Wednesday afternoon, August 14, 1946, bottom of the 5th inning, and Pete Reiser deftly glides past the tag of the Giants’ Walker Cooper on the front end of a thrilling triple steal, as on-deck hitter and Dodgers catcher Bruce Edwards and umpire Butch Henline look on intently. Henline appears to be readying for an out call, but Reiser was ultimately ruled safe for his 6th successful steal of home in 1946, a new National League record. Photo is from the Press Association, and was published in the New York Times (photographer uncredited) in their 8/15/46 edition.
Those who are familiar with Brooklyn Dodgers history are already well-versed in the unfortunate, cautionary tale that is the career of Pete Reiser. Injury-prone, reckless, unlucky, or all of the above, Reiser could rarely avoid the dark cloud of bad fortune that dogged him throughout his career. Signed by the Cardinals’ Branch Rickey in 1937, and summarily released from that organization in a “purge” of the Cardinals’ farm in 1938 by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (in hindsight because Rickey’s system was “too” successful and therefore unfairly monopolizing young talent), he signed with the Dodgers under a gentleman’s agreement between Rickey and Larry MacPhail, then with Brooklyn, that he’d be hidden in their organization for a while until the time was right to trade Reiser back to the Redbirds. But Reiser was hard to hide.
Reiser had many of the great ballplayer’s “tools”; good average hitter, some power, speed, and a good arm, or rather two good arms – he also happened to be ambidextrous. And he did well out of the gate in low Class D ball, hitting .302, although from his naturally right-handed side. But once the brass heard he could hit from both sides, they encouraged him to bat lefty instead to better utilize his superior speed, and interestingly he almost always hit left-handed for the remainder of his career. As Reiser progressed, this ongoing hidden phenom trick almost ended as Reiser did so well in spring training 1939 that Dodgers player-manager Leo Durocher touted him as his starting shortshop for the season; however, after many cross words with MacPhail, Reiser was again off to the minors.
That 1939 season in the minors would be the first of many injuries for Reiser; fracturing his arm while throwing from the outfield, he missed much of the rest of the season, only returning for a few games, throwing only left handed. However, he rebounded quickly in 1940, hitting .370 in both A and AA ball, effectively ending Rickey’s ideas of bringing Reiser back to the Cardinals by forcing a promotion to the Dodgers by mid-season and hitting a strong .293 in 58 games.
Reiser was poised for a breakout year in 1941, but not before another major injury; not one week into the new season, he could not avoid a high inside pitch from the Phillies’ Ike Pearson that caught him on the cheekbone. Carried off on a stretcher to a Brooklyn hospital, X-rays revealed no broken bones but that he’d be out 2 weeks. Returning after only a one week layoff, Reiser never looked back and played hot as a “pistol” the rest of the way, playing center field with abandon and crushing NL pitching, winning the batting crown going away at .343, and leading the league in many offensive categories (runs, doubles, triples, slugging, OPS, total bases, even hit-by-pitch!) and coming in second in MVP voting, behind only the league-leading power numbers of his teammate Dolph Camilli, as the Dodgers outlasted Rickey’s Cardinals to win the pennant by 2 1/2 games. And in the World Series, Reiser’s 2-run HR in the 5th inning of Game 4 (the radio call, below, by WGN’s Bob Elson on the Mutual Radio Network, linked at 1:56:42 – “boy was that a wallop!”) looked to be the deciding blow as the Dodgers tied the Series 2-2, but Mickey Owen had other ideas, as his infamous passed ball in the 9th opened the gates for a Yankees victory and Series win in 5 games.
No matter, Reiser was ready for more in 1942, and continued to dominate NL hurlers, as him and the Dodgers were riding high in July as he brought a .356 average and Brooklyn an 8-game lead into a 4-game series against the Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park. And on July 19, 1942, it all changed. In the second game of a doubleheader, in a 6-6 battle in extra innings, Enos Slaughter led off the bottom of the 11th inning with a blast to straightaway center – Reiser, going full speed, snagged the ball in his glove, but an instant later crashed into the outfield wall. The ball was jarred loose, Reiser stumbled to throw the ball in, then crumpled to the ground. Slaughter rounded the bases for a winning inside-the-park home run, but the result in the outfield was far worse – Reiser has suffered a fractured skull (although reported otherwise early on), a dislocated shoulder and severe concussion. Some doctors said his career was over, others that he should at least take the rest of the year off – but Reiser again came back within a week, and his career was never the same. As Reiser told it:
“I was in pretty bad shape and was ordered to stay inactive for some time. However, the club needed me and I wanted to play. So back I went, despite the fact I was having dizzy spells and was missing fly balls regularly. At the plate, I’d see two baseballs coming toward me. In the outfield, I’d see two grandstands in front of me.”
Reiser gamely continued to play, but struggled, hitting only .244 the rest of the way (but somehow still led the NL with 20 steals) as Brooklyn lost their lead and the pennant to St Louis, by 2 games.
In 1943, the War came calling, and Reiser tried to enlist in the Navy but flunked the physical. He then attempted to join the Army, and was waved through by an admiring officer. Stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, he quickly developed pneumonia and was in line for a medical discharge until the commander decided he’s keep him there to play on the baseball team instead. And Reiser still played to his fullest extent, and suffered another injury: Chasing a fly ball in the outfield, he ran through a hedge, into a ditch and again dislocated his shoulder, and again, rather than rest, he simply switched gloves and threw with his left hand like he had in the minors. In 1946, before being sent with an All-Star team on a Japan tour, a doctor got around to taking a fresh look at those (now quite troubling) medical records, and he was promptly discharged, in time for Dodgers’ spring training.
But Reiser was not the same. That once powerful arm was now gone. Dodger brass wondered what to do with him for ’46, but they found he could still hit pretty well – and he could still run, so he played, although less often. He was also moved to left field as the shoulder continued to deteriorate. But his grit was rewarded with a third (and final) All-Star team selection, and on August 14, he was in there, with a .285 average, 25 steals, and the Dodgers with a 1 1/2 game lead on their longtime nemesis, the Cardinals.
Walker Cooper is largely unsung in the annals of baseball history – while he never led the league in any yearly offensive category, he sure came close, and his career is actually quite impressive: An above-average backstop on defense and a strong hitter, he was considered one of the finest catchers in baseball in the 1940’s and 50’s – he batted over .300 in 10 of his 18 seasons (career .285), was an 8-time All-Star, and batted an even .300 in three World Series, with 2 Championships with the Cardinals in 1942 and 1944. And if it wasn’t for a gentleman by the name of Stan Musial, he would’ve passed into baseball immortality in 1943 when he finished third in the NL in batting (.318, career high) and slugging (.463), and fifth in RBI (81), and finished second in NL MVP voting, to Stan the Man.
He missed almost all of 1945 to military service in the Navy, and after a salary dispute with St Louis his contract was purchased by the Giants for $175,000 for 1946. Although his average dipped from previous years, he picked up right where he left off, selected to the All-Star Game in his first year as a Giant, starting behind the plate for the NL, and bringing a .267 average into the August 14th contest.
Bruce Edwards was a fresh-faced rookie in 1946, just off 3 years in the Army in Europe, but could hold his own in the company of Walker Cooper – batting .332 for the Mobile Bears, with Ferrell Anderson ineffective behind the plate for Brooklyn (11 errors, 9 passed balls through mid-June) he was called up on June 23 and was put right in as their top catcher, batting .261 and starting 40 of the 43 games he played in entering August 14th.
Butch Henline was also a good catcher in his playing days, mostly for the Philadelphia Phillies in an 11-year career. He batted .316 in his first full season in 1922, and did even better in 1923 with a .324 average. He was named the Phillies’ team captain in 1925 (above), but in 1927 was traded to the Brooklyn Robins in the 3-team trade that sent Burleigh Grimes from Brooklyn to the NY Giants. His professional playing career ended in the minors in 1934, but after a few years away from baseball, took up umpiring, working his way through the minors as in his playing days. He was promoted to the National League in 1945 and in his second year of officiating by August 1946.
And now we return to that afternoon of August 14, 1946, at Ebbets Field (photo at top). Pete Reiser’s 6th steal of home of the season put the Dodgers up 5-4 over the Giants, with Dixie Walker having stolen 3rd and Ed Stevens stolen 2nd on the same play. Bruce Edwards then stepped in with 2 in scoring position, but struck out looking. However, it turned out to be the game-winning score as the Dodgers held off the Giants for an 8-4 victory, moving Brooklyn to one full game over the Cardinals.
This day at Ebbets Field was also unique for another reason; the ballpark hosted what is usually considered a more contemporary situation – a genuine day/night doubleheader. 26,970 were on hand for the afternoon contest (the aforementioned 8-4 Dodger win), and as that crowd filed out, the players had “catered dinners” as a second crowd of 30,254 came for the nightcap (helped by many holding rainchecks from a washed-out game on Tuesday). As what is believed to be the first of its kind at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers set a home twinbill attendance record with 57,224, which pushed their home attendance to date to 1,236,162, which, despite being only August, was a new all-time record for Ebbets Field. And the Dodgers would also take the night game, 2-1, Reiser going 2-3 with a run scored, to pad Brooklyn’s NL lead to 1 1/2 games.
As for the rest of 1946, Reiser would steal home a 7th time that season, which is a National League record that still stands (Ty Cobb holds the MLB record with 8, in 1912), and would lead the majors in steals overall with 34. He’d also lead Brooklyn in HRs with 11, 3 that were inside-the-park. But his season would end with yet another injury, a broken leg in September, and the Dodgers finished 2 games behind the Cardinals. 1947 would usher in the Jackie Robinson era, but the further decline of Reiser, who again collided with an outfield wall on June 4 against the Pirates at Ebbets Field, and again suffering a fractured skull. This time he was out over a month (still a relatively short time for such an injury) but did hit well, batting .331 upon his return in July along with 10 of his 14 steals on the year) through the rest of the season (.309 overall) as the Dodgers won the 1947 pennant. But his subpar outfield play in Games 1 and 2 and ankle injury in Game 3 of the World Series put him on the bench, as Brooklyn again lost to the Yankees. And by 1948, Reiser’s injuries caught up to him. Now slow afoot, he was no longer a starter, and after a .239 injury-riddled season, he was asked to be traded, and Branch Rickey obliged, sending him off to the Boston Braves. He had a strong 1949 as a bench player (.271), but sunk to .205 in 1950 and was released. He also hit .271 for the Pirates in 1951, but one more go with the Indians in 1952 not surprisingly ended prematurely with his last on-field injury, a separated shoulder against the Yankees in June, and with a .136 BA in July, and needed at home to help care for his children, Reiser called it quits. So much promise derailed by so many injuries, oh what might have been for Pete Reiser if the stars had aligned in a more promising way for him.
Walker Cooper had a strong 1946, but with Ernie Lombardi’s career winding down, shouldered the catching load for 1947, playing in 140 games with a .305 average, another All-Star appearance and a few MVP votes. He followed that with more All-Star selections in 1948 and 1949, although his average dipped somewhat and was traded to Cincinnati in mid-1949. The Reds then traded him to the Boston Braves in early 1950 (becoming a teammate of Pete Reiser) and had another good season with a .313 average (overall) and still another All-Star selection (his 8th and last). His career wound down as a part-timer with various clubs, finally retiring in 1957. Upon his retirement, he was among the all-time Top 5 of NL catchers in batting average, HRs, RBIs, and Slugging percentage.
Among these veterans, Bruce Edwards’ career was just beginning – after a .267 season in 1946, Edwards shone in 1947 as the Dodgers’ full-time catcher with a .295 campaign that was a big part of Brooklyn’s pennant-winning season, earning an All-Star selection, finishing 4th in MVP voting, and the team even awarded him and his fans with a Bruce Edwards Day at Ebbets Field on September 21. Unfortunately for Edwards, in 1948, another young catcher by the name of Roy Campanella joined the Dodgers, and, coupled with an ill-timed injury, Edwards was moved into a utility role, ultimately for the remainder of his career, although he was traded to the Cubs in June 1951 and earned his second All-Star nod with a strong summer. He retired in 1956.
Butch Henline was an NL umpire from 1945 through 1948, and went on to be a supervisor of umpires in the minor leagues a few years after that. In his umpiring career, he has two claims to fame – one is umpiring in the 1947 All-Star Game. The other? Henline was the umpire that served Jackie Robinson his first ejection in his career, on August 24, 1948, at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, along with coach Clyde Sukeforth, and another teammate – none other than Dodgers’ catcher, Bruce Edwards.
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