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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

The Rise and Repeated Falls of a Reckless Hero
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel

Sidney Jacobson. Pete Reiser: The Rough-and-Tumble Career of the Perfect Ballplayer. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004, 240 pp., $29.95, paper.

 

In the early 1940s, baseball insiders across the country named Pistol Pete Reiser as the greatest player in the game—and, perhaps, the greatest ever to play. Leo Durocher said it. Branch Rickey said it. Top sportswriters like Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon said it. Author Sidney Jacobson reminds us of those superlatives at the start of each chapter of this book, offering up a series of gushing quotes from awe-struck witnesses of Reiser's hellbent-for-fury style of play.

Here was a kid who'd become the first rookie ever to win the National League batting title. A basestealing demon who set the record for steals of home in a season; a ground-devouring outfielder with a rifle for an arm. A doubles hitter with growing power who'd only recently converted himself from a frighteningly effective right-handed hitter into a switch hitter, and then into a lefty only. He'd stunned scouts at a Cardinal tryout as an underage fifteen-year-old, prompting Branch Rickey to break several rules of professional baseball in a vain attempt to control Reiser's playing rights.

Pistol Pete led the Dodgers to their first World Series in over twenty years, and in only his second year in the majors, threatened the .400 mark. As an exemplar of determination and will to win under fire, he presaged Jackie Robinson, one of the finest pressure players ever. No wonder Jacobson calls him "the perfect ballplayer."

So how come we missed Reiser on the All-Century Team? Why no plaque in the Hall of Fame? Shouldn't he at least have been part of the fabled Boys of Summer in the 1950s?

The answer to all that lies in the first part of Jacobson's subtitle: "the rough-and-tumble career"—with heavy emphasis on the "tumble" part. Reiser was not a man who understood limits; nor, seemingly, was he a man whom fortune favored. To get right down to it, and to understand the tragedy that this book attempts to unfold, here's Jacobson summing up:

 

Pete Reiser collided with outfield walls seven times in his career, collapsing unconscious after five of them. The other two collisions resulted in a dislocation of his left shoulder and a fracture of his collarbone. While running the bases, he suffered fractures of both ankles, wrecked the cartilage in one knee and ripped the muscles of a leg. Two times he was beaned while wearing the most primitive and useless of batting helmets. All told, he was carried off the playing field 11 times.

 

Digest that for a moment.

And you thought Mickey Mantle or Ken Griffey Jr. had it bad.

That's the backdrop to this story. It ends badly, no question about that. But what makes it fascinating—and what drove Sidney Jacobson to complete this labor of love—are the shared memories of those lucky ones who once watched a young master at work, who saw the growth and unfolding of "the perfect ballplayer" right before their eyes . . . and who couldn't stop looking even as Reiser destroyed himself on field after field.

Much of this material is available elsewhere, perhaps most notably for EFQ readers in the excellent Paul Rogers piece, "Of Outfield Walls and Concussions: The Pete Reiser Story," which appeared in vol. 19, no. 3 (2002). Rogers covers the main Reiser legends and adds a couple of pieces that (if accurate) are overlooked here: Reiser's early experiments with throwing left-handed (Jacobson covers his later, somewhat desperate attempts in response to a lingering shoulder injury suffered by crashing through an outfield wall during WWII service ball play) and an apocryphal-sounding wartime encounter with Jackie Robinson.

Jacobson also draws heavily from a couple of baseball classics published in 1975: Leo Durocher's autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last and Donald Honig's oral history Baseball When the Grass Was Real, which includes a great interview with Pete himself.

Memory is a funny thing, though. Just because Leo or Pete remembered events a certain way doesn't mean that's what actually happened. On several occasions, Jacobson's research reveals the shifts from fact to fantasy that a legend in the making leaves behind. One example relates to Reiser's return from a beaning early in 1941. (Remember, this was his breakout year—and since he missed fewer than twenty games and landed in the hospital only a couple of times, it stands as his most complete.) Legend has it that the Pistol talked his way out of the hospital just two days after the beaning, promising that he would not try to play; then, at Durocher's urging, allowed himself to be inserted as a pinch hitter and promptly slugged a game-winning grand slam homer, though barely able to wobble slowly around the bases. The facts, as Jacobson has uncovered them, vary both in time frame and detail (though they're still highly dramatic), and alter significantly Durocher's role in the incident.

Why should we care so much about Durocher's place in all this? Because one of the underlying themes pursued by Jacobson is the culpability of Dodger management—primarily manager Durocher and general manager Larry MacPhail—in failing to protect the very lifeblood of the franchise. Of course, we can also fault these two for sheer inhumanity toward an increasingly battered young man, but what Jacobson wants to know is why, even though it was clearly in their own interests, did they not pad the outfield walls, or install a warning track, or work to improve the feeble plastic-insert "batting helmets"? For that matter, why not just give Reiser sufficient time to recover from his many injuries before throwing him back into the heat of the action?

Most saliently: "Was it possible that Reiser had a real and chronic problem of depth perception? Wasn't there a course of action that could keep him away from those outfield walls? . . . Here was a man who had originally come up as a shortstop, had played second and third in the majors, and had performed at every outfield position. Each of these positions, mind you, with skill if not brilliance. . . . If his throwing was still a problem, why not simply move Reiser to first base?"

The author goes on to dissect other Dodger position shifts, as well as related examples from around the league. He keeps raising this question—and nowhere do the Dodgers provide a reasonable answer.

Jacobson accomplishes several valuable things in this work. First, he compiles an impressive array of anecdotal evidence from fellow eyewitnesses to Pistol Pete's talent. Second, his flowing accounts of Pete's few glory seasons (essentially 1941, 1942, and 1946) bring to life the daily thrill of following Reiser's exploits. Third, he traces the close friendship and momentarily parallel histories of the Gold Dust Twins: Reiser and Pee Wee Reese.

Most important, his research turns up some new background details: a handwritten "biography" by Reiser that covers his 1938 season in the minors (photos of the work are included) and tape recordings made late in Reiser's life by his son-in-law, Rick Tuber. Included on these tapes are poignant statements by Reiser expressing doubts and frustrations that he never once set forth in any of his public comments. Just a quick slice:

"'I could have played third base,' Reiser reiterated. 'I was a heck of a third baseman. Bill McKechnie told me I was. He told me I was the best third baseman he'd ever seen.'

'Who can I sue?' Reiser asked his son-in-law in a voice that told you he rued his fate."

Besides the material specific to

Reiser, we also get a sense of the ebb and flow between the Dodgers and the Cardinals all through the decade of the 1940s. And, given Jacobson's status as a Flatbush boy, we get a good flavor of the borough and some of its early history. (I had never understood that Charlie Ebbets, who built Ebbets Field and became president of the Dodgers, started as a ticket seller for the team. But then, I'm pretty sure that's how it still works today.)

Jacobson also makes effective use of photos. Rather than piling everything into the middle of the book, which is often the case, these are sprinkled throughout the text, illuminating directly the subject of the adjoining pages. Sadly, this makes for an entire series of Pete being carried off on stretchers, almost like an old-fashioned flipbook, where you can ruffle the pages and create a sense of moving pictures. The cover shot of Reiser stealing home is a classic baseball moment and shows clearly his "peculiar slide" style that took umpires time to grasp and accommodate.

The book does have its weaknesses. The publisher most surely could have corrected the unnecessary typos, and the author would have benefitted from having a fact-checker give the manuscript a once-over. This could have eliminated some duplications and a handful of errors that appear to be simply the result of memory unproofed (e.g., page 92 understates the number of Yankee pennants prior to 1941 and then portrays the upcoming Yankees-Dodgers World Series that year as an "unprecedented Subway Series," though the Yankees and Giants had previously played three—as well as two other Series in which both teams shared the Polo Grounds).

I would also have liked more original research, though it may be that there are simply no more stories to be gleaned. Jacobson appears to have tapped out Pete's family members, and childhood friends or coaches are long dead, but his post-playing career as a coach in the majors and minors might have been explored further. Somehow I still feel on the outside of his essential character, though perhaps that's asking for pop psychology to tread where it has no place intruding.

What is clear is that as the years pass, there are fewer and fewer who can share the measure of the man. As the author says, "There is no easy way to gauge how good Pete Reiser really was. There is no esoteric mixture of statistics that would apply, no way of reading his complete records to appraise the player, no easy way to determine his ultimate value. That is, unless you were lucky enough to have watched him play or to study the accounts of those who did."

I never had the chance to watch him play but, to me, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Pistol Pete Reiser was as good as they get . . . but not everybody gets what they deserve.



—EFQ

 

DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He continues to coach youth baseball at various levels and is Director of Arts Education Programs for COMPAS, an arts organization in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

© 2005 Daniel Gabriel

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