Some towns fall in love with a player and never let go. As anyone who has lived to be at least 20 knows, love is often not easily explained, nor is it always logical. In baseball player terms the guy may not be an all-time great, but something in his personality or the style of his game endears him to the populace and the emotion sticks forever. They call that being a fan favorite.
Johnny Pesky was one of those guys for the Boston Red Sox. Pesky died the other day at 92 and it wasn’t a shock because he had been in failing health. Pesky was a very good player for the Sox a long time ago, but that was so long ago certainly generations of Fenway Park fans probably barely recalled that he played the game.
I think the two main things that combined to make Pesky beloved in Boston were his personality (he was a very nice man) and his longevity. For more than 60 years he had some kind of affiliation with the team.
Pesky, the son of Croatian immigrants whose last name was officially Pareskovich, was also a good ballplayer. Pesky was a rookie shortstop in 1942 when he collected 205 hits and batted .331. Then he went off to war and didn’t return for three years. In 1946, he was an American League All-Star, his only selection. That year the Red Sox reached the World Series and lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Outfielder Enos Slaughter made a mad dash from first to home to score the winning run and in some quarters Pesky, the cutoff man, was blamed for holding the ball too long before throwing to the plate. He always said it wasn’t true, that he didn’t hesitate, and video replays backed him up. Still, the myth persisted for some, seemingly the only blemish on Pesky’s impeccable record.
Pesky played 10 seasons in the majors, the first seven with Boston, and batted .307. His lifetime on-base percentage was .394. Three times he slapped out more than 200 hits in a season. He once scored six runs in a game. There’s a pretty fair chance his career would have been better if he hadn’t been diverted by World War II.
In Boston Pesky gained a certain type of fame when Mel Parnell, the pitcher-turned-broadcaster, began calling the foul pole in Fenway’s right field “Pesky’s Pole.” Parnell perpetuated the notion that Pesky regularly hit home runs that curved around the pole 302 feet from home plate. However, Pesky rarely hit home runs of any type, with only 17 dingers in his entire career. Eventually the pole was officially christened after Pesky. It is one of those quirky local things.
Over the many years since Pesky’s playing career ended, he also did some Sox broadcasting, was manager of the 1963 and 1964 squads, was a coach, managed the AAA Pawtucket team, became special assistant to the general manager, and was a batting instructor. A little bit of everything for the Red Sox, as well as goodwill ambassador in the community. Ownership and managers changed, but Pesky was always there.
During the Red Sox’s decades-long championship drought there was a prevalent saying in New England: “The Red Sox will win it in my lifetime.” In 2004, when the Sox did win the World Series for the first time since 1918, Pesky shed tears. He lived to see Boston win again in 2007. This past spring, when the team celebrated the 100th birthday of Fenway Park, Pesky was one of 200-plus former players in attendance. Old friends and teammates Pesky and Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doerr soaked in the festivities sitting in wheelchairs in the infield.
As recently as Aug. 5 Pesky attended a Red Sox game–the team won. It is inconsequential, really, but I was glad to hear that.
When he was in his late 80s, Pesky was interviewed by a sportswriter and he summed up his experiences in one sentence. “I’ve had an interesting life,” he said. “I have no complaints.”
What more can any of us ask for?