Coulda been a contender
You don’t often hear it said of a baseball player that he plays too hard these days, but that perfectly describes former Brooklyn Dodger Pete Reiser; unfortunately, that style of play probably cost him a spot at Cooperstown. Author Dan Joseph documents Reiser’s story in his latest book, Baseball’s Greatest What If: The Story and Tragedy of Pistol Pete Reiser. The “what if” refers to what might have happened to Reiser’s career if he hadn’t played with such abandon.
Joseph, a Washington, D.C.-based editor with Voice of America, developed his love of baseball while growing up on Lakemont Drive, where his parents still live. He recalls that when he was around 7 years old, he was at South Park with his dad and noticed a hole in the ground. He poked at it with a stick and a surge of hornets came streaming out, stinging him multiple times. “I went home, and while my mom was putting ice on the stings, there was a Pirate game on TV. I began focusing on the game rather than on the hornet stings, and from that night on I was hooked. The Pirates were really good then, and baseball became my passion.”
In 2020, Joseph authored Last Ride of the Iron Horse, an account of Lou Gehrig’s final season.
Reiser began his major league career in 1940 with the Dodgers. He had a propensity for crashing into outfield walls.
“He was really going to be a superstar but he had one flaw,” Joseph said. “He played too hard. Sometimes he would injure himself, and he would run into outfield walls while chasing a fly ball.” Back then, the walls had no padding and there was no warning track, so he endured several serious injuries. He once ran into a wall so hard that he suffered a concussion, opening a gash on his head; it was so serious that the Dodgers called in a priest to administer last rites. Reiser survived that crash, but over the course of his career, he suffered four more concussions, two broken ankles, a separated shoulder, and a dislocated shoulder, among other injuries.
Much had been written about Reiser, but Joseph felt the complete story hadn’t been told. His research led him to Reiser’s daughter and son-in-law, who live in the Los Angeles area and provided information from their collection of scrapbooks and memorabilia.
“It seems to have been almost a universal opinion among sportswriters of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s that Pete was destined to be one of the best,” Joseph said. “He really deserved a better fate. In addition to all of his injuries, he spent three years of his career in the military. He played on an Army base during World War II, and he played so hard, he ran through the fence and tumbled into a drainage ditch, separating his shoulder. And this was Army ball—he was getting $50 a month—but he approached it like it was game seven of the World Series.”
Reiser returned from military service and resumed his injury-plagued career, spending time with the Dodgers, the Boston Braves, the Pirates and the Indians, before retiring in 1952 at age 33. Along the way, Reiser was a three-time All-Star, led the National League in batting in 1941 and in stolen bases in 1942 and 1946. He retired with a lifetime batting average of .295.
Some players develop reputations after their careers are over that don’t quite match their actual achievements on the field. “In Reiser’s case, some of his feats did get exaggerated, and I wanted to give the accurate story,” Joseph said. “I like bringing the true story to light.”