By Michael LeCompte
Playing hurt used to be a part of the game of baseball and Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser was one of the best at taking the field injured-even if he’d have to be carried off it.
Harold Patrick (Pete) Reiser (1919-1981) excelled at baseball, basketball, football, and bowling as a child. Although he dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame he signed with the Dodgers in 1938 at the age of 19 for $100.
A natural athlete, Reiser’s 5’10” 185 pound frame was built for speed and power and by 1939 he was playing for the Dodgers Class A affiliate in Elmira, New York.
Reiser was first bitten with the injury bug that would dog him for the rest of his career while batting .373 with Elmira. He felt a sharp pain in his arm while making a throw from centerfield. He stayed in the game-and then played for the next two weeks, ignoring the pain until it became unbearable. After finally going to a Doctor it was revealed that he’d fractured a bone in his right arm.
1941 was Reiser’s first full season in the majors and his best. He managed to stay healthy and won the National League batting title as the Dodgers captured the pennant.
After the season Reiser tried to join the Navy, but was classified 4-F.
Reiser started the 1943 season at a .356 clip until he ran head first into the cement wall in center at Ebbets field chasing down what would eventually be an inside-the-park home run. Although he failed to make the catch Reiser did manage to locate the ball and fire it to the infield before losing consciousness. When his teammates got to him blood was pouring out of a crack in Reiser’s skull. He would will himself back into the lineup a few days later, but would really never be the same player again.
Following the 1943 season Reiser successfully enlisted in the Army and played baseball at several military bases. When he dislocated his shoulder during one game he simply started throwing left-handed and stayed in the game, day after day.
Reiser re-joined the Dodgers following World War II, but played in constant pain as his shoulder popped in and out of place. His 1946 season was ultimately cut short when he fractured his fibula.
In 1947, following another head first collision with an outfield wall, Reiser was administered the Last Rites and lay unconscious in the hospital for four days.
Reiser continued to play-mostly as a bench player-for parts of five more seasons. Over twelve, usually injury-shortened seasons he hit .295 with 786 hits and 368 RBI.
Although the numbers aren’t impressive by today’s standards they do show the promise, and ultimately, the sadness of a career that could have been. Reiser was a gifted natural athlete with speed and power who many baseball pundits believe would have been a comparable talent to Willie Mays if not for the injuries. As his one time manager Leo Durocher said of Reiser, “he had everything but luck.”
After retiring as a player Reiser enjoyed a minor league managing career with the Dodgers, Cubs, and Angels.
Reiser played hard, fast, and usually, hurt. In an age before million dollar contracts and cutting-edge sports medicine when only death would put a player on the DL.
As fans we love it when our superstars gut out a win. However, for every Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases or Schilling and his bloody sock, there’s an unsung hero of the game, someone like Pete Reiser, playing with reckless abandon for the love of the game.