Here's to you, Johnny.
The word came over the car radio as I was somewhere between Springfield and Albany last night. Once the initial shock set in, I couldn't help but think how fitting it was that I was enroute to Cooperstown when I heard Johnny Pesky had died.
If the Hall of Fame is the heart of baseball history, Pesky was the heart of Red Sox history.
Those of us born in the mid-1960s don't remember Pesky as an All-Star shortstop who could get 200 hits in his sleep or the manager who couldn't win with the “Country Club” Sox of 1963-64. Although we heard all the stories and saw all the old photos of Johnny alongside legendary teammates Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio, for us he was more like a grandfatherly figure who made every day Old Timers Day at Fenway.
Four generations of Red Sox loved Pesky.
He was the guy we saw praising the club on TV as a member of the broadcast crew in the early '70s, and then strolling the field in those hilarious softball-style 1975-80 uniforms as a coach. If you got to Fenway early enough from grade school through college, you might see Pesky hitting balls off the Green Monster to help Jim Rice master left field, or spraying them to Wade Boggs at third. Boggs, asked today to reflect on Pesky, credited his old mentor for making him into a Gold Glove winner.
Just like our kids hear the “1-800-54-GIANT” jingle so often on Red Sox TV and radio today that it feels like “Happy Birthday,” we grew up on “The Window Boys” of J.B. Sash and Door Company – which of course included a gravel-voiced Pesky making such quips as “We've been doing this for 40 years, and we're still trying to get it right.” The ads were so corny they were laughable, but Johnny brought a touch of class to them.
As I got older I was lucky enough to get to know Johnny pretty well. When I helped Ken Coleman and later Joe Morgan emcee Boston Braves reunions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Pesky was one of the guys from Boston's “other” baseball team that Braves fans welcomed with open arms. He'd spin tales of talking hitting with Williams and captivate the crowd, then sign autographs and shake hands as long as the line kept coming.
Pesky was a high-flying infielder for Boston.
Williams gets credit for being the most successful “celebrity” fundraiser in the history of the Jimmy Fund, but Pesky quietly did his part for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – often right alongside Ted. And when Williams could no longer make the trips to the Jimmy Fund Clinic to meet with kids in treatment, Pesky kept on coming, including a wonderful 2005 visit when he let dozens of pediatric patients try on his '04 World Series ring – then asked where the adult patients were so they could see it too.
In recent years, with the death of his beloved wife, Ruthie, Johnny finally started to look his age. He was still often around Fenway, most memorably for his annual birthday salutes and the retirement of his No. 6. When the Red Sox finally broke through and won the World Series, Pesky did the honors (along with Carl Yastrzemski) of raising the championship banner up the flagpole on Opening Day of 2005. Nobody deserved the honor more.
And, of course, there was the poignant scene of Pesky and Doerr, both in wheelchairs, being wheeled onto the field by David Ortiz, Tim Wakefield, and Jason Varitek during Fenway's 100th anniversary celebration this year. How wonderful that both these legendary nonagenarians were able to enjoy that day.
Pesky and Doerr: A high point of the 100th.
Pesky was never selected for enshrinement in Cooperstown like Williams, Doerr, Yaz, Rice, Boggs, and so many others he played with or coached, but when I got into town last night and hurried over to a near-empty Hall of Fame just before its 9 p.m. closing, I was happy to see that a photo of the “Pesky Pole” had made it into a 100th anniversary exhibit on Fenway Park.
Does it matter whether Johnny ever actually hit a home run that wrapped around Fenway's right-field foul pole for a 302-foot homer? Nope. The guy was part of the fabric of the ballpark for more than half a century, so Pesky's Pole (and his retired number nearby) deserve to remain part of Fenway's physical plant as long as its standing.
Pesky's Pole and retired number -- forever at Fenway.