Pete Reiser - When Hustle Was Expected
April 19, 2010
by William Szczepanek
Who stole home seven times in one season in the 1940s? If you answered Jackie Robinson, it would be a good guess, but wrong. Pete Reiser was the guy, and he exemplified what good baseball is all about. He could turn an out into a single with blazing speed. In his day he was the fastest from home to first. He was only .4 seconds off of world record time for the 100 yard dash, though he did not train as a track star. In 1946 he stole home, a National League record seven times. A bad call in Chicago on an attempt against Johnny Schmitz eliminated an eighth steal of home, which would have tied him with Ty Cobb for the all time Major League record. Rod Carew had seven steals in the American League in 1969 equalling Reiser for second in the Majors.
In 1941, Reiser won the NL batting title with a .343 batting average in his first full season in the majors. Playing in 137 games, he was the youngest batting champion of all time at age 22. He led the league in runs with 117, doubles -39, triples-17, a slugging percent of .558 with only 14 home runs, total bases-299, and hit by pitches - 11. No one remembers Reiser that year because a guy name "Ted" hit .406 in the American League, while another guy named "Joe" was hitting in 56 consecutive games. In 1941 Reiser was beaned twice, but it didn't slow him down, yet.
In 1942 he would be hitting around .400 in July before his first fateful meeting with an outfield wall. In an extra inning game against the Cardinals, Enos Slaughter drove one over his head in center field. Reiser sprinted for the ball as he approached the wall. He narrowly missed the flagpole, gloved the ball and then collided with the center field wall. The ball was knocked out of his glove, he retrieved it, threw it in and then collapsed unconscious ─ another severe concussion and fractured skull. Two days later Reiser is on the bench with no intention of playing. The game goes into the fourteenth inning with the winning run on second. Leo Durocher asked Reiser if he could hit. Naturally, Reiser agrees to hit, gets the winning hit, rounds first base and collapses unconscious and is out for the year. The Dodgers blow their lead for the pennant to the Cardinals.
In the above picture Augie Galan looks on as Pete Reiser slides under the tag of Phillies' catcher, Andy Seminick for another theft of home. Pete Reiser's career was shortened by service in World War II and by injuries sustained from crashing into walls and getting hit by pitches. Reiser was carried off the field on a stretcher eleven times in his career. He felt that he could catch anything hit in the air from his centerfield position. Too many times a wall was placed between him and the ball.
In 1947, in Ebbets Field, Reiser chased a fly that he thought would be an easy out. The only problem was that he had forgotten that Branch Rickey had moved the fences in about 40 feet. Reiser woke up in the hospital and was paralyzed for 10 days. He recovered in time to have a collision with Clyde King during batting practice. A blood clot formed and he was told to never play again. He was back in the lineup and played the last couple months of the year, but his performance suffered due to poor vision and his career declined severely from that point.
Today we praise ballplayers when we see them hustle, "Good hustle". Any ballplayer who played 50 or more years ago would consider that an insult. Today, all too often you see a player trot to first base and then turn on the jets when on outfielder misplays the ball. Nice way to turn a triple into a sure double. While Pete Rose had lots of problems, he consistently performed at 100%, often when he didn't need to, but always when it was needed. Pete Rose played baseball like a football player with an adrenaline rush. Pete Reiser played baseball with the speed of a cheetah, the grace of a gazelle and the fragility of both. When asked if his career would have lasted longer if he didn't play with reckless abandon, he replied that he would never have made it to the majors if he didn't play continually at that level of intensity.