In 1941, Pete Reiser, in his first full season with the Dodgers, became the National League‘s youngest batting champion ever, hitting .343. He tied for the league lead with 39 doubles and led with 17 triples, 117 runs scored, and a .558 slugging percentage. “The feeling about him in 1942 was that he was as great a star as there ever was in the game,” said the Braves’ Tommy Holmes. Leo Durocher, who managed Willie Mays and played with Babe Ruth, thought that Reiser “just might have been the best ballplayer I ever saw,” but that he “had everything but luck.”
Reiser played too recklessly to have luck. He was hitting .383 on July 2, 1942, when he smashed into the centerfield wall in St. Louis. It was one of 11 times, according to writer Red Smith, that Reiser had to be carried off the field. He suffered a severe concussion and a shoulder separation and finished the season batting just .310. He still won the NL stolen-base title with 20.
Reiser spent 1943 through 1945 in the military, during which time he first encountered Jackie Robinson at Fort Riley, Kansas. He later became one of Robinson’s biggest supporters. Reiser returned to the Dodgers in 1946, and won another stolen-base title. His seven steals of home set a ML record. In 1947, he was hurt so severely after hitting the centerfield wall at Ebbets Field that he was given last rites. Although Reiser’s mishaps are credited with prompting the padding of outfield walls and the universal use of warning tracks, the move came too late to preserve what many felt was the greatest talent Brooklyn had ever seen. Reiser played in only 64 games in 1948 and was traded to the Braves. He later coached for the Dodgers, Cubs, and Angels.