The Red Sox Nation and whole of the baseball world was saddened to learn that the legendary Johnny Pesky passed away yesterday. A Red Sox legend, Navy Veteran, and all around great-guy, Pesky's accomplishments loom large in baseball lore.
Pesky was born John Michael Paveskovich in Portland, Oregon on September 27, 1919. Pesky (he changed his name legally in 1947) was the son of Croatian immigrants. Pesky looked for every chance he could play as a youth in Portland, playing American Legion and even semi-pro ball in addition to high school baseball to get better. He helped support his family by working for the Portland Beavers, the local Pacific Coast League team, where future stars and friends like Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr were playing.
Pesky's strong play caught the eyes of Major League scouts. The Cardinals offered him a $2500 bonus, but he signed with the Red Sox for just $500 after the Red Sox scout had thoroughly impressed his parents. At the age of 20, Pesky was off to play in the Red Sox farm system. Pesky's strong play and consistent average would have him in the big leagues in just two years.
However, as Pesky entered his first big league Spring Training in 1942, larger events loomed over the world. Pearl Harbor had been bombed just three months earlier, as war was imminent for all of Major League Baseball. Pesky would have a sterling rookie season, hitting .331 as he finished third in the American League MVP voting. All the while, he was training for the military, attending Navy aviator training three nights a week with teammate Ted Williams.
Pesky, like many Major League Baseball players, left baseball to serve in the military after the season. Military service would take three years out of Pesky's young career. But in the service he met his future wife Ruth, to whom he remained married for another sixty years.
In 1946, with the war over, Pesky and his teammates returned to the Red Sox. Pesky would have perhaps his finest season that year as he hit .335 and earned his first and only All-Star Game appearance. The Red Sox won the American League pennant, but fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series. It would be Pesky's only postseason.
Pesky formed a great friendship with his teammates Ted Williams, Dom Dimaggio, and Bobby Doerr in those years. All from the West Coast, they came up through the Red Sox together and served in the military. They spent seven seasons together with the Sox, but would remain best friends for more than half a century.
Pesky would continue on playing with the Red Sox through 1952, consistently posting high batting averages to go with his strong fielding at shortstop. He had little power in his game, but after his rare home runs were hit to the right field foul pole in Fenway Park a nickname was earned. That right field pole, then and forever, is "Pesky's Pole" --the shortest distance to hit a home run in baseball.
In '52, as the Red Sox tried to start a youth movement, Pesky was traded to the Detroit Tigers. Pesky, now in decline would play two seasons with the Tigers before being traded midway through the '54 season to the Washington Senators, which would mark Pesky's final season.
Pesky would go on to have a long and varied post-playing career. He began as a coach for the Red Sox, later managing for two seasons, before moving on to coach with the Pirates. He would go on to commentate for Boston for five years, before returning to first base coach the Sox for another decade. He became a marketer and club ambassador all the while, gaining a reputation for showing up to every Red Sox-related function in New England. He would remain a special instructor for the Red Sox even after that, found in the dugout during most Red Sox games.
Pesky remained a legend in Boston, and was honored for his service to the club. He's a charter member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame, and saw his number six retired by Boston in 2008. When Fenway Park celebrated its 100th Anniversary on April 20th, 2012, Pesky was there, rolled out to second base alongside his teammate and friend Bobby Doerr.
Another one of The Teammates has passed, a friend and gift to all of baseball. From all of us here at Mitchell & Ness, rest in peace Johnny Pesky.