At 92 years of age, I can’t say that Johnny Pesky was ever old. He may have aged some in later years, but I never saw him as anything other than youthful. I am known for reporting on the business of sports, but I have always loved interviewing players and have done so with many, including “Needle Nose” aka Pesky.
When his passing was announced today, myself and others were flooded with emotion. He was, in many respects, the embodiment of the Red Sox, and a gentleman, and an ambassador, and a ballplayer in a time when larger things—namely World War II—took some of the finest ballplayers to grace the field out of their prime to fight for something larger.
As a Portland, OR. resident, I had followed Pesky. From his time at Vaughn St. Park to Fenway Park, his time here was something for us in the Pacific Northwest to take note of. I interviewed him several times, and was glad to get an in-depth interview fully transcribed online in 2006.
He was born John Michael Paveskovich, but we all knew him as Pesky. This isn’t sports business, but it’s something I can’t deny writing about here. The following is excepts from my interview (read it in its entirety here):
Brown: Can you tell us a bit about growing up in NW Portland, going to Lincoln High School and how baseball fit in with your life back then?
Pesky: We were very fortunate. I went to parochial school. I went to St. Patrick’s on Savior Street. We had a bunch of choir boys that played together. And, when I graduated, I went to Lincoln in southwest Portland. That was great and we took the bus there. And we went to school like every other kid. And we had every type of kid. We had the Americans, we had the Irish, we had the Jewish, we had the Chinese kids and we had the Japanese kids and we got along very, very well.
But the thing that was very important at that high school is that we had good teaching. The history teacher was Wade Williams and he coached football and baseball, of course. And Dave Wright was the basketball coach. You couldn’t find two better men. They were all for the kids and if they needed work they were after them to do this or do that. As a matter of fact, a kid from neighborhood, named John Bubalo was his name. He and I were very close and he became a doctor. He tried to play pro ball but when the war came on he went down to the University of Oregon and got his degree to become a doctor. There was a piece a few months ago about him, because he is retiring I’m sure, and he had delivered 5,000 babies. That’s over a period in the 90’s from the late 40’s.
He was a great kid when he was young. We had some great players. There was a kid named George Walker who I thought was going to be a great big league ballplayer. Vernon Reynolds was another one. Joe Erautt another one. Those names quickly come to mind. The Erautt brothers went to Lincoln High and Joe signed with the Tigers and his brother, Eddie, signed with Cincinnati. So we had some big leaguers in the area. We were well coached and we were well disciplined. I think Wade Williams was responsible for that.
Brown: Carl Mays, who is linked by tragedy in baseball, was none the less, a great pitcher. He also had baseball clinics at the old Jantzen Beach here in Portland. Can you tell me about Carl and those clinics?
Pesky: They were great. He used to get all the kids from age 14 to 16. Donnie Kusch, who I played with at Silverton, he was at Jefferson; he went to that school and the kid that played the best used to get to travel with the Portland Beavers on their next trip. And Donnie Kuschwas one of the best players. There were three or four of us, but Donnie was in the running and he was a good ball player. When he played with us on the Silverton [American Legion] team, I thought he was the best player on the team. He went on to the University of Oregon and I went away to play ball right after that year—’38 and ’39. And Don went on to the University of Oregon with Bubalo and Bill Connie and that group.
We had a lot of pretty good players, certainly for a high school. And some of them went pro and did very well. I thought Joe Hiron got hurt when he played. Joe Hiron played catcher. And Reynolds was a good infielder. George Walker was built like Mantle but he got out of high school and he went to Oklahoma City. Where, at a try-out, he made the club in spring training. They kept him and they started the season with him, but after three weeks he got home sick and got back to Bend and never did play pro ball. I thought he was one of the best players. He could run, throw and hit the ball hard and far.
The following are reactions to Pesky’s passing:
“The national pastime has lost one of its greatest ambassadors today. Johnny Pesky, who led a great American life, was an embodiment of loyalty and goodwill for the Boston Red Sox and all of Major League Baseball. A part of the Greatest Generation and forever one of ‘The Teammates,’ Johnny was a wonderful player who excelled alongside his dear friends Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio. Just as importantly, Johnny touched the hearts of hundreds of Red Sox players and its legion of fans around the world.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of this special man, whose number six will be a part of Fenway Park forever. I extend my deepest condolences to Johnny’s family, his many friends throughout the game and all the fans of the Boston Red Sox.”
Red Sox Principal Owner John Henry:
“We have lost a dear and beloved friend,” said Henry. “Johnny was happiest when wearing the Red Sox uniform. He was able to do that for 61 wonderful years. He carried his passion for the Sox, for Fenway Park, and for baseball everywhere he went, and he was beloved in return. We will miss him. We share the sadness that his family and legions of friends are all feeling.”
Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner
“Johnny was one of the wonderful links to 70 years of Red Sox history,” said Tom Werner. “He was the grandfather of the Red Sox. He was as loving and kind a gentleman as one could imagine. His stories were delightful, and his love of Ted Williams and his teammates shone through in virtually every conversation. We know that those stories, and his spirit, will continue to live on at Fenway Park. We extend our sympathies to his son, David, his daughter-in-law Alison, and all of the members of the Pesky family.”
Red Sox President/CEO Larry Lucchino
“Johnny Pesky will forever be linked to the Boston Red Sox,” said Lucchino. “He has been as much a part of Fenway Park as his retired Number 6 that rests on the right-field façade, or the foul pole below it that bears his name. But beyond these physical testaments, Johnny will be remembered most for his warmth, kindness, and loyalty. It was through his countless friendships that Johnny made his greatest impact on us, and we will miss him dearly. His was a life well-lived.”
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The number one thing everyone has to understand is that there wasn’t a greater gentleman of the game. Johnny was loved by everyone. He would light up your day when he walked in the room. I have to give him credit for hitting me all those ground balls every day at 3:17. I have to attribute those two gold gloves that I won to the hard work that he and I put in.
You can sum Johnny up as a great player, a great teammate, but best of all, a great friend. I remember coming back from the service and I was anxious to get to know him, and he was just a friendly, lovable guy from the start. He was a great encourager in my 1946 season and through my career in Boston, helping me and encouraging in any way he could. He could swing that bat and spray that ball over the field. He was one of the all-time greatest guys as a player and as a person.
Johnny bleeds Red Sox red. He couldn’t do enough to help you out. I know he worked with Jimmy (Rice) a lot; he must have hit Jimmy eight million balls off that wall to help him learn how to play it. John was our hitting coach and he was almost like a dad to me. When I’d line out he’d say “Hey, you see that guy standing there? Don’t hit it there. You’re a college guy.” Being with Johnny was like being with my dad all day. I always joked that Johnny hit 200 singles in a year, and I hit 200 in my career.
All the great things that I’ve heard people say about him in the last few hours on the news are all true. I played for him for two years in 1963 and 1964. Ballplayers always loved him. He was always there to hit fungos and wanted to make players better. John was a survivor. He just wouldn’t take that Red Sox uniform off. I admire him for that. It was great to see him at the 100th year anniversary with Bobby (Doerr). That was a plus for me. It was great that he was given special recognition that day. He was always there for people. It meant a lot to the fans and it meant a lot to all of us.
From the bottom of my heart I am extremely sad. I feel like part of the Red Sox tradition just died because when I think of Johnny I think of him hitting fungos at Spring Training. We will all miss him so much. I was embraced by Johnny and he was always there at every event. He was such a representative of everything that happened in Boston. It's hard to think of the success, defeat, and all we went through without Johnny. You couldn’t do anything without Johnny Pesky.
Johnny is the greatest man I have ever met in this wonderful game we are so blessed to play. He will truly be missed in the Red Sox family.
I had my best year ever when Johnny was managing in 1963. I went 20-10 that season. We used to talk a lot – sit on the bench and talk baseball for hours. He was like a father to me. He was a wonderful guy and a heck of a player. I really am surprised that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. He was a lifetime .300 hitter. He loved the Red Sox and he loved going to the ballpark each day to see his former teammates, the guys that played for him and the new players on the team.
He was fortunate enough to live his life the way he wanted to-- and that was to be a part of the Red Sox organization. He did everything you could possibly do for the team...he is what the Red Sox are all about. He's one of the very few people who truly loved what they did and he loved being a member of the Red Sox family. I will never forget the tears in his eyes when they retired number 6.
It’s a great loss, not only for the Sox but all of New England. Johnny’s been around for so long, you think about all the greats that have played with the Red Sox over the years, and he was still there. He was a legend with Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio, and when you think of the Red Sox, you always think of Johnny Pesky. He was a great ambassador for the Red Sox.
He was like my father when I came here in 1971. He was a great, great friend, always good to my family when we’d go to Spring Training. We were like a family, together for so many years. He really was a great man, a baseball man all his life, and he was good to everybody. You learned a lot from him, and being around him for so many years was a great experience. You’re not going to find many people like him. Everyone who knew him will miss him.
I’m almost speechless. This is a very sad day for me and for anyone who has ever spent any time with Mr. Pesky. He was the most positive influence I ever came across who wore the Red Sox uniform. He was always there through the good and bad times with the same smile and passion for his team. "Hello my honeysuckle, hello my honey bee, my ever lovin’ Jason just got three,” Johnny used to say, wishing me three hits that night. The game, the team, the organization, and Red Sox Nation will truly miss Mr. Pesky. Love you, Pesky!
Today is a very sad day. Johnny was a mentor to me early in my career and later became more than that – he became a friend and father figure. His legacy will live forever in my heart and in the hearts of all of Red Sox Nation. He will be missed.
The Red Sox will host a public tribute at Fenway Park at a later date.
Pesky, whose Number 6 is one of the Red Sox’ eight retired numbers, led the Major Leagues with 205 hits as a 22 year-old in 1942, his first Major League season, setting a club rookie record that stood 55 years (until 1997).
He hit .331 that summer of ’42, second in the majors to Ted Williams’ .356 and finished third in MVP voting. He missed the next three seasons, serving his country during World War II.
Upon his return, the left-handed hitter led the American League in hits in both 1946 (208) and 1947 (207), batting .335 and .324 in those seasons, respectively, to become the first American Leaguer with at least 200 hits in his first three seasons.
His three career 200-hit campaigns stood as the most by a Red Sox player for 32 years.
Pesky started at shortstop in the 1946 All-Star Game at Fenway Park and helped the club win the American League pennant that year. He played every inning at shortstop in the seven-game World Series won by the St. Louis Cardinals. He was back in St. Louis 58 years later when the Red Sox completed their historic comeback and won the 2004 World Series.
Over parts of his eight seasons playing for the Red Sox (through June 1952), Pesky hit .313 (1,277-for-4,085) with 196 doubles, 46 triples, 13 home runs, 361 RBI, 776 runs scored, 581 walks and 48 stolen bases, and he remains among Boston’s career leaders in batting average (7th), on-base percentage (7th, .401), runs scored (10th) and at-bats per strikeout (3rd, 21.61).
He joins Ted Williams and Wade Boggs as the only players in franchise history to score at least 750 runs while compiling a batting average of .300 or more.
Pesky’s six runs scored in a 14-10 win over the White Sox at Fenway Park on May 8, 1946 set an American League record that has since been tied but has yet to be surpassed. In 1,029 games for Boston, the versatile infielder totaled 549 appearances at shortstop, 457 at third base and five at second base. He turned a Major League-leading 48 double plays in 1949, still the Red Sox record for a third baseman.
Following a 10-year Major League career during which he also played for the Detroit Tigers (1952-’54) and Washington Senators (1954), he coached for the New York Yankees’ Triple-A Denver affiliate in 1955 under Ralph Houk and managed in the Detroit system with five minor league teams from 1956-’60. He managed in the Nicaraguan Winter League in 1959.
Pesky rejoined the Red Sox organization in 1961 as skipper for the Triple-A Seattle Rainiers and reprised that role the next season before taking the helm of the Red Sox from 1963-’64. Including managing the final five games of the 1980 season, he compiled an overall Major League managerial record of 147-179 (.451), all with Boston. He spent 1965-’67 as a coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates and managed Pittsburgh’s Triple-A Columbus club in 1968.
The 1969 season began a continuous stretch of 44 years for Pesky as a member of the Red Sox organization. He was a Red Sox radio and TV analyst for six seasons (1969-’74) before returning to the field as the team’s first base coach for nine years from 1975-’84. He then served as special assistant to the Red Sox General Manager until 1992. He was also interim manager at Triple-A Pawtucket for part of the 1990 season. From 1993-’99, he was special assistant for Red Sox player development, and then held the position of special assignment instructor since 2000. In 1982, the Boston Baseball Writers gave him their Good Guy Award.
On April 11, 2005, Pesky and Carl Yastrzemski led the active players in raising the World Championship flag at Fenway Park. Fenway Park’s right-field foul pole was dedicated as the “Pesky Pole” on September 27, 2006, his 87th birthday, making official what had been the established vernacular for decades.
The “Teammates” statue, which features Pesky and fellow legendary Red Sox Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Ted Williams, stands outside Gate B at Fenway Park. Pesky was named to the Red Sox All-Time Team in a 1982 fan ballot.
Source: Maury Brown interview with Johnny Pesky, Major League Baseball, Boston Red Sox
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He writes for Baseball Prospectus and is a contributor to Forbes. He is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network (select his name in the dropdown provided).
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