In the pantheon of Red Sox Nation, Johnny Pesky is the only player to have his number retired who never made the Hall of Fame. It’s an enormous achievement, especially when you consider the company in that eight man club: among them are Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, and of course Ted Williams.
That’s not to say that Pesky wasn’t a great player. There are capital-G Greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron and Ted Williams. Pesky was a small-g great player. His lifetime batting average was .307, he had more than 200 hits in each of his first three seasons, and as Richard Goldstein of the New York Times wrote, Pesky and Bobby Doerr made up one of the best double play combos of their era. His numbers are all the more impressive when taken into account that he lost three of his prime years to military service in World War II.
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Shortly after Johnny Pesky died on Aug. 13 at 92, a torrent of tributes and remembrances appeared on every Boston news site. Many had a common theme: the time I met Johnny Pesky. As a Red Sox fan, it would have been hard not to have at least seen Pesky; over the course of seven decades, he served as player, manager, coach, broadcaster and emeritus instructor. Anyone who went to spring training anytime after the Kennedy Administration would have seen him chopping grounders and pop ups to infielders with his fungo bat.
But the real reason the Red Sox Nation is in mourning this week is that Johnny Pesky had his greatest performance as the team’s ambassador to faithful fans throughout New England. In his later years, no longer able to get around the field anymore, Pesky still came to spring training where he sat in a folding chair–still with his fungo bat–signing thousands of autographs and chatting up any fan who wished to say hi. He was a staple at home games, and when the Sox finally ended their 86-year World Series drought in 2004 thanks to sweeping the Cardinals, Pesky was in St. Louis. When the team embraced him, he said, “They all give me hugs, like you only get from your family.”
Had Johnny Pesky taken off his uniform after his playing career, he would have been remembered as one of the Red Sox greats, but it was the continuing joy he brought to the game that made him a legend. When his playing days were over, his former teammate Dom DiMaggio offered Pesky a job with his successful company that made automobile upholstery. As chronicled in David Halberstam’s book The Teammates, Pesky thanked DiMaggio for the offer, saying “I’m a baseball man. It’s all I’ll ever be. It’s all I know. I’ll wear the uniform until I die, and then they’ll probably have to cut it off me.”
Partly as a thank you for staying in that uniform, in 2006 the Red Sox took a Pesky legend and made it official, or at least etched in stone. The right field line at Fenway Park runs a short 302 feet. Pesky, who was a contact hitter with only 17 career home runs (six at Fenway) managed to sneak a few homers past that foul pole. In the 1960s, former Sox lefthander Mel Parnell began calling the foul pole “Pesky’s Pole,” explaining that Pesky had hit a dinger just past that pole that won a game he had pitched. The story accepted, the legend grew, and fans began calling it Pesky Pole. Yet when baseball historians went to the records, they discovered that Pesky never hit a home run in a game Parnell pitched. Baseball is a sport where legends are the foundation of history, and the only thing that mattered was that on some of the occasions Pesky did hit a home run, they flew just past that pole. In 2006, on his 87th birthday, the team honored Pesky with a plaque officially naming it Pesky Pole.
Hundreds of fans have signed their names on Pesky Pole, a small sampling of the thousands who met and chatted with him and basked in the enduring legend. The day after Pesky finally took off his uniform, Bruce Springsteen played a concert at Fenway, and before launching into “My City of Ruins,” The Boss asked them to shine a light on Pesky Pole. As long as Fenway still stands, and even if the Red Sox move some day, there’s no doubt they’ll take that pole with them, a simple monument to one of the game’s most enduring ambassadors.