe DiMaggio was capturing America’s imagination with his batting streak in the Bronx, Pete was giving Brooklyn fans daily thrills of his own. He finished the year with a .343 average to win the batting crown by a wide margin. He also led the NL with 39 doubles, 17 triples, and 117 runs scored.

Pete was selected to start the All-Star Game in Detroit that summer. He batted third and played center field between Terry Moore of the Cardinals, a childhood hero, and Swish Nicholson of the Cubs. Pete went the whole way, taking an 0-for-4 in a game that ended with Williams’s dramatic ninth-inning homer off Claude Passeau.

Pete stole only four bases in 1941, though he was roundly hailed as the swiftest runner in the game. The Dodger power hitters were so good, and the pitchers so stingy, that Durocher rarely had to order steals or hit-and-run plays. Pete also topped the NL with a .558 slugging percentage, edging Camilli by two points. Camilli would later win the MVP award, with 19 first-place votes to Pete’s two. Wyatt, Higbe and Walker also finished among the Top 10 in the balloting.

The Dodgers and Cardinals battled through a grueling summer atop the standings, while the Reds started slowly and were never a factor in the race. The lead changed hands again and again, and neither Brooklyn nor St. Louis could open up more than a three-game bulge. In mid-September, the Dodgers visited the Cards for a three-game series with a one-game lead. Freddie Fitzsimmons won the opener in extra innings, the Cardinals took the second game, and then Brooklyn broke a scoreless tie in the eighth inning of third game for a 1–0 victory. The Dodgers maintained their advantage the rest of the way to win the pennant. For the first time in team history, Brooklyn won 100 games.

Pete and his teammates arrived in Grand Central Station after a raucous train ride back from the clinching game in Boston. So many Brooklyn fans were waiting to greet them that all other trains had to be delayed for an hour. The mood turned serious, though, when the players considered the task ahead. In the World Series, they would face DiMaggio’s Yankees, a team loaded with power, speed and pitching that had made a mockery of the AL pennant race. Brooklyn’s edge was that the team had been playing meaningful baseball right to the end of the season. The Yankees had wrapped things up with two weeks to go.

The World Series opened in the Bronx in front of a record-setting postseason crowd of 68,540. The opener turned on an unsuccessful gamble by Reese, who tried to go from second to third on a pop-out to the left side. Red Rolfe alertly threw to Phil Rizzuto, who applied the tag to kill a seventh-inning rally. The Dodgers lost 3–2. Brooklyn then returned the favor, winning Game 2 by the same score behind Wyatt.

Durocher started Fitzsimmons in Game 3 at Ebbets Field. The 39-year-old had been a revelation during the season, going 6–1 and pitching deep into his starts. He dazzled the Yankees for six innings but was knocked out of the box, literally, by a line drive off the bat of opposing starter Marius Russo. New York scored twice off Casey in the eighth to win 2–1. Pete got his first hit of the series, a lead-off double in the seventh, but was stranded on third.

Down two games to one, the Dodgers did not panic—Brooklyn could easily have notched three wins had the team gotten a break or two. The were well on their way to evening the series when Casey took the mound in the top of ninth with the Dodgers leading 4–3. The big reliever had entered the game in the fifth inning with New York up 3–2.  In the bottom of the fifth, Pete crushed an Atley Donald pitch over the scoreboard scoring Walker ahead of him and sending the Brooklyn fans into orbit.

Dolph Camilli, 1941 Playball
     
 

Casey allowed two quiet hits in the sixth, seventh, and eighth, and was in command in the ninth, having retired the first two Yankees on grounders. New York’s last hope, Tommy Henrich, swung through strike three, but catcher Mickey Owen was unable to glove the ball, which had darted around Henrich’s ankles while he swung meekly trying to protect himself. Henrich alertly took first base.

This was trouble. The heart of the Yankee lineup was due up. DiMaggio pulled a pitch into left for a single and then Charlie Keller lined a double to right, scoring both runners. Looking back, this would have been an ideal time to bring in a lefty to face the left-handed Keller—and Durocher had an arm warm in the bullpen, veteran Larry French. But he froze, and after Casey slipped two quick strikes past Keller, the Brooklyn manager thought the game was in hand. He whistled to get Owen’s attention and signaled for a chest-high breaking ball. This was the pitch that Keller hit off the screen for two bases. Adding to Brooklyn’s bad luck, the ball caught the lip of the fence as it trickled down the screen and popped in the air. This allowed DiMaggio to score the go-ahead run all the way from first base.

Casey pitched around Bill Dickey to set up a force out, but Joe Gordon doubled over left fielder Jimmy Wasdell to plate both runners and make the score 7–4. In the bottom of the ninth, relief specialist Johnny Murphy got Reese to foul out and Walker to ground to Rizzuto. Pete was Brooklyn’s last hope. He bounced a ball in the hole between first and second. Johnny Sturm gloved the roller and tossed to Murphy, who nipped Pete at first to end the game. The air had been let out of Brooklyn’s balloon. The locker room was deathly silent afterwards. In the Yankee clubhouse, DiMaggio correctly predicted, “They’ll never recover from this one.”

Pete drove in Brooklyn’s only run in Game 5 with a third-inning sacrifice fly to the wall in right field. The Yankees had already put two runs on the board against Wyatt and added another in the fifth inning to win, 3–1.

In some quarters it is believed that Brooklyn’s unholy collapse in October of 1941 brought into the baseball lexicon the famous, “Wait ’Til Next Year.” If that is indeed the case, Dodger fans had every reason to believe they would be back in the Fall Classic. Indeed, the team headed into 1942 brimming with confidence—and bolstered at third base, where former batting champ Arky Vaughan was acquired to replace of Cookie Lavagetto, who had enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor.

The rest of the team was unchanged, and while veterans Camilli and Wyatt may have been a year older, young guns (and roommates) Pete and Pee Wee were a year wiser. They were also married men. Pete tied the knot in the spring of 1942 with his fiancée, Pat Hurst. That same day Pete and Pat had served as best man and maid of honor at the Reeses’ wedding. The Reisers had their first daughter, Shirley, a year later.

As good as Pete had been in 1941, he was even better in 1942. Few who saw him in the season’s first half questioned whether he would repeat as batting champ. Some—including Pete himself—thought he could follow up Ted Williams’s .406 campaign with a .400 season of his own. His roommate was having a fine year, too. Sportswriters were calling Pete and Pee Wee the “Gold Dust Twins.”

That July, Pete started his second straight All-Star Game, this time in the Polo Grounds. Lou Boudreau homered to open the game, and Rudy York followed with a two-run shot. The NL never caught up, losing 3–1. Pete went 1-for-3 with a fourth-inning single, but he was stranded on second. His Brooklyn teammate Owen scored the lone run for the senior circuit.

Later in July, the Dodgers—ahead in the standings by a seemingly insurmountable 13 and ½ games—went into St. Louis for a series. Pete was playing as well as anyone in baseball. He had hit safely in 19 of his last 21 at -ats, raising his average above .380. In the 13th inning of a 0–0 tie, Enos Slaughter belted a long drive off Wyatt. Pete raced toward the wall in center. There was no warning track at Sportsman’s Park, so he was flying blind. After narrowly avoiding the flagpole that rose from the playing field, Pete reeled in Slaughter’s hit in full stride—and then hit the concrete wall an instant later. The ball fell from his glove and, although dazed, he threw to the cutoff man, Reese. By the time he fired the ball home, Slaughter had scored the winning run.

All attention turned to Pete, who lay on the field motionless, facing the sky, his shoulder separated and blood trickling from his ears. When Durocher reached him, the manager started to cry. Pete was carried off on a stretcher and woke up the next morning in the hospital with a fractured skull and a brain injury. The St. Louis team doctor examined Pete and recommended that he not return to the field that season. In the era before the effects of a concussion were fully understood, Pete refused the advice. He was dizzy, had a hard time focusing, and felt weak, but there was no keeping him out of the lineup.

Pete would never be the same player again.

Pete couldn’t hit his weight in the second half, even trying to switch-hit to minimize the pain in his shoulder. The Dodgers watched their lead evaporate as St. Louis won 45 of its final 51 games to edge Brooklyn by two down the stretch. From the heights of July, Pete ended up batting .310 and still led the NL with 20 steals. Prior to the injury, teammate Billy Herman—who had played with Hall of Famers Chuck Klein and Hack Wilson—said Pete was the greatest player he had ever seen on a baseball field.

After the season, Pete decided to do his bit for the war. He attempted to enlist in the Navy but flunked his physical and was classified 4–F. In January he tried again, this time at an Army recruiting office. Pete was about to be rejected when an officer recognized him and waved him through. Soon he was on his way to Ft. Riley in Kansas.

If baseball was tough on Pete’s body, military life was even worse. After marching 50 miles in below-zero weather, he started feeling woozy and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Doctors were ready to issue a medical discharge when the base commander realized he had the great Pete Reiser in the infirmary. He decided to keep him at Ft. Riley so he could play for the camp baseball team.

Hugh Casey, 1939 Exhibit
     
 

The deal the base commander made with Pete was that he could be excused from all duties, leave the base virtually whenever he liked, and have his own private room. When Pete’s drill sergeant heard, he almost passed out. With that kind of set-up, Pete decided to stay and play. Over the next two years, Ft. Riley put together quite a team. It included Joe Garagiola, Lonnie Frey, Harry Walker, Al Brazle, Murray Dickson, Rex Barney, Ken Heintzelman and Frank “Creepy” Crespi.

One player who didn’t make the club was an African-American lieutenant who was told he had to play with the “colored” team. There was no such team at Ft. Riley. That solider watched the players practice a while and then turned and walked away. It was Pete’s future Brooklyn teammate, Jackie Robinson.

Even on an Army team, Pete was incapable of letting up. Once he was chasing a fly ball and burrowed right through the thick hedge that formed the outfield wall—and down a ten-foot drainage ditch on the opposite side. He separated his shoulder and couldn’t throw. So he simply switched to a right-handed glove and threw with his left arm, as he had done in Elmira in 1939.

In 1945, Pete was transferred to Camp Lee, in Virginia. When the war ended, he was almost sent to Japan as part of a team that would play exhibitions to entertain the troops. Luckily, a base doctor looked at his medical records and was appalled. Clearly, Pete never should have been let into the Army in the first place. he was discharged early in 1946, in time to catch up with the Dodgers in spring training.

The Brooklyn brass noticed right away that Pete no longer had a major-league arm. Previously, there had been discussions within the organization that he might be better off in the infield, if only from a self-preservation standpoint. But now that was out of the question. Of course, in his first exhibition start, Pete drilled three hits and drew three walks, so he wasn’t about to lost his starting job in the outfield.

The team Pete rejoined had changed dramatically in four years. Medwick, Vaughan and French had retired. Camilli and Wyatt had been traded and did not make a major league roster in 1946. Davis was in camp and made the club, but he didn’t last the season. Herman couldn't cut it anymore at second. He lost his job to Eddie Stanky and was later dealt to the Milwaukee Braves. Owen had been drummed out of baseball for joining the outlaw Mexican League. Owner Jorge Pasquale offered Pete $100,000 to make the same jump, but he turned him down.

Besides Pete, the only other holdovers were Reese at shortstop, Walker in the outfield, and pitchers Higbe and Casey. Still, it was a terrific nucleus. Reese was a budding superstar, and Walker was producing solid numbers in the twilight of a long career. The famously profane Higbe was the team’s top starter. Casey was so ornery that he once threw at Marty Marion—while Marion was watching him warm up.

And of course there was Durocher. As for the rest of the team, it was a combination of old and new. Strong-armed Carl Furillo laid claim to the right field job, Bruce Edwards and Ferrell Anderson split catching duties, third base was a merry-go-round (of which Pete would be a member for 15 games), and first base was a platoon scheme between Howie Schultz and Ed Stevens. Baseball had been blessed by a wave of returning talent, but as the Brooklyn lineup proved, sorting through it all wasn’t a simple matter.

That being said, Durocher did a fantastic job. He coaxed good years out of unknown players and, with one game to go, the Dodgers were tied with the Cardinals at 96–57. Mort Cooper of the Braves shutout Brooklyn on the final day of the season, while the Cardinals lost to the Cubs—forcing the first best-of-three playoff in National League history. The Dodgers fell in the playoffs to St. Louis, 4–2 and 8–4.

All of this happened without Pete. His season had ended early with a fractured fibula, suffered during a stolen base attempt against the Cubs. Prior to that, Pete had reinjured his shoulder and limped through a series of minor pulls, sprains and strains. The shoulder got so bad he was moved to left field. He often threw the ball underhand. In an August game with the Cardinals, he ran into the left field wall chasing a Whitey Kurowski hit. While convalescing at home, he burned his hands lighting the oven for his wife. It just wasn't Pete’s year.

Even so, Pete could still run. He led the league with 34 stolen bases—including seven steals of home. He batted .277 in 122 games and led the team with 11 home runs, three of which were inside-the-park jobs. By the time Pete hurt his ankle, however, his swing had become hitched and choppy because of the aching shoulder. He was basically a slap hitter in the second half.

Baseball fans really wanted Pete to return to form and, until the injury, it seemed as if he was headed in the right direction. He was on the field for the All-Star Game in July, albeit as a replacement pick for Reese.

Alas, like Pete, many young prewar stars had come back from military duty and clearly lost their edge. This was a constant story throughout the season. No one knew whether these players had lost it for good or just needed a little more time. John Tunis published a popular novel that year, The Kid Comes Back, which was loosely based on Pete. The story of fictional Roy Tucker (aka The Kid)  turned out much better. Pete simply wasn't driving the ball with the same authority anymore.

Joe Garagiola, TCMA 1950s
     
 

The 1947 Dodgers had an entirely new look, both literally and figuratively. The previous season, Rickey—now the GM in Brooklyn—had signed Jackie Robinson and farmed him out to the team’s top minor-league club in Montreal. Now Robinson was in camp and slotted to take over at first base. The Dodgers were looking at other African-American players, too; later that season pitcher Dan Bankhead joined the team.

A handful of Dodgers, led by Dixie Walker but not including Pete, threatened to boycott the season if they were forced to play with Robinson. Rickey called their bluff, restoring order.  Durocher put it another way. He pointed out that Robinson was going to put cash in their pockets. Had the team had him on the roster in 1946, Brooklyn probably would have cruised to the pennant. Durocher was always a dollars-and-cents guy.  Apparently too much so for the taste of baseball, for prior to the start of the season, he was suspended for consorting with gamblers. Burt Shotton took over managerial duties.

Robinson lived up to his billing, and then some. He batted .297 and led the league with 29 stolen bases. He tied for the team lead in home runs and scored 125 runs, second only to slugger Johnny Mize. Robinson was even more of a distraction on the bases than Pete had been. He also did a fine job at first base, a position he hadn’t played before.

The Dodgers needed their new sparkplug, because Pete suffered through a second-straight injury-plagued campaign. The big blow came when he ran into the wall at Ebbets Field chasing a ball hit by Culley Rikard of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pete hung onto the ball for the out, but he fractured his skull. The injury was so bad that last rites were performed. He lay in a hospital bed for five days, hovering between life and death.

When Pete was in the lineup in 1947, he was a solid contributor. In 110 games, he batted .308 with decent gap power and plenty of speed. He finished second to Robinson in the NL stolen base race, with 14. The Dodgers won with Pete and without him. At season’s end their record was 94–60, five games better than the second-place Cardinals.

For Pete, the ill effects of the head injury—plus a sore leg—were evident in the World Series against the Yankees. He misplayed a couple of balls in the first two games—both losses at Yankee Stadium—and spent the remainder of the series as a bench player. Pete actually started Game 3, which the Dodgers won 9–8. He was at the plate in the first inning when Robinson stole second and then was thrown out trying to take third when the ball got away. Pete drew a walk and tried to steal as well, but he was gunned down by Sherm Lollar. He tweaked his ankle on the play and limped into the outfield. When Pete’s turn came again in the midst of a six-run second inning, Shotton sent Furillo to the plate to hit for him. Furillo promptly doubled in two runs.

Pete saw action as a pinch-hitter in the pivotal ninth inning of Game 4, when Bill Bevens tried to complete the first World Series no-hitter. Leading 2–1, Bevens intentionally walked Pete with two outs and Al Gionfriddo standing on second. A free pass to put the winning run on base was hardly sound baseball strategy, but it had been a wacky game up to that point, with Bevens already having walked nine hitters.

Sensing an opportunity, Shotton sent Eddie Miksis in to run for Pete and tabbed Cookie Lavagetto in to hit for Stanky. Lavagetto took Bevens’s second offering the other way, launching it into the screen in right field. By the time Tommy Henrich retrieved the ball and got it back to the infield, Miksis was on his way home with the winning run.

The Yankees and Dodgers split the next two games, with Gionfriddo famously hauling in a DiMaggio bomb to left field to save Game 6. Pete had already seen his last bit of playing time by then, drawing a walk in Game 5 and then heading to the bench with Miksis running for him again. Furillo was now the team’s center fielder. The Dodgers led Game 7 in Yankee Stadium, but Joe Page shut them down in a five-inning relief stint and New York came back to win, 5–2.

Pete would never be a regular player again. In 1948, Durocher returned to the helm and saw that Pete was no longer capable of playing the outfield. Still recalling the young superstar from years earlier, Durocher believed that he should at least keep Pete’s bat in the lineup. Pete played first base in spring training. Robinson, meanwhile, would move to second. Stanky was a holdout, and Rickey planned to trade him, which would create an opening for Robinson. Pete was a candidate for the first base job until Leo saw him in action and realized quickly that he needed to look elsewhere. Pete had gained a few pounds and was sluggish around the bag. Eventually, raw-boned Gil Hodges—a backup catcher—and young Preston Ward would split the position, with Robinson holding down the fort until they proved worthy of everyday action.

As for Pete, he would see sporadic playing time in the outfield while also spelling newcomer Billy Cox at third base for a few games. Mostly, Pete was used as a pinch-hitter and fill-in outfielder. He spent much of the season on the injured list and finished with a .236 average in 64 games.

The Dodgers got off to a dismal start in 1948 and eventually Shotton was brought back to manage the club. Brooklyn’s record improved, but the club was unable to catch the surprising Boston Braves. The Dodgers finished a distant third. Pete was not a fan of Shotton’s, and after the season he asked Rickey to trade him. The GM obliged, engineering a minor swap with the Braves for journeyman Mike McCormick.

Jackie Robinson, 1952 Berk Ross
     
 

Though no more than a bench player, Pete enjoyed a minor renaissance in Boston in 1949 at the age of 30—though the Braves failed to repeat as NL champs, playing .500 ball most of the year. Pete saw action in the outfield and at third and collected 19 extra-base hits among his total of 60. He batted .271 and stole three bases. His 1950 campaign was a different story. His average sank to .205, and he was no help to the club, which finished fourth for the second year in a row. The Braves released Pete after the season.

Less than a week after Pete left the Braves, Rickey—now running the Pirates—acquired him for the third time. He proved to be a handy bench player for manager Billy Meyer, hitting .271 in 74 appearances. Rickey released Pete after the season but offered him a chance to manage Pittsburgh’s farm club in New Orleans.

Pete turned down the opportunity. He felt he had some more good baseball in him. He was signed in February of 1952 by the Indians. Cleveland had finished second under new manager Al Lopez the previous year. Lopez had been a catcher with Pittsburgh when Pete broke in, and they were teammates at the 1941 All-Star Game.

The Indians finished second again in 1952. Pete was primarily a pinch-hitter and played 10 games in the outfield. He batted a paltry .136 with three homers in the first half and played his final game as a major leaguer on July 5th. The injury that ended his career was a separated shoulder, suffered in a game against the Yankees.

Pete might have stayed with the Indians, but he was needed at home by his family. Sally, the younger of his two daughters, had severe developmental problems, and Pete wanted to be closer to home while he and his wife decided their next move. When he told Lopez why he was saying goodbye to baseball, the Cleveland skipper cried. Like everyone who had seen Pete in his prime, he was saddened by the thought of a good guy and great player with such relentlessly horrible luck.

Most players must wait for decades to appreciate their legacy. In Pete’s case, he could look at two notable distinctions—one with pride and the other with irony. The Dodgers, a hapless collection of clowns and losers in the years before he arrived in Brooklyn, now believed they could win every year. Pete had made them believe with his phenomenal 1941 season. Also, by the early 1950s, most teams had either installed warning tracks or at least planned to, and some stadiums were also starting to pad their walls. The first padded wall at Ebbets Field was made of cork. Given how hard Pete hit that wall, it is doubtful anything other than modern foam cushioning would have saved him. In the heat of the moment, he could just never pull up and play it safe. Every fly ball was his to catch, and catch them all he would—or kill himself trying.

In their 10 years of marriage, Pete and Pat had managed to save more than $30,000. He used their savings to open an automobile dealership in St. Louis. His timing couldn't have been worse. Car manufacturers cut back prices in the early 1950s, and he could not stay afloat. The Reisers lost everything. Never one to quit, Pete fell back on an old hobby, woodworking. He began turning out doors and various fixtures for a local lumber company. It paid the bills.

Pete started rethinking his decision about managing in the minors and wrote Walter O’Malley a letter asking if there was a job available in the Dodger system. A major reason he had turned down Rickey’s offer in Pittsburgh was that he always considered himself a Dodger. In 1955, Buzzy Bavasi called Pete and offered him the manager’s job at the Dodgers’ Class-D affiliate in Thomasville, Georgia.

Pete showed up at spring training and began working out with the minor leaguers. In the back of his mind, he thought the Dodgers might notice how well he was hitting and running and sign him as a bench player. But when his vision problems returned he knew his playing days were over. Seven concussions and a balky shoulder were simply too much to overcome.

There is no official count of Pete’s baseball injuries, but the best guess reads something like a dozen collisions with unpadded fences, five skull fractures (he claimed only four), a chronically dislocated shoulder, two broken ankles, damaged knee cartilage and torn muscles in his left leg, and two beanings (in the days before batting helmets). He was carried off the field on a stretcher 11 times—six times conscious, five times not.

So Pete set his sights on making it to the majors as a coach or manager. He actually enjoyed the experience and did a good job with the young players in 1955. When the Dodgers finally won the World Series that fall, he felt great pride. If he couldn’t get a ring, he was delighted that his buddy Reese could.

In 1956, the Dodgers moved Pete to Kokomo of the Midwest League. He managed there two seasons. In 1957. he got to work with Tommy Davis, who was 18 at the time. Davis batted .356 to lead the league. Another of Pete’s players, Tim Harkness, finished second with a .349 average. A third player, Tony Lembo was the fourth best hitter in the league.

Pete Reiser, 1949 Bowman
     
 

The Dodgers rewarded Pete’s tutoring success with a promotion to the Class-B Green Bay Blue Jays in 1958. There he coached 21-year-old Frank Howard in the fine points of power hitting. Howard batted .333 and led the Three–I League with 37 homers. Another promotion followed for Pete, and in 1959 he managed the Victoria Rosebuds of the Class-AA Texas League. He had Howard again, along with two other sluggers, Charley Smith and Carl Warwick. All three would become regulars in the majors.

Sure enough, in 1960, Pete was invited to join Walter Alston’s staff in Los Angeles, a few months after the Dodgers had won it all. For Pete’s first two seasons, the Dodgers played in the horseshoe-shaped Coliseum and concentrated on producing big innings. When they moved to Chavez Ravine in 1962, the team switched to small ball. This was Pete’s chance to shine. He had been working with shortstop Maury Wills on the finer points of base stealing, helping to transform him into the league leader with 50 steals in 1960 and 35 in 1961. With the stolen base becoming one of the team’s primary weapons in their new home, Pete and Wills set out to make a little history.

They developed a set of unwritten rules—when to go, when not to go, and how to distinguish a legitimate opportunity from what Pete called a “honeymoon steal.” He also urged Wills to level with Alston when he felt that a pitcher’s pickoff move was too hard to read. Alston would not bunt Wills to second unless he knew that he couldn’t steal, so honestly was important. The result was a 104-steal season, breaking Ty Cobb’s record and earning Wills the MVP award that Pete have just missed 21 years earlier. Willis later called Pete his “mentor.”

Pete continued coaching for the Dodgers through the 1964 season. He got his long-awaited World Series ring in 1963, when the Dodgers swept the Yankees. Pete left the team in 1965 after suffering a heart attack while hitting fungoes during spring training. He was 46 at the time. The team had slated him to manage the Class-AAA club in Spokane, a job that theoretically put him in line to be Alston’s heir apparent. Ironically, Duke Snider, who became the Dodgers’ center fielder after Pete was traded in 1949, replaced him at Spokane.

Pete’s old manager, Durocher, was also a member of Alston’s coaching staff from 1960 to 1964. He saw with his own eyes what Pete could offer from an instructional standpoint. So in 1966, when Durocher was hired to manage the Cubs, he gave Pete a call. Pete agreed to give scouting a try. It didn’t really suit him, so when Chicago’s Texas League team in Dallas needed a replacement manager in late May, he agreed to get back in uniform. By the end of the season, he was in the dugout at Wrigley Field, by Leo’s side. The Cubs finished in the cellar with 103 losses.

The following season, Pete returned as a member of the coaching staff, and the Cubs began to rise in the standings. They finished third, with an 87–74 record. Chicago didn’t have much in the way of team speed, relying instead on power to generate runs. The only real base-stealing threat was outfielder Adolfo Phillips, who swiped 24 bags. Pete would enjoy his greatest coaching success with the Latino players under his charge. He felt they brought the same aggressiveness and joy to the game that he had so many years earlier.

Pete stayed with the Cubs through their infamous 1969 season, when they yielded an early-summer lead to the no-name New York Mets. Durocher tried to ride his aging horses all the way home in the heat of a Chicago summer and the team just ran out of gas. Pete must have felt a strange sense of déja vu. He’d seen Leo do it before.

Pete didn’t have the strength to go through another season with his old manager and began casting about for another baseball job. He got an offer from Lefty Phillips, a longtime coach for the Dodgers, who was managing the California Angels. He and Pete had spent time together during spring training in Vero Beach in the 1960s, and Phillips became Alston’s pitching coach the year Pete had his heart problem.

In 1970, Pete worked with Sandy Alomar on his base stealing and Alex Johnson on his hitting. Alomar topped 30 steals for the first time—and would do so again in 1971. Johnson won the batting title. How much credit Pete could take for this transformation is pure conjecture. The taciturn Johnson must have driven Pete crazy, particular with his attitude in the field, which was the polar opposite of Pete’s. To Johnson, walls weren’t for crashing into. They provided shade on hot days.

Pete spent two years on Phillips’s staff and left when the team fired the manager and hired Del Rice for the 1972 season. The welcome mat was always out for Pete in Chicago as long as Durocher was there, and he returned to the Cubs. He stayed with them through the wild 1973 NL East race, when the Cubs were part of a five-way logjam. By then, Durocher was long gone, and Whitey Lockman was the manager. Earlier in the season, Pete was carried off a baseball field for the 12th time. During a brawl with the San Francisco Giants, someone clocked him and he disappeared under the pile, unconscious.

Dodgers coaches, 1960 Topps
     
 

In 1976, Pete, now balding, was honored by the New York baseball writers at a banquet where he received the You Could Look It Up award. The joke was that the wall at Ebbets Field wouldn’t yield, but Pete's hair finally did. He was serenaded with a ditty sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” On the dais with Pete was Mickey Mantle, who was on his way to Cooperstown that summer. Pete was the Mick, a decade before Mantle hit the scene. The irony was not lost on those in attendance. Many baseball people who saw both in their primes answered without hesitation when asked who was the greatest player they ever saw: “Pete Reiser.”

Pete did some scouting for the Cubs in the late 1970s until he couldn’t hold up to the travel anymore. Following the 1981 season, he announced to his wife that he was retiring for good.

Two days later, Pete hit his final wall. The newswires on October 25th carried the story of his death at 62. The cause was listed as a respiratory illness. Pete had been a heavy smoker since his teen years. The emphysema that killed him was one final stroke of bad luck.

 

Pete Reiser, 1948 Bowman
 

 


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