When to Leave a Comma in Its Place (Or, Stop Running into All Those Concrete Walls)

At one juncture in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, legendary baseball player and manager Leo Durocher wrote the following:

“[He] might have been the best ballplayer I ever saw.”

High praise indeed from a man who saw, firsthand, many of the game’s all-time greats.  Who was he talking about?  Babe Ruth?  Willie Mays?  Ty Cobb?  Joe DiMaggio?

No.  He was talking about Pete Reiser.

petereiser

 

Pete who?

Durocher goes on to say about Reiser,

“He had more power than Willie [Mays]. . . . Mays was fast, but Reiser was faster.  Name whoever you want to, and Pete Reiser was faster.  Willie Mays had everything.  Pete Reiser had everything but luck.”

Call it what you will–luck, fate, poor decisions, destiny . . .  but Pete Reiser’s career is one of those classic “what-if” stories. What might have been if only . . . ?  Then again, what might have been is clear.  Because, from all accounts, Pete Reiser was the greatest natural talent ever to step foot on a baseball diamond.

In 1941, his first full season in the Majors with the old Brooklyn Dodgers, Reiser, then twenty-two, batted .343 with a league-leading 39 doubles, 17 triples, and 117 runs scored.

ebbetts

 

His .343 average was good enough to win the National League batting crown.  He was the swiftest player in the league, a brilliant outfielder with a powerful throwing arm.  He was such an accomplished outfielder, in fact, that opposing players would stop what they were doing to watch him catch fly balls and then fire them back into the infield during practice drills.  The future beckoned, surely rich with promise, World Series triumphs, awards, and, ultimately, an invitation to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was not to be.

When he played center field, Reiser would crouch into his defensive stance just before the pitch and think to himself, “Hit it to me.  Hit it to me.”  He wanted to make every catch, be in on every play.  He was the best athlete on the field, and he knew it.  Everyone did.

Not only did he play the game with grace, power, and supreme skill.  He played hard, and was known throughout the league for his diving, acrobatic catches.  This never-say-die attitude, however, became his undoing.

Pete Reiser was carted off the field eleven times in his too-short playing career.  Determined to get to every ball hit anywhere close to center field, he had a bad habit of racing into outfield walls.  He was even given his last rites once at the stadium.

The play that effectively ended Reiser’s career occurred in 1942.  Trying to flag down a line drive, Reiser slammed into the concrete center-field wall, head-first, at full speed.  Somehow, he managed to get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back into the infield, before collapsing.  He suffered a severe concussion and a fractured skull.  Doctors told him not to play the remainder of the season.  But, four days later, upon his release from the hospital, Reiser suited up, and played.

He was never the same.  He played several more seasons, and had a couple of decent years, but he was a shell of his former self.  His career statistics are mediocre, easily ignored when flipping through the pages of baseball history.  What could have, and probably should have been the greatest player in the history of the game is now a forgotten anecdote, a small annotation in the bibliography of the twentieth century.

baseballenc

 

In many ways, it can be stated that Pete Reiser’s career was cut short because he tried too hard.  At first blush, such a statement seems ludicrous.  How can anyone try too hard?  Aren’t we supposed to try hard?

But Pete Reiser was reckless when he should have been wise.  An admirable trait, perhaps, but a self-defeating one nonetheless.

***************

Oscar Wilde once famously stated:  “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma.  In the afternoon I put it back again.”

oscarwilde

 

I think any writer can relate to this.  I know when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, there were days when I would agonize over the flow  of one lone paragraph, or the wording of a single sentence.  I would sometimes obsess over a word choice, the beat and rhythm of a sentence, the way one paragraph led into another.

novelediting

 

This is not a bad thing, of course.  Proofreading and copy editing your work is essential.  But it can go too far.  At some point, somehow, you have to be able to turn the page, literally, and say, “This page is done.  This chapter is done.  This story is done.”

No piece of writing is perfect.  We often say, “Make your writing as perfect as it can be before submitting it for publication”–but sometimes we overlook those four crucial words–“as it can be.”  Not “perfect.”  But “as perfect as it can be.”  Granted, we can spend a day as Oscar Wilde did.  We can hem and haw over every verb, every exclamation point, every semicolon.  We can spend decades editing our work-in-progress.  But eventually, you reach a point of diminishing returns, and your work can then actually suffer due to overwork and fatigue.

editing

 

It is the hardest thing for any writer (we are usually our own worst critics) to state: “It’s finished!  My story is ready.”  But these are words we have to be able to say.  When you know, objectively, that you have put as much effort into a story as you reasonably can, it is finished.  Will there be flaws?  Absolutely.  Hamlet has flaws.  The Great Gatsby is imperfect.  Everything is.  But–will it be well crafted?  Will it resonate and engage readers?  Move them, make them want to keep reading, make them care?  These are the questions that matter.

Working hard is one thing.  Taking the time to edit and re-edit and re-edit again is essential.  Generally speaking, when a story seems finished, it isn’t.  There is still work to do, mistakes to clean up, inconsistencies in character and plot to correct.  Settling for anything less, looking for shortcuts and end-arounds will sabotage the story and rob it of its potential.  No arguments there.

But if you find yourself debating the merits of a comma all morning long . . .

comma

 

. . . or sprinting headlong toward a concrete wall, there really is only one thing left to do . . .

stop

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

45 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Joanna
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 19:19:29

    A great post – about Pete Reiser, about writing. Oscar Wilde’s comma! Sums it up perfectly. Thank you Mike!

    Reply

  2. marksackler
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 19:52:22

    It’s too bad. One is reminded of other promising careers that were cut short by severe injuries at an early age. Herb Score and Tony Conigliero come to mind. One is hard pressed to imagine what those careers, like Rieser’s would have been. But consider this, in Jane Leavey’s fine biography of Mickey Mantle, “The Last Boy,” she presents convincing evidence that Mantle tore his ACL in the 1951 World Series at age 19. There was no means of fixing a torn ACL at that time. He therefore played his entire career and put up Hall of Fame numbers with that injury. What would his career have looked like with a healthy frame?

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 12, 2013 @ 17:15:53

      You know, I heard that about Mantle, too, and you’re right. If he’d been healthier during his career, he may have gone down as the greatest of all time. It’s remarkable the career he did have, considering his injuries. And Herb Score! Great comparison there with Reiser!

      Reply

  3. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 20:10:44

    Oh my goodness. I’m a baseball fan, but I never read anything about Pete Reiser. Thanks so much again for a great story Mike.

    Reply

  4. Charron's Chatter
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 20:32:52

    what a great related anecdote. I really relate to Reiser! And all (hmm, ellipses, or em dash…huh…?…) aspects of this piece really.

    (damn, definitely needed a comma after “piece”)

    Great write, Mike. Really led me thru.

    Reply

  5. 2embracethelight
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 21:30:51

    Mike
    I always find your posts most profittable. Thank you. And for me, it is a help with my own writing. Thank you
    Yisraela

    Reply

  6. laurie27wsmith
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 21:50:48

    Great post, you have to stop somewhere otherwise you’ll be one of these work in progress for 20 years authors. The like button isn’t working on any blogs today so accept that I hit like huh?

    Reply

  7. peacelovegreatcountrymusic
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 22:40:49

    Great post today. Commas can be tricky, I think they are like candies, you can always find a place to tuck one more in.

    Reply

  8. Karen's Nature Art
    Jun 11, 2013 @ 23:27:14

    This is so true for artwork as well…great post!

    Reply

  9. honeydidyouseethat?
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 03:27:22

    Orrrrr you could post your blog, and then come back to it. 🙂 Kind of like my kitchen back splash!

    Reply

  10. Fashion Mayann
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 12:44:20

    This is really inspiring and it’s perfect that I read this today because I have Internet problems (sorry, the “Like” button hasn’t loaded correctly on my PC !) both at home and at work, and as a perfectionist that’s driving me crazy !

    Reply

  11. eemoxam
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 13:57:50

    Wow, great post! I love the quote and the baseball story as well. I think I have ruined pieces of writing by butchering them beyond all recognition, but it is so difficult to think you can try to hard. You did a great job of doing it though, it’s balance, I guess, just like everything else.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 12, 2013 @ 17:30:33

      Thanks! And yes, it’s hard to think of working too hard on our writing, but we definitely can work too hard! One of the hardest things is to say a work is finished. And you’re absolutely right–balance is definitely the key.

      Reply

  12. Christy Birmingham
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 18:56:37

    I totally get that Oscar Wilde quote. The flow of the lines can be hard to get ‘just right’ and then we realize… there is really no such thing as perfect 🙂

    Reply

  13. reocochran
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 20:00:12

    I thoroughly enjoyed the read today! All of its meaning and insight! I think there are a lot of “almost famous people” out there that just didn’t or don’t even now, get acknowledged! The comma part made me laugh! Some writers only accomplish so much in a day… take care, thanks for stopping by ‘my place!’ Robin

    Reply

  14. jenniferalicechandler
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 20:49:02

    I really liked this post. I especially like that it shows a person who writes can also edit. It’s a lot of work, as you say, but it isn’t the impossibility some people make it out to be.

    Reply

  15. Carol Wuenschell
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 21:36:27

    It’s true. And it’s advice I should probably be taking right now. Nice post. Thanks.

    Reply

  16. FreeRangeCow
    Jun 13, 2013 @ 14:37:27

    WONDERFUL post!

    Reply

  17. mummyshymz
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 08:37:15

    This is a great post. Wonderful story – you always seem to find the perfect anecdote to illustrate your point. 🙂

    Reply

  18. stormy1812
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 15:40:12

    as a writer for a small newspaper, this is particularly fascinating because for me, deadlines dictate when i’m done. there comes a point where i just have to be done regardless. if i turn in a story im not so pleased with i always fret about what the reaction will be after the newspaper prints. usually nothing happens because it was fine; maybe not my best, but since there’s no complaint, it wasn’t bad either. im facing that some today, of having to just get it done – im a bit behind so i’ll be hard pressed to get everything i need to done. i agree, you can only hem and haw over things so long before it just has to be finished. it’s like with most things – there must be balance. you try hard but part of being so successful is knowing when to walk away/quit so to speak. excellent post!

    Reply

  19. Master's Slave
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 16:45:07

    Awesome story. I love baseball and Oscar Wilde.

    Reply

  20. icelandpenny
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 17:49:32

    Wise, wise words. As a longtime writer, editor, translator, I can relate very strongly to the balancing act you describe. I used to call it the “scarlet to crimson and back again” syndrome — fussing away about whether the shade of red is best described by one or the other, changing back and forth and then forth and back… Seeing this makes me all the more complimented by the likes you have given to my recent posts about BC travels. Thank you!

    Reply

  21. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    Jun 15, 2013 @ 06:42:39

    Fantastic post, this one – loved it!

    & oh, Oscar Wilde!!!

    Reply

  22. Lucia Maya
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 06:16:21

    Wonderfully written! Good reminder about the perfection in the imperfection…

    Reply

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