Grave Story: Bobby Reis (1909-1973)

Here lies Bobby Reis, who started his career as a third baseman and ended it as a pitcher/jack of all trades. He played every single position on the diamond in his 6-year career in the majors. Reis played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1931-32, 1935) and Boston Braves (1936-38).

Bobby Reis was born on January 2, 1909 in Woodside, N.Y. He was said to be a protégé of Dave Driscoll, who was the business manager for the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers). Reis played second base on the sandlots in Queens when he wasn’t working as a bank clerk at the Long Island City Savings Bank. Driscoll discovered him, arranged for a leave of absence at his bank, and shipped him to the Rocky Mount Buccaneers of the Eastern Carolina League. Reis made an immediate impact, leading the league in hitting with a .373 average and 7 homers in 47 games. Though he’d never played third base before, he went 21 games before committing an error there. It was impressive enough that he joined Brooklyn in September, but he never actually played a game. He was picked to be a part of an All-Star team organized by Brooklyn star Babe Herman that October, so he was making connections with less than a year of experience under his belt.

In 1931, Reis hit .327 for Hartford as a second baseman, and one of the team’s ace pitchers was his future brother-in-law, Phil Gallivan. Both players made the Eastern League All-Star squad. Gallivan had a brief trip to the majors in the middle of the season, but Reis didn’t get his call to the majors until September. He played in 6 games and picked up 5 hits and 2 walks for a .294 average. His first MLB hit came off Tom Zachary of the Boston Braves, in the second game of a doubleheader on September 7, 1931. That game was also notable for being the MLB debut of Van Lingle Mungo, who threw a 2-0 shutout.

At this point, Reis’ major-league career pretty much stalls, and I don’t know exactly why. He kept producing in the minors. His average took a dip to .251 for Hartford in 1932, but he added power with 11 long balls, including 3 in one game against New Haven. He then spent two seasons with the Toledo Mud Hens, kept the power numbers up and brought his batting average to about .300 or better. For all that, Reis got into a total of one major-league game in this three-year stretch – he went 1-for-4 in 1932. He was no defensive wizard, but he’d proven at this point that he could play anywhere in the infield or even the outfield. The Dodgers had decent infielders, but nobody who was much more than a replacement-level player. One Brooklyn paper reported that Dodgers manager Max Carey had made up his mind that Reis would never be a major leaguer, so Reis was stuck in purgatory.

He got a second chance when Carey was replaced by new manager Casey Stengel, who liked the quiet youngster. The Dodgers eventually bought Reis back from Toledo, put him on the big-league roster in 1935, and watched him turn into a surprisingly decent pitcher.

Reis started 1935 as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement, playing mostly in the outfield. His batting average was stuck under .200 through July, but Stengel had more pressing concerns than a weak-hitting benchwarmer. He had two decent starters but very inconsistent and unreliable relievers. Reis probably gave Stengel quite a surprise when he volunteered to work out of the bullpen. But he’d always wanted to pitch, and he even developed a curveball during his time in Toledo. Stengel recalled that Reis won a throwing competition in 1934 by throwing two balls from home plate to a hoop stationed over second base. Without a wealth of options, Stengel agreed to give Reis a shot. Coach and former catcher Otto Miller helped work Reis into a pitcher, rather than a position player who pitched.

Reis made his mound debut on July 24 against the Cubs. He pitched 2 innings, and the only batter to reach did so on an error. Brooklyn Daily Eagle writer Tommy Holmes said that the only highlight of the Cubs’ doubleheader sweep that day was that Reis could be a decent pitcher. “If this is thus, the Brooklyn Club will be improved somewhat if for no other reason than the dark-haired 24-year-old [he was actually 26] athlete from Long Island City hasn’t been worth his salt as anything else,” he added.

Reis pitched in 14 games, with 2 starts, and ended the season with a 3-2 record, 2.83 ERA, 2 saves and a complete game. There was a lot of luck involved – he walked 24 batters and gave up 46 hits in 41-1/3 innings, while striking out a mere 7 batters. However, of all the pitchers in the NL who appeared in more than 10 games but didn’t pitch 10 complete games (i.e. relievers), Reis was one of two pitchers with an ERA under 3.00. Ed Heusser of St. Louis was the other. Reis’ best game of the year was his last appearance for the Dodgers. He tossed an 11-inning complete game win over the Boston Braves, by a score of 6-5. He also went 4-for-5 with a double and RBI at the plate. That offensive explosion raised his batting average nearly 35 points to a respectable .247 on the season.

Source: The Boston Globe, March 24, 1936.

In December, the Dodgers traded Reis, pitcher Ray Benge, infielder Tony Cuccinello and catcher Al Lopez to the Boston Bees for pitcher Ed Brandt and outfielder Randy Moore. Boston and manager Bill McKechnie weren’t interested in a 2-way player. Reis appeared in center field a couple of times, but outside of that he was a full-time pitcher. Of the team’s starters (which included Johnny Lanning, brother of Tom Lanning), only Danny MacFayden and Tiny Chaplin could be counted on to complete their starts. The team needed relievers, and Reis appeared in 35 games and led the National League by finishing 24 games. He also started 5 games and completed 3 of them. He threw a career-high 138-2/3 innings and had a 6-5 record and 4.48 ERA. He walked 74 batters and struck out 25.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, finished in 7th place, 20 games under .500, and Stengel was fired at the end of the year. The McKeever family that owned the Dodgers, rather than acknowledge that they were too cheap to fill the team with actual talent, blamed the poor performance on the former manager. “We feel we should have won the pennant if Stengel had not traded Bobby Reis to Boston,” sniffed James Mulvey, team executive and son-in-law of the owner.

The Bees changed course in 1937 and turned Reis back into a fielder. He appeared in a total of 45 games, mostly as a pinch hitter, center fielder and first baseman. He hit .244 with 5 doubles and 6 RBIs. He threw a total of 5 innings over 4 appearances.

Reis and Casey Stengel were reunited in 1938, as Boston changed managers. Stengel said in the Spring that he didn’t know how he was going to use Reis, but he knew there was a spot for the player on the team. He wasn’t kidding either, as Reis ended up being used in many, many spots over the season. He appeared as follows: 16 games as pitcher, 1 as catcher, 1 at second base, 3 at shortstop, 9 in left field, 1 in right field, 5 as a pinch hitter and 2 as a pinch runner. That one game as a catcher happened on September 11 after starter Butch Sutcliffe was ejected for fighting with the Phillies’ Del Young. He had two chances and committed one error for a .500 fielding percentage.

Maybe Reis was used a little too much, because he had his worst season in the majors. He hit .184, with 9 singles in 49 at-bats. He also had a 1-6 record as a pitcher, with a 4.99 ERA. He walked 41 batters in 57-2/3 innings and had a WHIP of 1.769.

In December 1938, Boston sold Reis’ contract to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. That actually worked out well for him, as St. Paul was where he made his home. Reis occasionally pitched for the Saints, but he was mainly position player in the three seasons he was with the team. He hit in the .270s in 1930 and 1940, reaching double digits in home runs in both seasons. He retired for a couple of seasons but returned briefly to the Saints in 1943 before calling it a career.

On the mound, Reis had a 10-13 record, with a 4.27 ERA and 1.673 WHIP. He pitched in 69 games with 2 saves. He also started 9 games and completed 5. He struck out 52 batters and walked 144. At the plate, he slashed .233/.291/.270 in 175 games. His 70 hits included 10 doubles and 2 triples. He had 21 RBIs and scored 32 runs. Reis also played every single position on the field at least once.

Reis served as a player and manager for area baseball teams after his retirement. He also played Old-Timers games for the Saints and, like his brother-in-law Gallivan, did some scouting for the Orioles. His 1940 draft card states he worked for Griggs-Cooper Co., which was a food canning company and liquor distributor. According to Bill Lee’s Baseball Necrology, he also worked for the Fleishman distillery.

Bobby Reis died on May 1, 1973 at the age of 64, at St. John’s Hospital in St. Paul. He is buried in the Glover Family mausoleum in Willow River Cemetery in Hudson, Wis.

Bobby Reis and Phil Gallivan are interred in the Glover Family mausoleum in Hudson, Wis.

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