Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Johnny Pesky

Baseball has lost one of its glorious all stars – a player I remember from earliest childhood.
by Charlie Leck

“He was caught napping – like his pants were down,” my old man said to everyone around him. He was reading from the sports section in the New York Herald-Tribune, his favorite newspaper.

“He shoulda known old Country Boy was a gambler – that he’d try to end it all right there.” The old man was talking to the morning crowd in his general store and confectionary. They were all laughing about the Boston Red Sox getting ripped by St. Louis. The baseball guys there didn’t like the American League. They pretty much hated the Yankees and the Red Sox. They were fans of National League teams – Brooklyn (Dodgers), New York (Giants) and Philadelphia (Phillies). It made these guys gleeful when something like this happened to one of those teams from the newer league.

They all gawked at the photograph in the Herald-Tribune of Enos Slaughter sliding into home ahead of the throw from shortstop Johnny Pesky. I was six years and one and one-half month old. It was October 15, 1946. I don’t remember real details. I’m making up the dialog above. Yet, I remember the scene and the attitudes.

Two great, great ballplayers, who were both highly regarded, were in this last-play-of-the-game drama. One would become a hero and one a goat. Enos Slaughter, of the Cardinals, had gotten a single and stood at first base while the two players following him in the batting order failed to advance him. It was the ninth inning of the seventh and the final game of the series. The game was tied 3-3. Harry Walker slashed a line-drive over the head of Pesky, into left-centerfield. Slaughter was off at the crack of the bat and dashed around second and headed toward third. The outfielder, Leon Culberson, fielded the ball and threw it routinely into Pesky. Everyone in the ballpark, including Culberson and Pesky, thought Slaughter would hold up at third. It was the sensible and routine thing to do.

Pesky casually caught the throw from the outfield and turned. The hum of the crowd told him Slaughter had not stopped. Baseball historians have argued and will continue to argue about whether or not Pesky hesitated for just a split-second. There is no doubt but that Pesky was surprised. He threw to the catcher at home plate, but the throw was up the line and Slaughter had dashed in from third and slid across the plate – to end the ballgame.

My old man had listened to it on the radio the day before and he’d been gleeful then. Now, looking at the paper and holding it up for all to see, he was celebrating again. Johnny Pesky was, indeed, the goat.

Over the years, as one addicted to baseball lore, I became familiar with the name and game of Johnny Pesky. He was one of the great ballplayers in Boston Red Sox lore and history. He was a lifetime .307 hitter who played in the shadow of the great Ted Williams. He was adored by Red Sox fans of old and also by contemporary fans. There will be great sadness today in Boston.

Pesky was a player, a manager and a broadcaster in Boston. He was 92 years old. He began his big league career in 1942 and collected an astounding 205 hits in that rookie season, hitting .331. His batting average was second in the American League. Ted Williams led the league at .356.

Johnny Pesky represents everything that is good about baseball. He had enormous respect for the game and for the game’s fans. He gave everything to the game when he played it and also after his career as a representative of Boston and baseball.

A tip of the hat to Johnny Pesky. Out among the stars he’ll be greeted warmly by Country Boy Slaughter and Ted Williams and many other ballplayers who so respected him. They’ll hustle him to his family and he’ll spend eternity in blissful rest.

I’ve written here before about Enos Slaughter and the 1946 World Series. On that blog I made available video links showing Slaughter’s incredible run from first base and Pesky’s hesitation.
I included the following paragraph as an endnote to that blog:
Now, to defend my assertion that I can remember all of this 64 years later, while only a six year old at the time, I must tell you that I have read dozens and dozens of baseball books over the years, and I’ve heard the story of Enos Slaughter’s famous dash from first base to home plate many times. I recognize that my memory, therefore, is likely adulterated by the attention I’ve given to this historic baseball moment throughout my life. Nevertheless, I defend to my last breath the paragraph about the closeness and nervousness I felt with my brother and my father as we listened to those ballgames together.”
“October 15 was a Tuesday,” one reader wrote, and asked, “why weren’t you in school?” I can only say I would not have missed school. The ninth inning would have been late in the afternoon and I would have been home from school by then. I reiterate that I remember the moment and I remember leaning forward toward the big radio, listening to the call of the play-by-play man.
Those of you who think it would be impossible to remember, give me a break and, in good humor, let me have this one!

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1 comment:

  1. I actully got to meet Johnny Pesky at the Yankees vs. Dodgers World Series Game 5, on October 8th, 1956 (Don Larsen's Perfect Game). My Dad had gotten two tickets from Ingersoll Rand, a corporation he did business with.

    It was the first (and last)World Series game I ever attended. My Dad was talking to a group of Ingersoll Rand executives, and within their group was Johnny Pesky. He was no longer an active player, but now a manager in the Detroit Tigers' farm system, although I was very aware of who he was.

    While a man of considerable baseball talents, he was of small stature, at 5' 9". I was 16 years (and 15 days) and towered over him at 6' 2". I was introduced to Pesky, we shook hands, and he spoke to me briefly in words I shall never forget:

    "Hey, how ya doing kid?". then exhaled a huge cloud of cigar smoke, straight into my face.

    At that moment, I definitely felt like a "kid".

    I've always been a huge Yankee fan, and one would think being at Larsen' perfect game would be one of the great memories of my life. It was sadly wasted on me, because I came away disappointed in the results. I craved lots of hits and base runners, balls bouncing off the fences, and long home runs. I wanted a score like 16-14 (Yankees). Kind of sad, really, that I was so unobservant in that time of great basball history.