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A Life in Baseball

We'll miss you, Johnny. (Photo by Brian Snyder-Pool/Getty Images)
We'll miss you, Johnny. (Photo by Brian Snyder-Pool/Getty Images)
Getty Images

On September 27, 1919, John Michael Paveskovich was born in Portland, Oregon. That same day, the Boston Red Sox were finishing their season with a three-game set against the Washington Senators. The team had scuffled all season after their World Series win the year before, and they finished the year in grandly terrible style, swept by the seventh-place Senators. On Pesky's day of birth, righty Allen Russell lost both ends of a doubleheader. Boston finished sixth in the league, 20.5 games back of the eventual World Series-throwing Chicago White Sox. This depressing finish happened in spite of the magnificent final Boston season of Babe Ruth, who hit .322/.456/.657 with 29 home runs while also throwing 133.1 innings with a 2.97 ERA. Good at baseball, that guy.

On April 14, 1942, Johnny Pesky suited up for Boston for the first time. The Red Sox were opening their season hosting Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. Boston won, 8-3, with the rookie shortstop batting second and collecting two hits, including a triple. He would continue on that season to rack up 203 more hits, finishing third in the MVP race. Just ahead of him in the voting was Ted Williams, who for the second straight season lost the award to a less-deserving player from the first-place Yankees. Williams's 1942 line stood at .356/.499./.648, which was admittedly a dropoff from his 1941 line of .406/.553/.735. Still, with Pesky and Williams at the top of Boston's lineup, the next few years looked bright. The season ended with a 7-6 win over New York, the day after the aircraft carrier USS Hornet was sunk off the Santa Cruz Islands. Baseball would have to wait for Pesky.

On April 16, 1946, Johnny Pesky returned to baseball, and he picked up right where he left off. Boston thumped the Senators, 6-3, with Pesky providing a double and two RBI. He would finish the year with 208 hits, his second league-leading campaign. Boston finished the year 104-50, the second-best record in club history, and made its first World Series appearance since 1918. They lost that Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, with Enos Slaughter famously scoring the game-winning run, legendarily because Pesky held onto the relay throw too long. Pesky would never play in the postseason again.

On May 27, 1952, Johnny Pesky played his last game for Boston. The day saw the Red Sox in second place behind Cleveland. Pesky had scuffled all season, putting up a .149/.313/.179 line that was a far cry from his previous work. Boston lost the game, 7-3. A week later, on June 3, Pesky was traded to Detroit. Boston fell out of second, eventually finishing the year in sixth place. Pesky would go on for another two seasons with Detroit, eventually was traded to Washington, and finished his career on September 24, 1954, in the first game of a doubleheader at Fenway.

Johnny Pesky returned to the Red Sox as a manager in 1963, taking the reins of a generally poorly thought-of franchise. Ted Williams had retired, Boston was in the middle of the pack in attendance, and ownership had only recently, after incredible resistance, taken a halting step toward integrating the team. Boston finished seventh in Pesky's first year as manager, the lone bright spot being the batting title of William's young replacement Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz fell off a bit the following year, and so did the Red Sox, finishing eighth, ahead of only the perpetually disappointing Athletics (now floundering in Kansas City) and the new Washington Senators, who would by decade's end have followed their predecessor in fleeing the capital.

Johnny Pesky stayed with Boston, however, first calling their games on TV and radio, then jumping back into uniform as a first base coach. He served in various coaching capacities over the years, mostly as either a bench or batting coach. After ending his career as an official member of the management staff, Pesky stuck around the Sox as a sort of unofficial coach, famously hitting fungoes to any player willing to take a few tips from the one-time master. He remained in this role until 1997, when GM Dan Duquette (on Jimy Williams's demand, he now claims) forced him out of the dugout. New ownership saw things differently, and the early aughts saw Pesky move to the forefront as a general coach, cheerleader, and good-luck totem for the Sox.

On October 27, 2004, Johnny Pesky finally got to hold a World Series trophy. Boston had staged the greatest playoff comeback in history against the Yankees the week before, and in what must have been an especially sweet moment for Pesky, dominated the Cardinals in four games to gain the pennant. Every player on the team in some way dedicated the win to Pesky, and Boston fans embraced him as a walking symbol of the years of devotion the fanbase had given to the franchise through its long drought.

On August 13, 2012, Johnny Pesky passed away. The night before, the Red Sox had roundly defeated the Cleveland Indians, 14-1, behind a strong pitching performance by Jon Lester. The next day, remembrances of Pesky found themselves shoved to the back page by newly rephrased reporting of Boston's clubhouse troubles. Such is fast-paced media, I suppose. The Red Sox are on the road for another week, not returning until the 21st for a game against the Angels. I've no doubt the team has some form of memorial in the works, and I look forward to that chance to honor not only his passing, but his life.

Johnny Pesky was everything we love about the Sox, and his enthusiasm for the game was unparalleled. Through war, playoff heartbreaks, losing seasons, even when the front office banished him, Johnny Pesky never gave up on the team who brought him into the majors, and always gave whatever he could to them. Devotion like that doesn't happen much, and we all benefit from having witnessed it. Here's hoping the passion, joy, and hope Pesky brought to the field every day lives on in each of us, in baseball and in life.