1942, 1946-1952

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.

Johnny’s first year in pro ball, after signing with Boston, was 1940 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, playing for the Rocky Mount Red Sox of the Piedmont League, under manager Heinie Manush, who Johnny credits as a major influence. Johnny hit a club-leading .325. He had 55 runs batted in but, ever the table-setter, scored 114 times. Pesky led the league with 187 hits and 16 triples. That .325 average placed him third in the league. In 1941, Pesky progressed from Class B ball in Rocky Mount to Louisville where he played for the Colonels, again hitting .325. Louisville was a Double A team in the American Assocation, managed by Bill Burwell. Pesky hit for precisely the same average -- .325, and once again led the league in hits, this time with 195. He won the MVP award in the American Association for 1941.

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.

In 1946, the war over, Johnny and the Red Sox won the pennant, and took the fight right down to the 9th inning of the seventh game of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Johnny hit safely a league-leading 208 times that season, with a .335 average (third in the league), scoring 115 times (second behind Ted’s 142.) The Series was a disappointing one for Pesky, as it was for two other players, named Musial (who batted .222 in Series play) and Williams (.200). And generations of baseball aficionados have heard that “Pesky held the ball” on a key play in the eighth inning of Game Seven, allowing Enos Slaughter to score the winning run from first base on Harry Walker’s hit to left center. Cardinals 4, Red Sox 3.

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.

The Red Sox came within a game of winning the pennant both in 1948 and 1949, and were only four games behind in 1950. These were some great Red Sox teams. Pesky’s place, though, never seemed secure -- a strange spot to be in for a top-ranking shortstop. When Johnny joined the team for spring training in ’48, he was unsure where he’d be playing, since Boston had acquired Vern Stephens from the St. Louis Browns and it looked like Billy Goodman -- another infielder -- would make the team. Stephens contributed 137 RBI in ’48; clearly manager Joe McCarthy’s decision to play him proved wise. (Stephens led the league in RBI in ’49 and ’50. Goodman stuck, and hit .310. In 1950, he won the AL batting title with a .354 average -- with a bit of an assist from Pesky. Johnny approached 1950 manager Steve O’Neill late in the season and offered to take himself out of the lineup so that Goodman could accumulate the necessary at-bats to qualify.)  The problem was an embarrassment of riches. There were just too many good hitters on these Red Sox teams. Johnny Pesky’s average fell off sharply in 1948, down to .281. Almost certainly part of the reason was that McCarthy slotted Stephens in at short, and shuffled Pesky over to third.

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.

The 1950 season was a tremendous year offensively for Boston. Pesky hit .312, walked 104 times and boosted his OBP to a solid .437. His fielding at third base drew frequent accolades in the Boston press. Scoring 112 runs, he joined teammate 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 Pesky, in effect, 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 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.

Johnny’s 1952 season began poorly, and he was hardly ever used by Boudreau, now the manager and seeking a “youth movement” in Boston. Hampered by injuries, he was hitting a pitiful .149 when he was traded to the Tigers in a monster deal. Boston sent five players to Detroit, a full 20% of the 25-man roster.

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.

From 1975-1984, he was first base coach under Sox skippers Darrell Johnson, Don Zimmer and Ralph Houk. From 1985 to the present, Johnny 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 -- “Mr. Red Sox” in the eyes of decades of New Englanders -- 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. 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.