The passing of Johnny Pesky is a profound loss for the family that loved him so dearly and for the team he was so loyal to and that in turn was so loyal to him, especially in the last decade. It is a great loss for all his friends and for the millions whose lives he touched. On behalf of all of us who loved him, thank you.
But weren’t we blessed to have such a luminous presence in our midst for many years?
Johnny never aspired or expected to be the celebrated figure that he became. In his mind he was just an undersized kid from Portland, Oregon, the fifth of six children born to hard working immigrant parents, the visiting clubhouse boy for the Portland Beavers of the pacific Coast League who wanted nothing more than to be a ballplayer himself someday.
Part of his special allure was that he was a direct connection to a bygone baseball age. He broke in with the Red Sox at a time when no night baseball game had ever been played in Boston. He played in the World Series in 1946 that was not even on television. As a player he never made as much as twenty thousand dollars a year. Nowadays pitchers are routinely paid much more than that for a single inning. But he was also a reminder that, as much as the trappings around it have changed, baseball is, at its essence, still the same game that it always was: three strikes and you’re out; ninety feet from home to first; one hundred eight stitches in every baseball; and the hardest thing in sports is still to hit a round ball squarely with a round bat when it’s coming at you at speeds of ninety-five miles and hour and more.
Other former players have lived to ripe old ages and never became quite as beloved as Johnny. There was never a campaign to make him beloved, never a marketing strategy. It just happened. People came to realize that it wasn’t because of what he had been or when he had played, it was because of who he was at his very core.
There was no guile in him. He had very little ego. That isn’t to say that he didn’t know he was a terrific player and that he didn’t possess the competitive fire that is part of the makeup of every elite athlete.
He loved to tell the story of his first day in Spring Training as a rookie with the Red Sox. He was still a shy kid and was somewhat nervous about how he’d be treated by some of the star players whose socks and jocks he’d washed in the clubhouse back in Portland. He was especially edgy about meeting up again with Ted Williams. Ted was just a year older but had already become a baseball colossus. He’d hit .406 the season before and his larger than life persona and primal animal magnetism had taken the baseball world by storm. Johnny was sitting with some other players that first day when into the room came Ted, filling it, as always, with his very presence. He pulled up a chair next to Johnny and pronounced, “So you’re going to be the new shortstop? You can help us if you can hit .280.” Johnny surprised even himself when he blurted out to the great Williams. “.280? Hell, I can bunt .280!”
And he could. That first season of 1942 he hit .331 and led the league in hits with more than two hundred of them. The next season he was in uniform again, but not that of the Red Sox. He was in the uniform of the United States Navy. He remained in that Navy uniform throughout the 1943, ’44 and ’45 seasons. In 1946, after the conclusion of World War Two, he was back in his Red Sox uniform and he once again led the league with more than two hundred hits. In 1947 he again led the league with more than two hundred hits. It is by no means a stretch to assert that had he been playing ball I n ’43, ’44 and ’45 he’d have had two hundred hits in those years, too. Six consecutive seasons with more that two hundred hits would have punched his ticket to Cooperstown, New York, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But Johnny never once complained or regretted that World War Two had cost him that chance. The fact is he was even prouder to wear the uniform of his country than that of his baseball team.
Besides, it was while in the Navy that he met a beautiful, perky young woman, Ruth Hickey of Lynn, Massachusetts, who was also in the Navy. Ruthie was a machinist’s mate, in charge of starting up the engines of airplanes. She started up Johnny’s engine, too. They fell in love and got married. And they stayed in love and stayed married for sixty years, until Ruthie passed away in 2005. She had loved tweaking Johnny that he was nothing special, but she knew, of course, that he was. She adored him, as he did her. After she died he soldiered on, but it was never quite the same for him.
People talk about Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six consecutive game hitting streak. That was nothing. Johnny Pesky signed about five hundred sixty thousand consecutive autograph requests. He never turned one down.
I had a phone call a day or so after his passing from a fellow I had not seen or talked to in more than fifty years. He had never even met Johnny Pesky, but he knew that I was fortunate enough to have known him and he just wanted to talk to someone about how much Johnny had meant to him. There are thousands of stories just like that.
He was especially close to Dom DiMaggio who after baseball was even more successful in business than he’d been on the field of play. He knew that jobs as a minor league manager or coach did not provide much in the way of either income or security so on several occasions he offered Johnny the opportunity to join him in his business. But the answer was always the same, “Dom, I couldn’t love more if you were my own brother, but I’m a baseball lifer. They’ll have to cut the uniform off me.”
He remained in that uniform even after his days as a player, coach and manager were over, hitting hundreds of fungoes, signing thousands of autographs and telling what seemed to be tens of thousands of stories about Ted and Dom and Bobby Doerr. He was a constant reminder of why baseball is the greatest game and of why we all fell in love with it in the first place.
His number six is emblazoned above the right field grandstand in Fenway Park alongside the retired numbers of other great Red Sox players. Those others are all in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not Johnny, but in a real sense he has achieved and even higher station. He is in the heart of everyone who has ever rooted the Red Sox and who loves baseball.
When the Red Sox finally won that historic World Series in 2004 the great moment for many, if not most, of us was not the final out; it was not the celebration on the field. It was not even the grand parade that wound through the streets of Boston and out onto the river. The moment that is seared in our memory is of an exultant Curt Schilling charging into the clubhouse, spotting Johnny, sweeping him up in a giant bear hug and whirling him around like a rag doll as Johnny wept for joy.
He was always an emotional man. It was said of him that he’d cry at rain delays. As he got deeper into the winter of his life those emotions tended to bubble to the surface more easily. Two weeks ago Friday he was at Fenway Park for a luncheon at which the newest members of the Red Sox Hall of Fame were inducted. The room was filled with great old Red Sox ballplayers. Many of them were fluttering around Johnny like moths around a flame. He was somewhat overwhelmed by all the fuss and, sitting in his wheelchair, he was weeping softly, again with tears of joy. When I spotted him I spontaneously spouted out a couple of verses to a little poem I had written for him some time ago for one of his birthdays. He always got a kick out of it, so I would update over the years it to fit other occasions and recite it to him again. When I finished my recitation two weeks ago I leaned down and kissed him. I never imagined that I was kissing him goodbye. It’s just as well because then two of us would have been weeping, and there is no crying in baseball. Except on that rare occasion when a magic, bright beacon such as that which was the life and the spirit of Johnny Pesky fades out of sight.
With your forbearance, this is another updated version of that little poem Johnny liked so much, one last time, just for him.
|Here’s to you, Johnny Pesky,
You’re baseball in this town.
You played, you coached, you managed.
You never let us down.
Two hundred hits a season
When you played, How’s that?
You hold the all time record
For swings with a fungo bat.
They named a foul pole after you.
The reason, it is clear,
Is you could hit the ball that far
Once or twice a year.
You saw them all, from Ted and Dom,
To Yaz, Big Papi, too
Seventy years of players
All learned a thing from you.
You’re Mr. Red Sox. You’re the man
You’re in our Hall of Fame.
You understood this basic truth,
That baseball’s just a game.
The game of life counted with you
To know you was a pleasure.
Farewell, we love you, Johnny.
You’re a Boston treasure.