“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Johnny Pesky’s career got off to an unparalleled start, and could have propelled him into the Hall of Fame had World War II not pulled three prime years out. Pesky set a rookie record with 205 hits his freshman year (1942) but then served in the Navy for the next three years. When he came back, he twice more produced over 200 hits, in the Red Sox pennant-winning year of 1946 and in 1947. Had he managed over 200 hits for each of his three missing years, there is every possibility this lifetime .307 hitter could have made the Hall.
From an early age, Johnny was doing everything he could to better himself at baseball. The young middle infielder also played American Legion ball, and on a number of city teams in Portland, as well as on some semipro teams. Before he’d graduated from Lincoln High School in Portland, he spent the summer of 1937 with the Bend Elks in the town of Bend, Oregon and led the league with a .543 average. The team won the state league title. Both the summers of 1938 and 1939 were spent with the Silverton Red Sox. Both the Bend and Silverton teams were summer league teams associated with local timber companies. Surprisingly, Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey owned the Silver Falls Timber Company, so Johnny was actually with the Red Sox (albeit the Silverton Red Sox) even before Boston’s scout Ernie Johnson signed him. Twice Johnny was part of a Northwest team that went to Wichita and competed nationally. The Silverton team won 34 games and lost two, and sometimes played exhibition games against touring teams like the House of David aggregation and the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.
Johnny was offered $2500 as a bonus by the St. Louis Cardinals, but signed with Boston for $500, because Johnson had so impressed Johnny’s parents. They felt he’d look out for Johnny if he signed with the Red Sox. Johnson had offered an additional $1000 if Johnny stayed in the organization for two years. His pay was $150 per month,
and the Sox sent him the full thousand after just his first year.
By year’s end, he was bound for Boston, offered $4000 for his first year’s salary. Johnny joined the Sox for spring training just three months after Pearl Harbor. War loomed large over all of baseball, and during Johnny’s rookie year; he spent three evenings a week beginning in May taking classroom for the United States Navy where he was in training to become a Naval aviator, in the same program as teammate Ted Williams. Pesky won the shortstop spot in spring training and was assigned number 6. Despite the need to balance baseball with Naval training, Johnny Pesky finished the season with a .331 batting average, second only to Ted Williams (.356) in the American League. He led the league in sacrifice hits. There was no “rookie of the year” award yet. That same year, The Sporting News named Johnny the shortstop on All Star Major League team. Johnny came in third in MVP voting, behind Joe Gordon and Ted Williams.
WWII took three years out of Johnny’s baseball career, but while in the Navy he met his future wife, Ruth Hickey. She was a WAVE who Johnny met while serving as an Operations officer in Atlanta. Ruthie and Johnny remained very happily married for more than 60 years. In 1953, they adopted a five-month old son through Catholic
Charities -- David Pesky, who was born in December 1952. Like a lot of ballplayers, Johnny had many opportunities to play baseball during the war and even played in the AL vs. NL All-Star Game at Furlong Field, Honolulu in 1945.
The following year, Pesky again collected his 200 hits (207 this time around) -- the third year in a row he’d led the league. He and Dom DiMaggio were the table-setters for Ted Williams, and the speedy Pesky was usually discouraged from stretching a single into a double, because a double just meant the other team would walk Ted to
fill the unoccupied sack at first. Pesky was a clever infielder as well; three times he pulled the rare hidden ball trick, and would have done so a fourth time had the pitcher not stepped off the rubber at the wrong moment.
1949 saw a bit of a rebound, his average back up to .306 and, earning an even 100 walks, elevated his on-base percentage to .408. Johnny, always a team booster, allowed, “What a lucky guy I am. Instead of wearing these shoes, I’d probably be shining them for some other guy in the Coast League.” There were endless rumors, though,
about trades said to feature Pesky. From time to time, he admits, these rumored trades proved distracting for him.
By 1951, though, the bloom was off the rose, and when the Marines called Williams back in 1952 to fly combat in Korea, the golden days were gone. There were signs that Pesky was slowing a bit. He only stole two bases each in ’50 and ’51, down somewhat from earlier years. He maybe wasn’t getting to as many balls as an infielder as he
had earlier. Lou Boudreau had been brought in by Yawkey, and was projected as the shortstop. Even though Pesky’s career .316 average at the time ranked him fifth among active players, here he was -- once again -- having to fight for a spot. Johnny got off to a slow start, but wound up the season at .313. Boudreau hit .267.
Most of his 60-plus years in baseball, however, have been with the Red Sox. After his years with Detroit, the Red Sox called him back following the 1960 season. Johnny managed the Sox’ Seattle minor league team in 1961 and 1962, and managed the big league Boston Red Sox in ’63 and ’64. As manager, he brought some fire to the position, after years of yawns under the likes of Pinky Higgins.
From 1969-1974, he served as a broadcaster for Boston, working with Ken Coleman and Ned Martin as a color commentator. Though he worked hard at improving himself, he never felt comfortable except during rain delays when he could really stretch out with stories about players from his era. He’s also one of the only people in baseball
to have a part of a ballpark named after him. Fenway’s famed “Pesky Pole” -- the right field foul pole -- was given the nickname by Sox broadcaster Mel Parnell. A former teammate, Parnell was poking a little fun at Johnny’s lack of power -- he hit just 17 home runs, and only six at Fenway -- every one of which went out past the
right field foul pole, now the shortest distance for a home run in major league ball.
It was a good year in 2004. Not only did Johnny enjoy some extra attention when his biography Mr. Red Sox was published, but he was able to revel in the Red Sox finally attaining the Holy Grail of Baseball, a world championship. For three years he proudly wore the championship ring the Red Sox presented him on the day that he and Carl Yastrzemski walked across the field to hoist the 2004 World Series banner on the Fenway Park flagpole. After the Red Sox won the Series again in 2007, he sported a second companion ring. Johnny Pesky is a charter member of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame. "Mr. Red Sox" died on August 13, 2012 in Danvers, Mass.