Johnny Pesky, who during a six-decade-long association with the Red Sox as player, manager, broadcaster, coach, and executive became one of the most popular figures in the team’s history, died Monday. He was 92.
A lifetime .307 hitter, Mr. Pesky recorded 200 or more hits in each of his first three seasons, leading the American League in that category all three years. He hit .331 in 1942, his rookie season, finishing second to Ted Williams in the batting title race and was third in most valuable player voting. An All-Star in 1946, he was a fine fielding shortstop, his primary position. He also played third base and second base.
In 2008, he was the first player to have his number, 6, retired by the Red Sox who was not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“He was phenomenal in those first three seasons,” said his first Red Sox manager, Joe Cronin. “You couldn’t ask for more than he gave.”
Mr. Pesky was among the first class of inductees into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, in 1995. He never made it to Cooperstown, though, which was largely attributable to three factors.
He lost three seasons at his playing peak to wartime service.
He played in an era of outstanding shortstops, including the Cardinals’ Marty Marion, the Yankee’s Phil Rizzuto, the Indians’ (and later Red Sox’) Lou Boudreau, the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese.
And he held the ball.
No Red Sox fan needs to be told what that means. It was during the eighth inning of the seventh and deciding game of the 1946 World Series. The Sox and Cardinals were tied 3-3. There were two outs, with the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter on first. Slaughter broke for second, attempting to steal, and Harry “The Hat” Walker hit a line drive into left-center field. Slaughter kept on going as Leon Culberson fielded the ball. He kept on going as Culberson made a poor throw to Mr. Pesky, the cutoff man. He kept on going as Mr. Pesky turned around. By the time Mr. Pesky realized Slaughter was heading home, it was too late.
It’s widely believed that Mr. Pesky hesitated before throwing. Films of the play indicate it was more a case of Mr. Pesky simply needing to hitch his shoulder for a stronger throw. Either way, Cardinal catcher Joe Garagiola has stated that with or without any hesitation Mr. Pesky wouldn’t have caught Slaughter because of the head start the baserunner had gotten from the attempted steal.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Mr. Pesky had joined the list of famous Series goats that includes Fred Snodgrass and Mickey Owen (and later the Red Sox’ Bill Buckner).
Mr. Pesky went home to Portland, Ore., after the Series and stayed in his house for five weeks before finally coming out. With characteristic good cheer, he soon adjusted to his newfound ignominy. “If you’re a palooka, you’ve got to live with it,” he said in a 1979 Globe interview.
A classic baseball lifer, Mr. Pesky knew how to take diamond good with diamond bad. “He’s the most dedicated guy I’ve ever known,” his Hall of Fame teammate Bobby Doerr once said of Mr. Pesky. “The game of baseball is his life. I don’t know a single person who loves the game as much.”
Such Red Sox greats as Williams, Doerr, Cronin, and Carl Yastrzemski have plaques in Cooperstown. But only Mr. Pesky could claim that part of the park bears his name. The right-field foul pole became known as Pesky’s Pole, a term popularized by Mr. Pesky’s teammate Mel Parnell. Parnell named the pole while broadcasting a Red Sox game in the mid-’60s. The implication was the lefthanded-hitting Mr. Pesky placed numerous home runs just inside the pole. In fact, his career total was 17 — and only six came at Fenway. The Red Sox made the title official in 2006, placing a plaque on the pole honoring Mr. Pesky.
Mr. Pesky, who was short, easygoing, upbeat, and a spray hitter with little power, could hardly have been more different from Williams. Yet they were a classic case of opposites attracting. Writing in 1989, David Halberstam described their friendship as “a fifty-year marathon of playful insults.”
Williams’ teasing masked profound affection and professional respect. “It didn’t take an expert to see he was going to make it real big right from the start with that quick bat, blazing speed, and good glove,” he once said of Mr. Pesky.
During his time with the Red Sox, Mr. Pesky batted second. “I hit behind Dominic DiMaggio and in front of Ted Williams,” he once said. “I hung on Ted and Dominic’s coattails.”
The advantage of hitting in front of Williams was great: Mr. Pesky got good pitches to hit because no one wanted to walk Williams. The disadvantage was he couldn’t put his speed to use stealing bases (he was third in the league in 1947) because pitchers would then likely walk Williams with first base open