Tuesday, January 6, 2015

John "Bonesetter" Reese, A Remarkable Man

John "Bonesetter" Reese
In the annals of sports literature you will find many references to John D. "Bonesetter" Reese.  He was one of the most fascinating figures in sports, although he was really not a sportsman. He was one of the most fascinating figures in medicine, although he was not a physician. Reese fixed aches and injuries with his hands. The references to Reese's work are generally shorts and sweet. A baseball, boxer,  or football player stops in at Reese's Youngstown office and he gets relief. 

Many sources define a Bonesetter as “someone who sets bones.” This definition is not accurate and is perhaps misleading. Going back to a source contemporary to John Reese, Norman D. Mattison, M.D., shed some light on the practice when he wrote “Bone Setting and Its Modern Revival,” published in the 1916 New York Medical Journal, Volume 104. Mattison quoted another authority, W. P. Hood, who said that bone setting “is the art of overcoming by the sudden flexion or extension any impediments to the free motion of joints that may be left behind after the subsistence of the early symptoms of disease or injury.”

Bonesetting has been practiced for long time in the United States.  According to Mattison’s review of the literature at the time, a bone setter named James Sweet came to America from Wales and settled in Rhode Island in 1650 to set up shop. Generations of Sweet’s followed suit. It was in Wales, the same coal mining and iron and steel producer,  that Bonesetter Reese would have his origins. Reese arrived with his set of skills in 1887 to find work in Youngstown. Reese was a young orphan boy who grew to become an ironworker and learned the medical trade of "Bonesetter" from a fellow worker. His skills would be in great demand in Youngstown, an industrial powerhouse that was part of a region that was called "Steel Valley."

The Bonesetter practice was a godsend to many impoverished miners and others that injured themselves in labor.   

John Reese was good at his work and quit mill work in Youngstown to focus on his growing bonesetter practice. Despite friction from authorities and medical doctors, Reese had a flourishing practice—people lined up to see him. Eventually, the official civic community would recognize his work. Reese’s legend lives on today as a man who miraculously helped heal a number of prominent baseball players. His patients included Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, and Grover Cleveland Alexander. Baseball history books are loaded with references to Reese, but his focus was helping the millworkers in Youngstown where he set up his practice. 

John Reese was often quiet and spoke softly with his patients, but the practice required hard work and sometimes rough treatment to the affected areas.  Reese's demeanor could calm a patient before he had to move swiftly. Although Reese was thin, his patients were often impressed by his hand strength.

We came across Bonesetter Reese and one of his patients in Mike Cameron's Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle. Cameron introduces readers to baseball pitcher Jack Pfiester of the Chicago Cubs who was known as "Jack the Giant Killer" because of his superb record against the NY Giants. According to Cameron, Pfiester pitched for the Cubs in the famous Merkle game of September 23, 1908 while suffering from a dislocated tendon in his throwing arm. Pfiester held the Giants to one run going into the ninth inning although he was in unimaginable pain during the gutsy performance.

According to Cameron, Pfiester sought Reese out for treatment immediately following the September 23rd game. Reese reportedly snapped back Pfiester's dislocated tendon in a short office visit. Cameron writes that it is was the kind of injury that would have been treated by surgery today. In Pfiester's case, he still had pitching problems for the rest of the season including the World Series. Perhaps he would have had better results had he seen Reese prior to his pitching performance on the 23rd. However, he came back the following year with a strong 17-6 record and a 2.43 ERA.

There is a Reese connection with another the author of a Sporting Chance Press book called Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout. The author, Patrick McCaskey, is the grandson of George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears and legendary NFL pioneer. Patrick's grandfather used the services of Bonesetter Reese on three different occasions. Twice while he was a student at the University of Illinois and again when Halas had injured his hip sliding into second base for the New York Yankees.

David Anderson of the Society for American Baseball Research wrote an informative biographical essay on Reese. Additionally, Reese’s grandson, David Strickler, published a book on his grandfather called Child of Moriah: A Biography of John D. Bonesetter Reese in 1989. This is the definitive work on Reese and includes many accounts and witnesses to his work.  You may be able to get a copy of this book off the Internet, but it is expensive and rare. 

Copyright 2015, Sporting Chance Press, Inc.