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Johnny Pesky, beloved by Red Sox fans, dies at 92
Born John Michael Paveskovich in Portland, Ore., Pesky first signed with the Red Sox organization in 1939 at the urging of his mother. A Red Sox scout had wooed her with flowers and his father with fine bourbon. His parents, immigrants from what is now Croatia, didn’t understand baseball, but they did understand that the Red Sox were the best fit for their son even though other teams offered more money.
He played two years in the Red Sox minor league system before making his major league debut in 1942.
That season he set the team record for hits by a rookie with 205, a mark that stood until 1997 when fellow Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, with whom he became very close, had 209. He also hit .331 his rookie year, second in the American League only to Williams, who hit .356.
Pesky spent the next three years in the Navy during World War II, although he did not see combat. He was back with the Red Sox through 1952, playing with the likes of Williams, who died in 2002, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio, before being traded to the Detroit Tigers. (In 2003, author David Halberstam told the story of Pesky, Williams, Doerr and DiMaggio in his book “The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship.”)
Doerr, a Hall of Fame second baseman and Pesky’s longtime double-play partner, said the two were friends since 1934, when Doerr broke into the Pacific Coast League with the Hollywood Stars and Pesky was the clubhouse boy in Portland.
“He would hang your jockstrap up. He would hang your wet sweat shirt up. That’s kind of how close we were,” the 94-year-old Doerr told the AP from his home in Junction City, Ore. “We got to be good friends. When he got to the Red Sox, we roomed together.
“He was good to play alongside of. He hit a lot of line drives. He could run. He beat out a lot of balls to first base,” Doerr recalled. “When he got a good pitch to hit, he hit it.”
Pesky was often said to have held the ball for a split second as Enos Slaughter made his famous “Mad Dash” from first base to score the winning run for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Red Sox in the deciding game of the 1946 World Series.
With the score tied at 3, Slaughter opened the bottom of the eighth inning with a single. With two outs, Harry Walker hit the ball to center field. Pesky, playing shortstop, took the cutoff throw from outfielder Leon Culberson, and according to some newspaper accounts, hesitated before throwing home. Slaughter, who ran through the stop sign at third base, was safe at the plate, and the best-of-seven series went to the Cardinals.
“I thought he got rid of it pretty good. There was no fault of Johnny’s on that,” Doerr said.
Pesky always denied any indecision, and analysis of the film appeared to back him up, but the myth persisted.
“In my heart, I know I didn’t hold the ball,” Pesky once said.
Pesky spent two years with the Tigers and Senators before starting a coaching career that included a two-year stint as Red Sox manager in 1963 and 1964. He came back to the Red Sox in 1969 and stayed there, even filling in as interim manager in 1980 after the club fired Don Zimmer.
“Johnny bleeds Red Sox red. He couldn’t do enough to help you out,” former Boston outfielder Fred Lynn said. “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.”
Pesky is survived by a son, David. His wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1944, died in 2005.
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