1942, 1946-1952

From an early age, Johnny Pesky was doing everything he could to better himself at baseball. He played on a number of city teams in Portland, Oregon 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. Twice Johnny was part of a Northwest team that went to Wichita and competed nationally.

Johnny was offered a bonus by the St. Louis Cardinals, but signed with Red Sox. His first year in pro ball was 1940, playing for the Rocky Mount Red Sox of the Piedmont League, where he hit a club-leading .325 and led the league with 187 hits and 16 triples.

In 1941, he progressed to Double A Louisville where he played for the Colonels, again hitting .325 and once again led the league in hits. He also won the MVP award in the American Association.

By year’s end, he was bound for Boston, and joined the Sox for spring training just three months after Pearl Harbor. Johnny gave the Sox speed and defense and was a perfect fit to hit behind Dom DiMaggio and ahead of Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams.

But with the outbreak of the war, manager Joe Cronin was not certain that any of them would be with the team in 1942. Johnny and Ted Williams spent three evenings a week beginning in July taking classroom for the United States Navy where he was in training to become a Naval aviator. He won the shortstop spot in spring training and despite the need to balance baseball with Naval training.

By the end of May Johnny had accumulated 55 hits, most of the infield variety. Much of the time he batted out bunts, moving Dom DiMaggio over from first to third.

In August, Johnny hit five singles in five consecutive innings during a doubleheader. Two were at the end of the first game and the next three were at the start of the second game. No one was able to do that again until Rickey Henderson duplicated it in 1991.

Johnny finished the season with a .331 batting average, second only to Ted Williams' .356 in the American League. He had 205 hits which was a Red Sox rookie record, later broken by Nomar Garciaparra in 1997. There was no “Rookie of the Year” award yet but, The Sporting News named him the shortstop on "All Star Major League" team.

WWII took three years out of his baseball career. Like a lot of ballplayers, he 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.

In 1946, the war over, and the Red Sox won the pennant. Johnny fell one shy of equaling the major league record for successive hits as he became the third big leaguer, in all history, to bash out 11 hits in a row in May. Of the 11 times he reached base, Johnny had scored seven times.

A week later, Johnny set an American League record by scoring six runs in one game. He was 4-for-5 with a double and reached safely on six at-bats. Each time he scored a run, such famous names as Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx were in the process of being erased from the record book.

August was a spectacular month for Johnny. He hit safely 53 times in the month. The major league mark of 68 hits had been set by Ty Cobb in July, 1912.

Johnny hit safely a league-leading 208 times that season, with a .335 average (third in the league). The World Series was a disappointing one for the Red Sox. Generations of baseball aficionados have heard that “Pesky held the ball” on a key play in the eighth inning of Game #7, allowing Enos Slaughter to score the winning run from first base on Harry Walker’s hit to left center.

Slaughter was on first and broke for second base off a walking lead. Johnny ran over to cover second base as Walker blooped one over the vacated shortstop spot into left centerfield. Centerfielder Leon Culberson, filling in for the speedy Dom DiMaggio got a good jump on the ball, but had no chance to catch it. He caught the ball on the bounce and tossed the ball to Johnny, who had his back to the plate, thinking Slaughter would stop at third base.

But Slaughter, knowing DiMaggio was no longer out in center, kept running and was past third base just as Johnny received the ball. Johnny spun toward third base, picked up Slaughter heading for home, and then threw to the plate. The throw drifted up the third base line and his catcher Roy Partee came out to catch it, as Slaughter slid safely home with the walk-off winning run.

The following year, Johnny batted .324 with a league-leading 207 hits. He struck out only 22 times in 638 at bats, and had amassed at least 200 hits for the third time in 1947, becoming the third player in baseball history to reach the 200 hit mark in his first three seasons. The others were Wee Willie Keeler and Chuck Klein. Ty Cobb holds the major league record of having nine 200 hit seasons.

He and Dom DiMaggio were the table-setters for Ted Williams, and he 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.

Johnny had five hits in a doubleheader in September, to give him a 26 game hitting streak in which he batted .402 with 43 hits.

Johnny also pulled of the hidden ball trick in July. He had done twice in 1942. The Nats loaded the bases and he got the ball from the outfield. Buddy Lewis was on second base and didn't notice. Johnny had to alert the umpire which he discreetly did. Lewis took his lead, Johnny bluffed him and tagged him out before he could reach the bag.

The Red Sox came within a game of winning the pennant both in 1948 and 1949, and were only four games behind in 1950. Johnny's place, though, never seemed secure. When he joined the team for spring training in ’48, he was unsure where he’d be playing, since the Sox had acquired Vern Stephens from the St. Louis Browns and it looked like Billy Goodman, another infielder, would make the team. Johnny’s average fell off sharply in 1948, down to .281. Almost certainly part of the reason was that manager Joe McCarthy slotted Stephens in at short, and shuffled Johnny over to third.

1949 saw a bit of a rebound, his average back up to .306 and the 1950 season was a tremendous year offensively for the Red Sox. Johnny hit .312, and scoring 112 runs, he joined Ted Williams as the only other player to have scored 100 or more runs each of his first six seasons of major league ball. This was the year Johnny took himself out of the lineup so that Billy Goodman could have a shot at the batting title.

By 1951, though, the bloom was off the rose, and when the Marines called Ted back in 1952 to fly combat in Korea, the golden days were gone. There were signs that Johnny was slowing a bit. Even though his career .316 average at the time ranked him fifth among active players, here he was, once again, having to fight for a spot. He got off to a slow start, but wound up the season at .313.

In July 1951, the Sox celebrated a "Johnny Pesky" Night at Fenway, hosted by Curt Gowdy. Johnny received a Cadillac from the club and Dom DiMaggio presented him with a plaque from his teammates.

His 1952 season began poorly, and he was hardly ever used because the Sox were seeking a “youth movement”. Hampered by injuries, he was hitting a pitiful .149 when he was traded to the Tigers in a monster deal.

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. He managed the Sox’ Seattle minor league team in 1961 and 1962, and managed the big league Boston Red Sox in ’63 and ’64.

In 1963, the first half of the season made Johnny look like a man who could work miracles, but the second half made him look human again. The players also had fallen into cliques and there was a lot of dissension and finger-pointing on a team that just didn't get along with each other.

Johnny knew a good part of the reason for the team's lack of success was Dick Stuart and told him flat out that he was losing more games for the team with a lackadaisical attitude in the field, than he was winning for the team with his bat. Stuart didn't care and battled Johnny as often as he could and it didn't help that Johnny got no backing from the front office.

In 1964, Tony Conigliaro and Tony Horton were the team's best hitting prospects and Johnny was hoping that Horton would prove good enough to replace Stuart. Pesky, knowing the club wasn't going anywhere, tried to convince GM Mike Higgins to let the kids play, but Higgins elected to keep the more veteran players on the squad. So most of the youngsters were sent down after spring training.

As things became worse, Johnny became more nervous. Players didn't respond to him, and he had to repeat his signs to base-runners and batters. He was second-guessed and criticized by his players and they didn't try to hide it. Exasperated that the front office wouldn't help him get any quality players, Johnny panicked, expressing his innermost feelings and talked too much to the press, making explanations when he should have kept his mouth shut.

So a victim of club politics, Johnny was finally let go, and third base coach, Billy Herman, who was in solidly with Higgins, was named as Sox manager. Sadly, he wasn't even offered a job elsewhere in the Red Sox organization. Carl Yastrzemski said flatly, that there was a conspiracy to get Johnny fired.

From 1969-1974, he served as a broadcaster for the Sox, 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.

From 1975-1984, he was first base coach under Sox skippers Darrell Johnson, Don Zimmer and Ralph Houk. After 1985, he has been a special assignment instructor, evaluating players at lower levels in the Red Sox system, but also working with generations of Red Sox players at spring training and at Fenway. As late as 2003, Johnny Pesky could be found on the field at Fenway before games, hitting fungos to infielders and generally serving as a goodwill ambassador throughout the region.

It was a good year in 2004. He and Carl Yastrzemski walked across the field to hoist the 2004 World Series banner on the Fenway Park flagpole on opening day in 2005.

Johnny Pesky was a charter member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame and "Mr. Red Sox" had his number "6" retired, passing away on August 13, 2012 in Danvers, Mass.