Musings: Johnny Pesky

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
And New York Times Best Selling Author

JOHNNY PESKY

Can it really be five years since he has gone?

Hard to believe as it might be, Johnny Pesky passed away in August, 2012. I cannot walk
into Fenway Park without half expecting to see him there. He isn’t, but his ghost is; not
just by the foul pole in right field but hitting fungoes, coaching first base, playing
shortstop and always signing autographs for every kid who asked. If a kid would say,
“Please sign my program, Mr. Pesky.” Johnny would admonish him, “There’s no ‘mister’
at the ballpark.” The kid would say, “Okay, Johnny.” And Johnny would sign his
program.

He meant so much to Red Sox history and lore that it is impossible to telescope it down
to just a few paragraphs. It was one of the great honors of my life to be asked to deliver
the eulogy at Johnny’s funeral. So rather than edit it down to the usual length of Musings,
here it is, reprinted in full.

AUGUST 20, 2012, ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST CHURCH, SWAMPSCOTT, MA

The passing of Johnny Pesky is a profound loss for the family that loved him so
dearly and for the team to which he was so connected; the organization that, particularly
in the last decade, treated him with such loyalty and affection. On behalf of all of us who
loved him, thank you.
His passing is a great loss for the millions whose lives he touched. But weren’t we
blessed to have such a luminous presence in our midst for so 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 an even higher
station. He is in the heart of everyone who has ever rooted for 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. No one loved him more than the players – he had mentored so many of
them. 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.