Bonesetter Reese: Youngstown’s Baseball Doctor

This article was written by David W. Anderson

This article was published in 2001 Baseball Research Journal

He was neither a physician nor a trainer, but John O. “Bonesetter’ Reese was probably the best known treater of injured ballplayers in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

He built a practice in which he saw athletes, enter­tainers, and statesmen, but also the mill workers of his adopted Youngstown, Ohio. He beat off and eventu­ally surmounted challenges from the medical establishment, and he became a treasured citizen of his hard-working city.

Reese’s origins were as humble as they were harsh. Born May 6, 1855, in Rhymney, Wales, he lost his father three months later. When he was eleven, his mother died. Orphaned, Reese went to work in the Welsh iron works. He was taken in by an ironworker named Tom Jones who taught him the trade of bonesetting, a term Welshmen used for the manipu­lative treatment of muscle and tendon strains, not the setting of breaks. Reese remained under Jones’ tute­lage until he left for the United States in 1887.

Like many immigrants of the times, Reese was com­pelled to come to America because there were no jobs in the old country. He sailed steerage class to America without his family, sending for chem six months later. When they arrived, Reese left his job as a roller’s helper at Jones & Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh and moved to Youngstown, where he took a job at the Brown-Bonnell Mills. Family history says he success­fully treated an injured mill worker for a dislocated shoulder in 1889. From this point on, other workers began coming to Reese for help with their injuries.

Eventually, the call on his skills became so great that he became a fulltime bonesetter in 1894. This called down the wrath of the medical establishment, which charged him with quackery and practicing medicine without a license. To get around this charge, Reese took advantage of the strict Language of the state law and began charging patients what they could afford rather than a set fee. His policy, primarily ap­plied to factory workers, was tersely stated: “Pay me when you get it.”

Simultaneously, Reese did what he could to satisfy his critics. He even enrolled in medical school at Case University in Cleveland, in 1897. He didn’t last long, because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood dur­ing surgery. His teachers recognized his skill, though, and gave their blessing to his practice of muscle and ligament manipulation, which resembled osteopathy, a medical theory founded in the United States during the late nineteenth century.

Reese’s struggle with the medical community ended in 1900. By then he had developed strong ties in the community, had made influential friends, and had made it clear that he refused to treat acute illnesses and was practicing his trade within strict Limits. His practice was formally recognized by the State of Ohio, and open opposition by medical authorities ceased. 

Treating ballplayers

According co David Strickler, Reese’s grandson-in-law, who wrote his biography, Child of Moriah (Four Corners Press), the first baseball player treated by Reese was Jimmy McAleer, a Young­stown native who was an outfielder for the Cleveland Spiders at the time. McAleer, who later became man­ager of the St. Louis Browns, spread the word about Reese’s talents. lo 1903, the Pittsburgh Pirates offered Reese the position of full-time team physician. Reese, preferring to stay at home, refused the offer and con­tinued to treat any ballplayer who came to him for help.

Many did. Strickler’s book lists fifty-four players created by Reese, twenty-eight of whom are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, including Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson and John McGraw. Scores more visited him but weren’t listed because Reese never sought publicity and some players did not want anyone knowing they might be hurt. In the mid-twenties, Sporting Life paid tribute to Reese’s contribution to baseball this way: “[he] has prolonged the active life of countless baseball stars and preserved them for the fans of the country to cheer.”

From his experience with players, Reese became an expert in treating sore arms, bad backs, and charley horses. Reese noted that most of his patients were pitchers. “It’s not the curveball pitchers who come the more often …but the boys who try to throw the ball past a batter, the speed ball pitchers…If the sore­ness is in the elbow it’s a speedball pitcher nine times out of ten; if in the shoulder, a curveball pitcher.”

Several players credited Reese with saving their careers, including longtime Cleveland pitcher George Uhle and Pittsburgh and Brooklyn infielder Glenn Wright. While Reese provided cures, the repairs were not painless. Wagner said Reese hurt him, “like the devil, but always does the work.” Reese himself liked Wagner and described their first meeting, ”because they call me ‘bonesetter’ he [Wagner] was trembling clear down to his shoes. And the minute I placed my hands on his back he fainted dead away.”

The Bonesetter was not always happy with his ballplaying patients. He believed many of them reinjured themselves because they would not follow his directions. Reese disliked sports that put their par­ ticipants in harm’s way. Present-day Youngstown is a gridiron hotbed, but Reese did not share the passion.

He hated football. He treated George Halas only af­ter the future ‘Papa Bear’ persuaded him his bum knee came from sliding into a base and not from be­ing hammered by a tackler.

Reese’s patient list was not confined to athletes. He treated Theodore Roosevelt, presidential candidate and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, and fellow Welshman and former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Will Rogers was among his show busi­ness clients, along with countless showgirls who needed treatment for strained muscles or twisted ankles. Billy Sunday was also among his patients, both as a player and an evangelist.

Reese died of heart failure in 1931 at the age of sev­enty-six. His passing was heavily covered by the Youngstown Vindicator. His obituary noted that he had always treated patients in order of appearance. The famous had to stand in line like everybody else. Patients paid what they could afford, while the widows and orphans of mill workers were not charged at all.

John D. ‘Bonesetter’ Reese came to America to seek a better life for himself and his family, a motive the sons and daughters of immigrants understand. He built his life around the opportunity given him in his adopted nation. That simple fact best describes ‘Bonesetter’ Reese’s life and his contribution to his fellow citizens of Youngstown and to our national game.


Bonesetter’s All Star Clients Team

Pitchers: Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Big Ed Walsh, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Addie Joss, Chief Bender and Stanley Coveleski.

Catchers: Gabby Hartnett and Roger Bresnahan.

First basemen: George Sisler and Frank Chance.

Second basemen: Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby and Napoleon Lajoie.

Third basemen: Home Run Baker and Jimmy Collins.

Shortstops: Honus Wagner and Donie Bush.

Outfielders: Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, Edd Roush and Max Carey.

Manager: John McGraw.