September 24, 2007
You Could Look It Up
Pete Reiser's Place in Dodgerdom
Sixty-five years ago, the nation was at war and the Dodgers were about to fall out of postseason contention. Today, the nation is at war and the Dodgers are about to fall out of postseason contention. If the 2007 Dodgers fail to last into October, that failure will be due at least in part to the timidity with which the organization embraced young players like James Loney, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley. Their 1942 counterparts lost for precisely the opposite reason, holding on too tightly to a young player when they should have played anybody else.
The Dodgers were in Brooklyn then, the defending National League pennant winners, having won 100 games in 1941. The 1941 club was powered by four players enjoying exceptional seasons, three of them veterans: first baseman and eventual MVP award-winner Dolph Camilli (.285/.407/.556, 11.1 WARP), right fielder Dixie Walker (.311/.391/.452, 9.0 WARP), and righty Whit Wyatt (2.34 ERA in 288 1/3 innings, WARP 10.0).
The Dodgers' fourth star was a second-year player they shouldn't have even had. A St. Louis native, shortstop Harold Patrick Reiser, nicknamed "Pistol Pete," and then just "Pete," had been signed by Branch Rickey's Cardinals in 1937. A year later, Commissioner Landis went on one of his periodic crusades against Rickey's farm system, and "freed" Reiser and dozens of other Cardinals' prospects. Rickey very much wanted to hold onto Reiser; though just 5'11", Reiser had a strong lefty line-drive stroke, a good eye, and the best speed in the game. He asked a favor of Dodgers president Larry MacPhail-sign Reiser for me, bury him somewhere in the lower minors, and when the heat is off, deal him back to me. MacPhail was still friendly with Rickey at this time (within a short time they would no longer be speaking), and was willing to oblige, but when spring training opened in 1939, Reiser went 8-for-8 with three home runs and three walks in his first 11 plate appearances, and Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was ready to put him on the major-league roster. MacPhail nearly had to fire Durocher before he could get Reiser back to the minors.
Reiser was sent down to Elmira in the Eastern League, and did MacPhail a favor by developing bone chips in his throwing arm. Surgery to correct the problem kept him out for most of the season, and forced a move from shortstop to center field. Though Reiser was healthy again in 1940, MacPhail sent him back to Elmira. It was becoming obvious that something strange was going on, especially when Reiser hit .378 in 67 games. MacPhail told Rickey that there was no way he could deal Reiser without being tarred and feathered, not only by the people of Brooklyn, but by his own manager. Rickey had no choice but to go along, as he couldn't very well go to Landis and say that MacPhail had double-crossed him in his plan to double-cross the commissioner. A second, compensatory deal was arranged, in which the Cardinals would send the Dodgers two veterans they no longer wanted-36-year-old pitcher Curt Davis and surly outfielder Joe Medwick-in exchange for four spare parts and $125,000.
Other people's obligations observed, the 22-year-old Reiser finally made his major league debut in July, 1940, just after the Medwick deal went through. He hit a promising but unexceptional .293/.338/.418. Then, in 1941, he exploded on the league, hitting .343/.406/.558 with 39 doubles, 17 triples, and 14 home runs (11.6 WARP). He led the league in runs scored, doubles, triples, batting average and slugging percentage, and played excellent defense in center field. By the end of that season, Braves outfielder Tommy Holmes noted that "[t]he feeling about him… was that he was as great a star as there ever was in the game." Years later, Durocher would say that Willie Mays was the best player he ever managed, but Reiser might have had the potential to be better.
We'll never know, and that's because of Durocher's actions towards Reiser in 1942. Going into that season, the consensus favorites for the pennant were the Dodgers on the one hand, and the Cardinals on the other; the Redbirds had finished second behind the Dodgers in 1941 by going 97-56. Neither team had been much affected by the United States' entry into World War II; the Dodgers' 1941 third baseman Cookie Lavagetto had joined up, but MacPhail had been able to replace him by trading for the Pirates' Arky Vaughan, a career .324/.415/.472 hitter up to that point, so they were actually better off. Lavagetto was the only starter missing from either club.
Ironically, Rickey's Cardinals wouldn't have had room for Reiser, even if they had gotten him back-the outfield was full up. In right field they had 26-year-old Enos Slaughter, then at his career peak, center was patrolled by Terry Moore, a terrific defensive outfielder with an above-average bat, and in left field the Cards had a promising rookie named Stan Musial. Given a cup of coffee in 1941, the 20-year-old Musial had gone 20-for-47 (.426), and despite a rough spring training, he was being given a chance to start. Which he would-for the next 21 years. The Cards had a strong pitching staff as well, but manager Billy Southworth had trouble sorting out his infield, so the Cardinals didn't get out of the gate as well as the Dodgers did. By June 26, the Dodgers were 46-17 (.730) and leading the second-place Cards, who had a respectable 36-26 (.581) record by 9.5 games.
It was not long after that the race would begin to turn. On July 18, the Dodgers would arrive at St. Louis for a four-game, two-doubleheader set; they led the Cardinals by eight games. The first day, the two teams split. We should pause at this moment to note that as much as anything, the Dodgers' dominant start was due to Reiser, who would finish his first 77 games-half the season-batting a league-leading .350 with seven home runs in 300 at-bats, this in a league that would hit just .249. The Dodgers had four future Hall of Famers on their roster-second baseman Billy Herman, third baseman Vaughan, shortstop Pee Wee Reese and left fielder Medwick. None of them were hitting anything like Reiser at the moment of the Cardinals series. Medwick was the closest with a .336 average, although without walks or power his value was less than it first appeared-"Ducky" would hit just four home runs and walk just 32 times in 587 plate appearances. Vaughan was next at .265 with no home runs, followed by Herman at .256 with two round-trippers, then Reese at .241 and one.
The second doubleheader was played in July 19. The Dodgers dropped the opener, and the nightcap went to the bottom of the 11th tied 6-6. Batting with no one on in the bottom of the eleventh, Slaughter hit a long drive to center over Reiser's head. Reiser took off after the ball, stretched out his glove, saw the ball settle into it-and smashed headfirst into the unpadded concrete wall. The ball popped out of his glove. Reiser somehow picked up the ball and heaved it in, and then collapsed. The relay home just missed catching Slaughter, who was credited with a game-winning inside-the-park home run. Meanwhile, Reiser lay unconscious on the grass, blood pouring from his ears.
"The X-Ray showed a slight concussion but no fracture," newspaper reports said. This was a lie-maybe. There is a great deal about the St. Louis incident that appears to be legend. Reiser later told the story of his big injury often, saying that he had gone 19-for-21 in a series against the Reds that proceeded the games with the Cards, that he was batting .380 at the time, that the Dodgers were up by 13 1/2 games when he made the catch, but that was just the way he played the game, and that the contest was a 0-0 tie. An examination of the box scores and published records of the time suggests that none of this is true.
It was also said that Reiser was much more seriously injured than the reports suggested, that he had suffered a separated shoulder and a skull fracture, and had been told not to play the rest of the year. The story as told later was that either Durocher refused to do without his star center fielder, or that the erratic MacPhail wouldn't accept the severity of Reiser's injuries, and that either way, Reiser was soon back in the lineup again. Here's how Reiser told the story to W.C. Heinz:
I don't like hospitals… so after two days I took the bandage off and got up. The room started to spin, but I got dressed and I took off. I snuck out, and I took a train to Pittsburgh and I went to the park.
It's a great story, one that's repeated with varying details in several books about the Dodgers. It's also just a story, because it didn't happen. First, according to the old Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, Reiser did not pinch-hit at any time during the 1942 season. Second, the Dodgers spent only one day in Pittsburgh after the series with the Cardinals. They played one game, a 5-0, nine-inning victory over the Pirates, and Reiser didn't appear in the game. The Dodgers played just one game over 12 innings the rest of the year, and it wasn't against the Pirates but the Cardinals, and that was a 14-inning 2-1 loss, a game in which Reiser started and went 0-for-6.
Instead, Reiser returned to action on July 25-starting, not pinch-hitting at home against the Pirates. He initially played quite well, getting four hits in his first seven at-bats, but he slid off rapidly after that. Reiser said he spent the rest of the year seeing double and fighting off dizzy spells, leading to his failing to catch and hit balls that should have been easy for him. There's no reason to doubt that that was the case-his collision need not have produced a skull fracture to leave him with a severe concussion. From the time of the injury to the end of the season, a span of 180 at-bats, Reiser hit just .244 with three home runs. Skull fracture or not, he needed to sit down.
The reason that he didn't had everything to do with Brooklyn's manager. Two of Leo Durocher's many quirks had an outsized impact on the 1942 race. First, Durocher was a gambler-he liked to roll the dice, taking tactical chances that weren't exactly logical, and glorying in their pure unexpectedness. For example, on June 26, the Dodgers and the Reds were tied 4-4 going to the bottom of the 10th at Ebbets Field. With one out, Billy Herman tripled. Reds manager Bill McKechnie ordered the next two hitters walked, bringing up shortstop Pee Wee Reese with the bases loaded. With two strikes on the batter, Durocher called a squeeze play, and Reese's bunt caught the Reds completely by surprise-Herman came home without a throw. The next day, the Dodgers took a 1-0 lead into the ninth. The Reds got a runner to second with two outs, bringing Ival Goodman, a left-handed hitter, to the plate. The outfielder had some good seasons in his past-.292/.368/.533 with 30 home runs in 1938, .323/.401/.515 in 1939, but Goodman had hit just .260/.337/.380 combined in 1940 and 1941, and would be even worse in 1942. Nevertheless, Durocher ordered up an intentional walk, going against baseball orthodoxy by putting the winning run on base. The next hitter put the ball into the seats, and the Dodgers went down to defeat 3-1.
Durocher's other managerial tic was that he hated to use his reserves. Although he wasn't adverse to shuffling the lineup if he needed to, he liked to pick his eight starters and stay with them; the other guys got to watch from the best seats in the house, but they didn't play much. Reiser was Durocher's best player, someone he would have been reluctant to sit even if his injuries had been obvious. Durocher wasn't the kind of manager who would ever ask a player if he needed to sit, and Reiser wasn't the type to volunteer. "They never asked me if I could [play]," he said, "they only asked me if I would."
Between managerial flights of tactical fancy and undisclosed player injuries are the differences in close races forged. The Dodgers had a good offense, but with Reiser slumping, the Cardinals' offense was just a little better. The Dodgers had good pitching; the Cardinals were better. They had Mort Cooper, who went 22-7 with ten shutouts, and a league-leading 1.78 ERA (the lowest since Carl Hubbell's 1.66 led the league in 1933), as well as rookie Johnny Beazley, who went 21-6 with a 2.13 ERA, and southpaw Max Lanier, who had 13 wins-five of them against Brooklyn.
It wasn't so much that the Dodgers started playing badly as much as the Cardinals started playing like an all-time great team while the Dodgers slid back down to the level of a very good one. This was especially true after Southworth reconfigured his infield, benching his first and second basemen, moving his third baseman to second, and inserting future All-Stars Johnny Hopp and Whitey Kurowski into the lineup. Losing three of four in the series in which Reiser got hurt cut the Dodgers' lead to six games, but by early August they had recouped their losses, extending their lead to 10 games with 50 games left to play.
From that point on, the Dodgers went 30-20, a .600 pace. That was very good, but the Cardinals went 43-9, a pace for 127 wins over a 154-game season. On September 11, the Dodgers and Dodgers began a two-game set at Ebbets Field with the Dodgers leading the race by two games; the Dodgers lost both contests. Reiser went 0-for-4 in the first game, and Durocher sat him for Frenchy Bordagaray in the second, a move he must have found painful to make.
So, the Cardinals left town with the race tied. The next day, both clubs played doubleheaders; the Dodgers were swept while the Cardinals split. The Dodgers now trailed for the first time all season. They would never lead again, although the race went down to the last day of the season. The Dodgers, in second place by 1 1/2 games, were to play a last game against the miserable Phillies, while the Cardinals were to play a doubleheader against a weak Cubs team. If the Dodgers won while the Cubs swept, the race would be tied and a playoff forced. It was not to be. The Dodgers won, but the Cards took the first game of the doubleheader, rendering the second academic (although they won that one, too), finishing with 106 wins to the Dodgers' 104.
The 1942 season would begin a career-long pattern for Reiser. He would be hurt many, many times (one estimate says he was carried off the field 11 times), and he would again never be the same player that he was in 1941 and the first half of 1942. Despite his many injuries, he was somehow found fit for military service, and missed the 1943, 1944, and 1945 seasons. Returning to the Dodgers at the age of 27, he sometimes hit well between the ever-more frequent injuries, but he was a much-diminished player, averaging .272/.378/.410 over the rest of his career.
As for the Dodgers and Durocher, they had missed their chance for the duration. The Cardinals would go on to beat the Yankees in the 1942 World Series and repeat as pennant winners in 1943, 1944, and 1946, taking the championship in the latter two seasons. The next time the Dodgers would win a pennant would be in 1947, with a roster substantially rebuilt by Branch Rickey, now reunited with Reiser.
That June, Reiser ran into the center-field wall at Ebbets Field chasing a fly ball hit by Culley Rickard of the Pirates, and was knocked unconscious. Somehow, he held onto the ball. Carried into the clubhouse, he was supposedly given the last rites before being taken to the hospital. Diagnosed with a concussion and scalp lacerations, Reiser was allowed to rejoin the team after a brief hospitalization, but did not play. After sitting on the bench for a couple of weeks, the Dodgers sent him to a Johns Hopkins neurologist to check on his recovery. The neurologist sent him home, and Reiser went. In all, about six weeks passed between the initial injury and Reiser's return to the lineup.
It was a simple, commonsense matter, but the difference is that Leo Durocher missed the 1947 season after being suspended by Commissioner Happy Chandler, so there was no longer someone at the Dodgers' helm who would put winning ahead of humanity.