It used to seem as though Johnny Pesky’s relationship with the Red Sox was a little one-sided, like he was just some old man that couldn’t take the hint that he wasn’t needed anymore, so he just kept coming around until he was finally told to leave. It came across as charity work. The Red Sox were being nice, until they finally got fed up and had to focus on other things rather then being charitable to a former player who didn’t want to be forgotten over time.
Major League Baseball banned him from the dugout during games – and speculation was that it was something the Red Sox wanted – and it seemed kind of natural that we wouldn’t hear about Pesky too much more after that. Except, we did. The foul pole in right field was named after him, his number was retired and he was given the loudest cheer of anyone at Fenway’s 100th anniversary celebration this year.
I guess the relationship wasn’t as one-sided as I thought. The Red Sox, and their fans, loved Johnny Pesky just as much as he loved the team.
When Pesky died on Monday at age 92, I heard the news and thought, “Oh, that’s a shame.” But listening to talk radio, and how every host and caller spoke about Pesky like he had genuinely had a considerable impact on their lives, I figured out that my reaction wasn’t nearly pronounced enough. A guy who’s lore I never really understood finally made sense – he was a representative of the team’s history, of the merging of eras. And he was as good a person as you could meet, if you were lucky enough to meet him (which I, regretfully, never was).
He was also a pretty good ballplayer. He led the league in hits in his first three seasons, which were broken up due to three years serving in the military. He was an all-star, came in third in the MVP voting in his rookie season, and finished with a lifetime .307 career average in 10 seasons, three with the Sox. He played both shortstop and third base for long chunks of seasons, and he was an integral piece on a team that was built around Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr. He only hit 17 career home runs, but that was irrelevant. The Sox had other guys to do that – they had Pesky to do the little things.
But he did a number of big things, too. Read Dan Shaugnessy’s Globe column today to get a better idea of just how much Pesky is revered in New England. Shaugnessy would know, and he’s credible, and he writings glowingly about Pesky and the impact he had when he played, during his two stints Sox’ manager and since then, when he’s become an ambassador or sorts for everything that is great with baseball in Boston.
It’s been a particularly trying season for the Red Sox, and this is the final nail in the coffin. The year is already lost, and now the Sox lost their mascot, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. He was a symbol of the team and the city, and he’ll be remembered as such from here on out.
So nice work Johnny. You’re not just another former player who will be forgotten over time.