By baseball Emmet
“I’ve had an interesting life. I have no complaints,” Johnny Pesky told AP back in 2005. He was a mere 85 years old then.
Pesky, a Red Sox legend who died this week at 92 was a minor league player, major league player, minor league manager, major league manager, major league coach then broadcaster with the Boston Red Sox in a career which began in 1940 in Rocky Mount, N. C.
He was born on the day of Babe Ruth’s last game for the Red Sox. He died the same date (1995)as Mickey Mantle. He spent 61 of his years in some capacity with the Red Sox.
When he arrived at the Red Sox major league training camp in 1940 he shared the field with veterans Jimmie Foxx and Joe Cronin, both eventual Hall of Famer members. Ted Williams was a mere 23, Bobby Doerr was 24 and Dom DiMaggio, (Joe’s little brother) was 25.
He managed Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro. He battled with “Stonefingers” Dick Stuart, coached Jim Rice and Freddy Lynn and hit fungoes (infield practice) to five generations of ball players.
He was a damned good ballplayer. People forget that. As a 22 year old rook in 1942, Pesky led the American league with 205 hits, was sixth in runs scored with 105 and was second only to Ted Williams in the American league with a .331 batting average. He finished third in most valuable player voting, behind Williams and Joe Gordon.
Over parts of his eight seasons playing for the Red Sox (through June 1952), Pesky hit .313 (1,277-for-4,085) with 196 doubles, 46 triples, 13 home runs, 361 RBI, 776 runs scored, 581 walks and 48 stolen bases, and he remains among Boston’s career leaders in batting average (7th), on-base percentage (7th, .401), runs scored (10th) and at-bats per strikeout (3rd, 21.61).
Despite a stellar career, Pesky was best remembered (by some) for the 1946 World Series when he allegedly “held the ball” while Enos Slaughter scored from first base on an outfield drive. I finally saw the films after hearing that story for decades. He never held the ball. He simply wound up to throw home, a little late. The true story is that DiMaggio; the regular center fielder was hurt, replaced by Leon Culberson, who made a lousy throw to Pesky. That’s my version.
That World Series legend might have broken a lesser man. Pesky made a joke out of it. On the rubber chicken circuit, Pesky often told the tale of going home after the ’46 World Series and attending the Oregon-Oregon State football game, and how, “It was a rainy, muddy day, and players were slipping all over the place. Every other play was a fumble. Finally one guy stands up and yells, ‘Give the ball to Pesky, he’ll hold onto it!’ ”
Pesky was no power hitter. He hit only 17 home runs his entire career. His pal, Mel Parnell took over the broadcasting booth when he retired from playing. It was Parnell who dubbed the right field fair/foul pole as “Pesky Pole” after Pesky allegedly hit a home run to win Parnell a game. It was one of the shortest distances for a home run in the majors, and one of the only places Pesky could reach, Parnell told radio listeners.
The “Pesky Pole” has stuck to this day and visitors can’t wait to sign the pole. How many people in baseball get a piece of the park named after them?
For generations of Red Sox fans, Pesky was the good will ambassador, the old guy who would sit in the stands for hours, talking baseball for generations of fans. He was a consummate wiseass and would give the needle to anyone who came by. Needling is a vital part of baseball. Ted Williams used to call Pesky “needle nose’ for his prominent nose. Pesky, likewise had a nickname for everyone.
After a Fort Myers spring training session when I was on the field taking pictures, he took a look at my white hair, white beard and big belly and dubbed me “Claus.” I was honored. He used to play poker with the older guys when we stayed at the Royal Palm Motel in Fort Myers, one of the worst in the area. It has since gratefully been turned into a parking lot.
If anyone enjoyed their life more than Pesky, I have never met them. He once said. “When you win, you eat better, sleep better and your beer tastes better. And your wife looks like Gina Lollobrigida. When you lose, she looks like Bela Lugosi.” Despite that familiar line, he was married to Ruthie Pesky for 60 years. She died in 2006.
I have disliked former Sox General Manager Dan Duquette since he banned Pesky from sitting in the dugout in uniform, citing some rule or regulation. That slur was quickly forgotten when the club “retired” Pesky’s number 6, then hung it in honor in right field, right behind the “Pesky Pole.” Pesky also has his statue in Fenway Park with Williams, DiMaggio and Doerr. Take that, Duquette.
The World Series of 1946 and the Duke insult were buried in World Series wins in 2004, then 2007, ending an 86 year drought. Pesky was brought by ownership to the clinching game in St. Louis, where he raised the trophy with tears of joy.
He didn’t play long enough for Cooperstown with competition like Marty Marion, Phil Rizzuto, Lou Boudreau and Pee Wee Reese. But he did make the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
“Johnny Pesky will forever be linked to the Boston Red Sox,” said Red Sox President/CEO Larry Lucchino. “He has been as much a part of Fenway Park as his retired Number 6 that rests on the right-field façade or the foul pole below it that bears his name. But beyond these physical testaments, Johnny will be remembered most for his warmth, kindness, and loyalty. It was through his countless friendships that Johnny made his greatest impact on us, and we will miss him dearly. His was a life well-lived.”
Interesting. No complaints.