Johnny Pesky, RIP: He Only Held Your Heart

It should have been erased by sense and the evidence, long enough ago. But even past the day when the Boston Red Sox finally busted the actual or alleged curse, you might be forgiven if you thought his full, legal name was Johnny Pesky Held the Ball.

Actually, his full legal name at birth was John Michael Paveskovich. It was his teachers who called him “Pesky” as a youth. In 1947, he legalised it as his surname while making a baseball life under it. Now Johnny Pesky has gone to his reward.

Late playing days, when you’d still have thought his full name was Johnny Pesky Held the Ball . . .

His father once told him that if he played baseball, he’d be a bum for all his life. To hear some people talk, or see them write, in the decades-long aftermath of the bottom of the eighth inning, Game Seven, 1946 World Series, you’d have thought Pesky made his father resemble a prophet.

Two outs, St. Louis Cardinals batting, Enos Slaughter on first having led off with a single, and Harry (The Hat) Walker at the plate. Facing Red Sox reliever  Bob Klinger, Walker hit a sinking liner to left center field. As Leon Culberson ambled for it, Culberson having been sent out to spell Dominic DiMaggio (first as a pinch runner, when DiMaggio’s leg gave out after he tied the game with a double), Pesky ambled likewise into shallow left center as the cutoff man. Culberson chased down Walker’s hit—a double, by the way, not a single as the legend would have it—as Slaughter was off to the proverbial races.

With Slaughter having no apparent intention of slowing down, Culberson wheeled and threw a high lob in toward Pesky. The myth of Pesky holding the ball took hold not because he actually held it but, rather, because he had to come down with his hands after taking the high lob before turning to make a try for Slaughter heading for the plate.

The swift Slaughter may have been twenty feet from the plate when Pesky was able to throw home. And Slaughter was no dump truck. The real key to the play: Slaughter had been running with the pitch with a mind toward stealing second, and Pesky had scampered at first toward the base to cover on a possible throw up from the plate.

That, of course, would be the last time Pesky, DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams got anywhere near a World Series. I single them out because of David Halberstam’s sweet book about their lifelong friendship, The Teammates (2003), hooked around the final pilgrimage DiMaggio, Doerr, and Pesky planned to visit the dying Williams. Except that Doerr couldn’t make the trip; his customary travel plans had been crimped by the strokes his wife had suffered recently (she died in 2003), on top of her battle with multiple sclerosis.

Pesky came from solid Austro-Hungarian stock; his father’s traveling companions to America included the grandfather of eventual Detroit Tigers’ World Series hero Mickey Lolich. When Pesky went into the Navy in World War II, and became an officer through one of the Navy’s special programs, Jacob Paveskovich, who’d been an officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy, was amazed. “John, do you know how long it took me to get what you got in the old country, to become an officer?” His son didn’t know. “Ten or twelve years,” the father replied. “And you got it in under two.”

“Pop,” said Pesky, “we’re not in the old country—we’re in the new country.”

“You’re right, John,” the father replied, with a grin. “We’re not in the old country.”

Bobby Doerr (l.) and Johnny Pesky at Fenway’s centenary—teammates, friends, gentlemen . . .

When Pesky changed his legal name in 1947, his mother, however, was dismayed—at first. “Ma, I’m not ashamed,” the shortstop replied, “but we’re in America now.” Something Ma Pesky understood, and began to love, when in their Oregon hometown she became recognised as the mother of Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox.

Pesky was a solid infielder, a solid hitter (he led the American League in hits in back-to-back seasons, including the year he finished second to Ted Williams for the batting title; he did thrice what Williams couldn’t due once because of his walks—get 200+ hits in a season), a student of the game. It stood him in solid stead after his playing days. (Red Sox Nation probably forgets, as if it matters, that Pesky was dealt away, to the Detroit Tigers during 1952, then to the Washington Senators two years later, before he was released, picked up by the Baltimore Orioles for a swan song which ended early in 1955.) He became a valued minor league manager in the Red Sox system, respected as a teacher and mentor.

Among other things, he took a big, hulking righthanded pitcher with a howitzer of an arm but little much else beyond a cannonball of a fastball and a serviceable slider, and converted him to relief pitching. “As it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” remembered Dick Radatz to Peter Golenbock (for Fenway: An Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox). “If you’re going to be a starter, you should have the command of three good pitches . . . I didn’t have enough to be a starting pitcher. My anger subsided when I discovered Pesky was going to pitch me a lot . . . I loved Johnny Pesky. He understood the plight of ballplayers, understood their problems. He was your boss, but he was also your confidant. He’d say, ‘If you’re having a problem on the road and want a beer, we’ll talk about it.’ He was almost like a father away from home.”

That was Pesky managing in the minor leagues. When he got his chance to manage the Red Sox, in 1963, after such dynamic farm managing with a game-wide reputation as a teacher, Pesky found his legs cut out from under him. The ineffective Pinky Higgins was kicked upstairs to replace Bucky Harris as general manager, and the legend for years has been that Higgins went out of his way to make sure Pesky didn’t have a prayer as the major league skipper.

Pesky had favoured and won in the minors with an aggressive, hit-and-run game, and he hoped to teach the parent club the same game. The Red Sox he was handed were too accustomed to living large under Higgins’ laissez-faire disciplinary style, and they had no intention of changing for the new skipper. Between that and Higgins’ refusal to back Pesky on scattered disciplinary matters—Pesky in the minors might chew a player out, but he’d drop it as soon as the lesson was taught and never hold it against a player—Pesky was cooked before he stood a reasonable chance.

He had Carl Yastrzemski as a superstar in the making. He had Dick Radatz to finish what his starters couldn’t, earning his nickname The Monster. But he also had some aging veterans, some green kids, including a promising slugger named Tony Conigliaro. And, he also had Dick Stuart. This power-hitting first baseman with a cement block for a glove and, possibly, a head, so flouted Pesky’s authority in the clubhouse and on the field that Pesky, more than once, moved to have him dealt away. Higgins refused. Then, after two and a half testy enough seasons, he executed Pesky.

“One of my career memories was hugging and kissing Johnny pesky after we won it all in ’04, God Rest and God Bless his gentle soul, I miss you”—Curt Schilling (left), upon Pesky’s death.

To his credit, Pesky didn’t let that destroy his relationship with the Red Sox. He became a Red Sox coach for several seasons; then, he became a valued teacher in Red Sox spring trainings, broadcasting for the team for a period, even taking the managerial reins to finish 1980 after Don Zimmer was fired amidst an ownership squabble. The longer the years passed, the more frequently you could count on seeing Pesky in spring, in uniform, fungo bat in hand, smile and teaching in mind. Then, on afternoons before games in Fenway as a special assignment instructor, since 1985, the more you felt the sun would still rise in the Olde Towne no matter how the Red Sox were doing.

“He promised me he’d quit when he got to eighty,” Pesky’s late wife, Ruth, told Halberstam, when her husband had crossed the threshold to 82. “But he didn’t. But I do think he’ll quit when he reaches 85.”

Pesky didn’t exactly quit when he did hit 85. If he had, he’d have missed seeing the Red Sox perform the improbably impossible, or was that the impossibly improbable, in 2004. Or, from running the World Series championship flags of 2004 and 2007 up the Fenway flagpole. But he did restrict himself from then on to a folding chair, then a wheelchair, bat in hand, pen likewise for fans, refusing to demur if asked for a tip, a pointer, or an autograph.

If you were a Red Sox fan, Johnny Pesky was your fan. His idea of VIP treatment, Gordon Edes writes, “meant a table at the Salem Diner, where every morning, Monday to Friday (breakfast on the weekend was reserved for Ruthie), he would gather with a motley assortment of friends . . . [and] they would swap stories, and tease Georgia the waitress, and take turns paying the bill. Earl Weissman, the lawyer, of course, kept track of whose turn it was.”

“Pesky,” Halberstam wrote, “was in no way disappointed with what had not taken place during [his post-playing] life. Instead he seemed somewhat in awe of how long it lasted, how rich his life had been, how many friends he had made, how many people actually liked him, and how many people still remembered him and his glory days, and were pleased to be in his company.”

They named Fenway Park’s right field pole for him. They should have re-named the whole damn ballpark for him. At Fenway’s centenary, Pesky sat warmly at second base, in his wheelchair, moved to tears during the pre-game ceremony. As Red Sox Nation and just about everyone in or near baseball is moved to tears for losing, really, the next best thing we have to our baseball grandfather.

But only his earthly life span was 92. On Grandpa Pesky, it still seems too young.

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