July 6, 2020

Pete Reiser: A Man Forgotten

With strained eyelids and back spasms from sneezing causing today’s major leaguers to miss time on the field, Pete Reiser must be rolling in his grave. “Pistol Pete” may not be one of the common Brooklyn Dodger greats remembered today, along with Jackie Robinson or Duke Snider, but he a main cog in building the foundation of early success for the Dodgers.

According to famed manager Leo Durocher, who coached baseball legends like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, Pete Reiser, “just might have been the best ballplayer I ever saw.” Blessed with blazing speed and gap power, added by playing at Ebbets Field, the Dodger outfielder took the majors by storm as a 22 year old rookie in 1941. After leading the league in runs, batting average, and total bases (along with doubles and triples), Reiser helped propel Brooklyn to the pennant with a 100-54 record. Along with his explosive offensive game, the Dodger centerfielder ranked first in range factor (RF/g) and third in assists manning the game’s premier position. Although Brooklyn would lose in the World Series, they fell to a superior Yankee team, who had three players in the top 7 of the MVP voting including Joe Dimaggio.

In 1942, Pete Reiser’s major league career can be found in a nutshell. Heading into a July 2nd game against the St. Louis Cardinals, he was leading in National League in hitting at a scorching .383 pace. Then, in what would be a reoccurring theme in his time as a player, Reiser smashed into the centerfield wall in St. Louis after trying to track down an Enos Slaughter drive. After suffering a sever concussion along with a shoulder separation, Reiser would be limited the rest of the year as the Dodgers would finish second, albeit with 104 wins, to those same Cardinals for the NL pennant. Even with almost half of his season robbed of injury, the centerfielder still led the National League with 20 stolen bases and finished 6th on the MVP ballot.

In the prime of his career at age 24, Pete Reiser, like many other baseball greats, had to dedicate their life to the military because of World War II. He missed three years due to service and came back hindered again by an injury suffered overseas.

Even after his return from the military in 1946, Reiser set a National League record with seven steals of home, and it could’ve been an eighth except for a blown call. Although he had to bat left-handed most of the time due to injury, curbing his natural switch-hitting ability, Pete ranked in the top 10 in slugging percentage, led the league with a career high 34 stolen bases, and had the best Power/Speed numbers in the majors. Even after toiling out of baseball for three years, the former Dodger great not only contributed, but was voted again in the top 10 of the NL MVP and was arguably the best player on that team along with Dixie Walker.

With his career declining because of his reckless play, which included being carried off the field eleven times, Reiser hung around the majors for another five years for the Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cleveland Indians never appearing in more than 260 ABs in a season. In 1952, he hung up his cleats because of a bout with dizziness.

The impact of Pete’s career can still be felt today, as his play helped Major League Baseball develop the use of padded outfield walls and warning tracks in the outfield. Although it may not have saved his career, the safety regulations surely helped the careers of outfield patrollers like Willie Mays and Duke Snider.

Speaking of “The Duke,” who was Pete Reiser’s heir to centerfield? None other than Hall of Famer Duke Snider. After the 1947 season, Duke was called up to play center and played in 53 games in ’48, before taking over the position for good in 1949.

One of the biggest what-ifs in Brooklyn Dodger history centers around these two players. Had Reiser not fell to injury and came back strong from his military service, would the Dodgers have had a need to bring up the 21-year old prospect they had in Snider. By 1949, if Snider still had been called up, the Dodger outfield would have been Duke, Carl Furilo, and a 30 year old Reiser. With one of the missing pieces of the Brooklyn dynasty a third outfielder, the former Dodger great would have rounded out that team as well as providing another speed option behind Jackie Robinson. Reiser’s presence could have pushed that Dodger team over the hump much earlier and added a stable veteran presence in that clubhouse.

Dubbed the greatest talent ever to come out of Brooklyn, “Pistol Pete” remains a cautionary tale of the difficult conditions that ballplayers of the 1940s and ’50s had to deal with. Whether it was military service or injury, baseball lost valuable years of many superstars careers. Often compared favorably to the “Say Hey Kid,” Reiser had the respect of his peers and coaches as a once and a generation talent.