Johnny Pesky

Johnny Pesky

Few players who had their careers interrupted by World War II were able to return at or near the level they were before. Johnny Pesky was a notable exception. In his rookie season in 1942, the Red Sox shortstop batted .331 and led the American League with 205 hits. After missing 43 months serving in the U.S. Navy, Pesky came back in 1946 and led the league in hits again. The following year he did it again, becoming the first batter to pace his league in hits in each of his first three seasons.

In his rookie year, Pesky finished third in Most Valuable Player voting behind teammate Ted Williams and Joe Gordon. He was, ironically enough, a “pesky” hitter, lining singles into the gaps and over infielders heads. He rarely hit for power, and even when he did hit doubles the other team usually walked the batter following him in the Boston lineup – Ted Williams. For much of his career PEsky hit in the #2 slot right behind leadoff man Dom DiMaggio. The two were excellent at the hit-and-run, and Pesky was a gifted bunter as well.

Pesky shifted to third base in the late 1940s when the Sox acquired shortstop Vern Stephens from the St. Louis Browns. With a power-packed lineup that included DiMaggio, Pesky, Williams, Stephens, Bobby Doerr, and Billy Goodman, the Red Sox had one of the most explosive offenses in baseball history. Pesky at least 100 runs in six consecutive seasons and even with Williams and the other sluggers behind him in the lineup, Johnny drew a lot of walks. He averaged 84 free passes a season against 28 strikeouts. In 1948 he walked 99 times, he walked 100 timesin 1949, and in 1950 he received 104 walks. In ’49 when he had 712 plate appearances and hit .306 he only struck out 19 times.

A left-handed hitter, Pesky had a stroke built for Fenway Park, in fact the right field corner became known as Pesky’s Pole because he would wrap his infrequent home runs down the short line. However, Johnny actually only hit six homers in Fenway in his entire career.

The Red Sox traded Pesky along with Walt Dropo and others in 1952 in a deal that brought George Kell and Hoot Evers to Boston. The trade was unpopular in Boston, and in future years when Pesky came to Fenway Park in a Tiger uniform (or Senators later), he was often serenaded with cheers. Once he hit his early 30s, Pesky’s skills started to fade, and he never hit .300 after leaving Boston. In all, he hit .300 six times and ended his 10-year career with a .307 average. But those three seasons that he missed in his prime created a “what if” that has hounded Pesky’ legacy as a player for decades. Since he collected 200 hits in each of the three seasons sandwiching the War, is it safe to assume he could have reached those same heights in ’43, ’44, and ’45? Most experts believe so. If that’s the case, Pesky missed over 600 hits and probably three more .300 seasons. That would have pushed him over the 2,000 hit mark, even though he was finished by the age of 34. At any rate, Pesky was on the Baseball Writers ballot for the Hall of Fame for just one year and received only one vote!

After retiring as a player Pesky began a career as a manager, serving in the Yankee organization briefly before managing teams for five seasons in the Detroit farm system. Then, in 1960, the Yawkey family brought Pesky back to the Red Sox, hiring him to manage in the high minors. In 1963 he was tapped as the replacement manager of the Red Sox, replacing unpopular Pinky Higgins. Pesky was a hard-nosed and enthusiastic manager, but he alienated star Carl Yastrzemki and some in the front office and lasted just short of two seasons, being replaced with only two games left in 1964. He spent a few years in the minors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then returned to New England as a Red Sox broadcaster in 1969. It was in that capacity for six years that he connected with a new generation of Boston fans who loved his cheerleading in the booth. Ingratiating himself with the Sox, he was hired as first base coach in 1975, a position he held for 10 seasons under three different managers.

After “retiring” as a coach in 1985 at the age of 66, Pesky accepted a job as a special assistant to the team, a role he held for most of the rest of his life. Every spring he was in uniform with the team in spring training, and even during the regular season he would often hit grounders to infielders before games. In 2004 when the Red Sox finally won a World Series after waiting 86 years, Pesky was awarded a ring. He got another in 2007. He died in 2012 at the age of 92, having spent most of the second half of his life with the nickname “Mr. Red Sox.”