|Former Red Sox great Johnny Pesky died
Monday at age 92. (Getty Images)
For years, I’ve thought about why baseball’s spring training is so much more joyous than NFL training camps or basketball or hockey workouts or any other kind of practice setup. The weather, of course, is a big part of it. You get on a plane, perhaps trudging through slush in the airport parking lot, and you land in Arizona or Florida, where the sun is out, and everything smells like freshly cut grass, and you hear the popping of baseballs hitting the webbing of mitts, and you hear the rough insults of men who can say anything to each other, and it’s just so warm again. NFL training camps are spectacularly hot, this in the middle of summer, same is true for college football. The other sports get ready for their seasons indoors. Spring training feels like the end of winter; it’s no wonder people like it so much.
There’s also something about baseball practice that looks fun. You want to be out there, joining in. Everything about football practices suggest sweat and pain and exhaustion — two-a-days, full-pads, coaches screaming at players nonstop. And while there are happy moments in it all, while there are whoops and hollers when someone makes a great play, it is not designed to make people wish they could run on the field themselves. Baseball feels like fun more than work. They play catch, outfielders shag fly balls, pitchers practice covering first, hitters take some swings in the cage … it’s no wonder people pay huge sums of money to do all this in what is called a “fantasy camp.”
But there’s something else that separates spring training. The baseball men. They are at every camp. Some of them were great players. Schoendienst. Yogi. Koufax. Kaline. Brett. Some had more love for the game than talent, and they simply refused to leave. But, at spring training, they all cheat time. They put on the old jersey, if they can. They throw a little batting practice, if they’re able. They sit in the dugout, spit sunflower seeds if the mood strikes them, tell beautiful and hilarious and meandering stories that might have some truth in there somewhere. They stand behind the batting cage and maybe offer a word or two to a young ballplayer who seems interested. They are available, always, for questions. They connect baseball to the past, of course, but there’s something else. There’s something about how those ballplayers make you feel.
That is what struck me and countless others about John Michael Paveskovich, who was known as Johnny Pesky. Nobody who ever played or coached or watched baseball loved it more than Johnny Pesky. And you want to be around that kind of love. I think this is always true; life is more thrilling when you are around people who love something, whether it’s Mozart or Nine Inch Nails, modern art or pro wrestling, Greek mythology or baseball. It’s especially true about baseball.
Pesky was a great young player — one of the greatest, really. At 22, as a rookie, he hit .331, led the American League in hits, played a superb shortstop and finished third in the MVP voting. You would be hard-pressed to find a rookie shortstop who was better. Jeter, A-Rod, Ripken — none of them were quite as polished, quite as complete when they were rookies.
And then, Johnny Pesky went to war. He lost three prime seasons. Baseball is filled with “what if?” games, but it is not unreasonable to believe that if Pesky had played those three years, he would be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. When he returned from war, in 1946, he was even better than he had been before. He hit .335/.401/.427, again led the league in hits, again played a superior shortstop, and this time finished fourth in the MVP voting. Pesky led the league in hits again in 1947. From 1948 to 1951 — spurred by his great friend Ted Williams, who nicknamed him “Needle Nose”* and screamed at him whenever he swung at a pitch out of the strike zone — Pesky walked a bunch, posted a .413 on-base percentage and averaged 110 runs scored a year.
*Later shortened to “Needle.”
Of course, nobody cared about walks or on-base percentage in those days, and nobody talked much about scoring runs. When many people DID care about were myths, and a certain myth was started about Johnny Pesky in the newspapers at the end of the 1946 World Series. In Game 7, with the score tied 3-3 with two outs in the eighth, St. Louis’ Enos Slaughter was on first and he was running with the pitch when Harry Walker hit a line drive to left-center. Boston reserve outfielder Leon Culbertson raced over to get it and threw to Pesky. Slaughter was in full sprint, and he rounded third and headed for home. Pesky got the ball, and threw home. Slaughter was in easily for the game-winning run.
But in the papers — most prominently in Jack Hand’s Associated Press story — Pesky was the goat. This is from one wire story:
Pesky, apparently not expecting that sort of daring base running, had dropped his arm half way, watching Walker run toward second before he realized Slaughter was hot-footing home with the tie-breaking run. His peg to Roy Partee was too late as Slaughter topped off his magnificent heads-up running with a fine slide that scored a run worth $3,757.04 to each Cardinals share holder.
This is from another:
When Culbertson’s peg reached Pesky at deep short, Slaughter actually was only rounding third. It simply did not occur to Pesky that Enos was going for the big one. He started to toss to second to cut down Walker, which he could have done, and then, too late, saw his mistake and made a quick, startled throw to Partee at the plate.
This was the time when newspaper accounts were fact. Thing is, there’s film from that time. And in the film, you can clearly see that:
1. Walker was on second base when Pesky got the throw, so the idea that Pesky could have thrown him out is ludicrous.
2. Pesky may have double-clutched on the throw, perhaps to get a grip of the ball, but he certainly did not hold on to it.
3. It would not have mattered; Pesky was not going to throw out Slaughter on that play.
The whole version of the story was essentially wrong, but people like their sports with heroes and villains — preferably both — and there was a lot more ink than film footage in those days. For the rest of his life, Pesky had to endure, at least in small ways, being the man who held on to the ball too long in the 1946 World Series. He wore it well, like he wore everything well. If asked, he would only say he was sure that he had not held on to the ball … but only if asked.
In 1952, he was traded to Detroit in a huge, eight-player deal. “Little Johnny Pesky,” as the newspapers called him, told reporters he felt no resentment about the deal. The Red Sox had been good to him. He hoped the Red Sox won the pennant, if his new team in Detroit could not. He said that maybe someday he could come back, even as a utility infielder.
Pesky earned a little more national attention later that year when he was playing shortstop while Tigers starter Virgil Trucks was pitching against the Yankees in the third inning. Phil Rizzuto hit a ground ball to Pesky, and he had it in his glove but it squirted out. The official scorer called it an error, then immediately switched it to a hit. Pesky would say that later in the inning, Rizzuto reached second, pointed at the scoreboard and said, “Look, John, they gave me a hit,” to which Pesky replied, “Well, I’m glad for your sake, but it sure wasn’t any hit.”
As the game went on, though, Trucks did not give up anymore hits. And the official scorer got nervous. In the seventh inning, he called down to talk with Pesky, who said: “It was my fault. I booted the ball.” The scorer changed the hit back to an error, and Trucks threw a no-hitter against the Yankees.
Pesky never was a regular player after ’52. He stuck around for three years as a utility player, the last of those with Washington, and then he began coaching. He coached and managed in the minor leagues and then, in 1962, he returned to Boston, this time as manager. The team did not win, and he was fired. There were supposedly all sorts of political squabbling that undermined him, but again, you didn’t hear Pesky complain about it. He went to Pittsburgh for a while to coach for Harry Walker — the same Harry Walker who hit the double in the ’46 Series — and then he came back to Boston, where he served as an announcer, a coach, even a manager …
But mostly he served as Johnny Pesky. He became an icon, not because of how he had played, not because of how long he had been in the game, but simply because of how much he loved being around it, and how much everybody loved being around him. The Red Sox would constantly get harassed by the commissioner’s office for having too many coaches on the bench, and so the team would pay the $250 fine to have him around. Pesky would tell these wonderful going-nowhere stories about Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller, stories without beginnings or ends or points, stories that pulled you in to a different place and time. He had a wonderful way of talking. Bill James remembers he used to talk about having birdseed for breakfast, meaning he talked too much — chirped too much — to eat.
I’ve never seen or known anyone who seemed happier than Johnny Pesky at a baseball game. He loved being around the ballplayers. He loved being around the college kids who inevitably rushed him. He loved just being around the game. It’s funny, he did not exactly have a charmed baseball career. The war interrupted him. The newspapers smeared him. His team never won, not until he was 85 years old and he and Yaz raised the World Series banner for the Red Sox in 2004. And yet, the game itself brought him inexhaustible happiness. “If all he could do to stay around the game was pick up balls after batting practice,” Bill James says, “he’d pick up balls after batting practice.”
This was, perhaps, his greatest gift to the rest of us. Johnny Pesky died Monday. He was 92 years old. He loved baseball. And when you were around him, you loved baseball a little bit more.