It was a tie game in the 11th inning against archrival St. Louis. So when Cardinal star Enos Slaughter smashed a long fly ball, Brooklyn Dodger centerfielder Pete Reiser was determined to catch it at all costs. He raced back and made a seemingly impossible play before slamming into the wall. But the ball fell from his glove and Slaughter hustled around for an inside-the-park home run.
The cost of that collision was actually far higher than losing a single game: the way Brooklyn mismanaged the aftermath likely lost the 1942 pennant for the Dodgers and permanently damaged the career of the talented Reiser.
Before that game it was possible to say without exaggeration that Pete Reiser had the potential to be as good as, if not better than, contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. In 1941, his first full year, Reiser became the youngest batting champion ever at twenty-two years old, hitting .343 with an astonishing 39 doubles, 17 triples and 14 homers. (He also led Brooklyn to its first World Series in 21 years.)
And before the collision in 1942, Reiser had managed to top himself, batting over .380. Reiser started that fateful road trip with a 19-for-21 series in Cincinnati and a doubleheader in Chicago where he had six hits and three walks in nine times at bat.
After the incident, Reiser was hospitalized with a concussion and his doctor told the press he was through for the year. But the young, eager ballplayer snuck out and rejoined the team in Pittsburgh where manager Leo Durocher put him in uniform, claiming he just wanted to inspire his teammates and intimidate the Pirates.
When the game reached the fourteenth inning, however, and the slumping Dodgers had the bases loaded, Durocher couldn't resist, sticking Reiser in as a pinch-hitter. Durocher had done the same thing when Reiser was hurt the previous year, but this time the impact would be more pronounced.
Reiser smashed a game-winning hit but collapsed rounding first and woke up in another hospital bed. When Durocher and team president Larry McPhail again pushed the youngster to hurry back, Reiser responded with another valiant effort. But he was dizzy and suffering from headaches. He couldn't field and he couldn't hit (his average plunged 70 points in the second half of the season). Reiser later said his poor play was responsible for Brooklyn losing the pennant to St. Louis by two games.
This dramatic anecdote from New York's baseball-rich past finds haunting echoes in the way the New York Mets have come under scrutiny for the team's handling of outfielder Ryan Church's second concussion of the year.
Ryan Church is no Pete Reiser, and the Mets' treatment of Church has been more careful and less selfish than the way Brooklyn exploited Reiser. But the parallel remains. When Church was injured against Atlanta on May 20th, the Mets were not in first place - though many had been expected them to be - and coming off two big wins over the New Yankees they were finally feeling optimistic. Despite big name stars, Church had been far and away the Mets' best player to that point, batting .311 with nine homers and thirty-three RBIs.
Like any player, but especially one looking to prove himself to a new team, Church was likely to downplay the injuries and do his best to rejoin his teammates as soon as possible. So an extra burden of responsibility for Church's well being should have fallen to the Mets. But last fall's historic collapse and this year's lethargic start left the team reeling from a torrent of negative press and pressure from fans eager for redemption. So the loss of their one spark of life must have seemed like too much to bear.
And so the Mets did not send Church back to New York and put him on the disabled list. Instead, they failed to ask tough questions about his health and then compounded the mistake by cherry-picking the information they wanted, focusing only on the most optimistic comments.
The Mets used Church as a pinch-hitter the next day and then put him on the team plane to Colorado where the high altitude, along with his continued use as a pinch-hitter, worsened his condition. He suffered from headaches, dizziness, fatigue - all the same symptoms that plagued Pete Reiser 66 years ago.
Even after he admitted to feeling wobbly and was told to stay home for two days, Church remained active and was rushed back into the line up at the first possible opportunity.
But beginning June 2, Church went 0-11 and his batting average dropped to .300. Then he had to remove himself from the lineup after Thursday's game and he has not played since. He is now experiencing a pulsing sensation in his head.
It has been more than 15 days since the injury, meaning that if the Mets had put him on the disabled list immediately, he would now be eligible to return. Instead, it looks like the team is finally, belatedly going to send him to the DL for some mandatory rest.
Baseball managers, front office executives and team doctors need to heed the lesson of Pete Reiser, whose career was derailed in equal parts by his own exuberant aggression and the short-sighted "win now" approach of the men in power. Hopefully, for the Mets and Ryan Church, it is not too late.