Johnny Pesky has made a career with Red Sox, and he's far from done
SWAMPSCOTT, Mass. The faint aroma of cigar grows stronger as Johnny Pesky leads the visitors into a sitting room at the back of the California-style home in which he and his bride of 58 years, Ruth, have lived for 38 years.
The cigar is Pesky's lone vice and his passion outside of baseball. He smokes two or three a day in deliberate fashion, often nursing one for half the day. He doesn't smoke Cubans. 'Christ,' he says, 'you get a hernia from some of those.'
His favorite is a Mexican brand, Te Amo, and he doesn't mind publicizing it.
'Maybe somebody will read this and send me some,' he says, grinning. 'My brother, Vinnie, is too cheap.'
He quickly sets the record straight, saying his brother 'is a good kid.' Vince, a lifelong Portland resident, is 80. You have a license to call him 'kid' if you are older brother Johnny, who turns 84 in September and looks 20 years younger.
Johnny Pesky, who grew up in Portland, is a living legend in Boston, a former all-star infielder (mostly shortstop) who's still an inspirational part of the Red Sox organization.
The 5-9 Pesky remains at his playing weight of 168 pounds. His white hair is full, his face largely unwrinkled, his gait supple, his mind remarkably active as he spends more than an hour reminiscing about the city in which he was raised long, long ago.
He asks about Portland's chances of securing a major league team. He asks who the governor is now, marveling that a Democrat rules what he remembers as a Republican state. He asks about the population of the city, about the suburbs that have turned what he knew as a smallish community into something else.
Pesky retains a young man's curiosity, which probably is part of the reason he remains young as his body grows old. Sixty-one years after breaking in with the Red Sox as a rookie shortstop in 1942, a season in which he led the American League in hits with 205, Pesky is special assignment instructor for the Red Sox.
He works with minor league players during spring training. He makes the occasional road trip with the team and suits up for all home games, though he is no longer able to sit in the dugout during games.
Last year, after a visiting coach complained, the commissioner's office issued an edict that only players, batboys, managers and designated coaches be allowed in the dugout.
That hurt Pesky, who wants nothing more than to be close to the game he loves and the Red Sox players he adores. But he still makes the 25-minute drive from his suburban Boston home to Fenway Park for every home game, eager and ready to do what he can.
Naval service interrupts baseball
'I get into uniform early, and I walk around,' Pesky says. 'I'm there while the players take batting practice. For years, I was young enough where I could move around a little bit. Now we have a lot of younger coaches. Sometimes I will hit ground balls. (Coach) Jim Rice hits balls so hard, they go right through guys. I don't believe in that. I always felt it was to loosen the guys up.
'But mostly, I just observe, maybe make a few suggestions and sit in the corner and mind my own business until the game starts. Then I go back at the door where the security guy sits. He has a TV set there, and I will watch a few innings, take a shower and maybe try to beat the crowd out of the park.'
There is no bitterness in Pesky's voice as he explains, 'Rules are rules. I was always taught you obey the rules.'
Pesky did that through a storied 10-year career in which he hit .307 and served as one of the AL's top infielders. After his rookie season, he missed the next three years while serving in the Navy during World War II.
'You wonder what could have happened to your career if you didn't lose all those years,' Pesky says. 'But you didn't think of it that way at the time. It was a necessity that it happen, and going into the service at that time was good for your future.'
It was good for another reason: Pesky met his wife, a Wave, when they were both stationed in Atlanta.
'Cute as a button, and a nonpretentious gal,' Pesky says. 'We got married in January of '55, and within 10 days I was on my way to Pearl Harbor. I still look at her like I did when we got married my little Irish leprechaun. My mother told me, 'Johnny, get an Irish wife, and you will always be happy.' She was right.'
Baseball quartet reunites
From 1946-52, Pesky was a fixture in the Red Sox lineup alongside such players as Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Doerr. The quartet was inseparable as teammates and remained close after retirement. Their story was chronicled in a recent book, 'The Teammates,' written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam.
About a year before Williams died in 2002, Pesky, DiMaggio and another friend, Dick Flavin, drove from the Boston area to see their failing teammate at a rest home in Florida. The three-day visit with baseball's greatest hitter was the basis for Halberstam's book, and it draws approval from one of the main characters.
'I liked the book very much,' Pesky says. 'Halberstam did a fine job handling the story. We had a great time driving to Florida. I sat in the back seat the whole way, and we never turned on the radio once. We talked, and then Dominic would sing those Italian songs, and Dick would sing Irish songs. Me, I would just listen. I can't carry a note.'
Pesky says he was shocked to see Williams in his declining state of health.
'Geez, it was sad,' he says. 'I was almost in tears the first day. You think of Ted Williams as this handsome, vibrant guy. He was just a shell of his old self, and that broke our hearts.
'What impressed me, though, was that even in the condition Ted was in, his memory was good. He could remember things that happened when he was 22. He gave all his opinions on everything, as he always did. It was so good to see him. For a few hours, we felt like we were kids again.'
Taps, tears send off great talent
The night Williams died, Pesky was at home playing gin rummy with Ruth when they heard the news on television. Within minutes, the phone began to ring. Soon there were three television trucks in the Pesky driveway.
'One of the broadcasters asked me a question, and I broke down,' he says. 'I finally got myself under control, but I cried a lot that night. I was very upset. We had a great association, the four of us, and now one of us is gone.'
The following night, the Red Sox paid tribute to Williams in a pregame salute to the team's greatest player.
'The players and coaches all lined up, wearing black armbands, and they played taps,' Pesky says. 'It was very respectful typical Red Sox. I was standing next to Nomar (Garciaparra), who was one of Ted's favorites, and Nomar thought of Ted as like a god. When it was over, Nomar put his arm on my shoulder, and I looked at him, and he had tears in his eyes. He hugged me and said, 'I know how you feel, Johnny.'
'Gosh, I never thought I could be that emotional, but I was that night.'
Pesky remains one of the revered names in Red Sox history. The final 2 1/2 years of his playing career were spent away from Boston, as were another five years coaching in the Yankee, Detroit and Pittsburgh organizations. Since 1969, though, he has been affiliated with the Red Sox in just about every capacity, including manager, coach and broadcaster.
In 1997, new management took Pesky away from the big league club and moved him back to the minor league system as an instructor. Pesky accepted the switch without complaint, but it was clearly made without deference to the feelings of the players he worked with. In 2002, when new owner John Henry bought the club, he restored Pesky to his old position, one that he can probably hold onto as long as he desires.
Hockey also beckoned
Pesky grew up in the area known as Slabtown. His parents, Jacob and Maria Paveskovich, came to the United States 'on the boat' from what is now Croatia in 1912. They had six children, of whom only three are living Johnny, Vince and sister Catherine, 88, who still resides in Portland.
Johnny's childhood friends all shortened his surname to Pesky. In 1947, he made it legal, and Vince eventually followed suit.
Johnny was a local legend on the ball fields in Portland and at Lincoln High, playing three years behind another player who made a name for himself in the big leagues, Jefferson High's Joe Gordon.
'Joe and his brother Jack would come to the ice rink in the wintertime in Portland,' Pesky recalls. 'We got to be very friendly after I started playing pro ball. When I got up there and we played the Yankees, he came over to wish me well. He was already a star, and a good guy, too.'
The memories flow when his childhood years are mentioned. He played sandlot ball at Wallace Park, and, when he could sneak in with his pals, at Vaughn Street. Hockey was the winter sport, and for a time he envisioned a career in the NHL.
'We played at the old coliseum on (Northwest) 21st and Marshall,' he says. 'I thought I could cut it in the pros. We had an American Hockey League team in those days, and I used to work out with the players.
'After my first two years in the minor leagues, I would come back to Portland in the winters and play a lot of hockey. One night, someone launched a puck and hit me just under one eye. It was bleeding like crazy. I had a few stitches and came home. My dad takes one look at me and says, 'Let's let that be it for hockey.' '
New England has been home for nearly four decades now. The Peskys live four houses down from where former Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro's family lived. The Peskys' place is less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, and the Salem Harbor is visible from the backyard deck during the winter.
Desk job gets rejected
Pesky loves the current Red Sox team, which he hopes can finally get past the hated Yankees.
'I have been looking for 50 years to beat those bastards,' he says. 'But I admire them. I respect George Steinbrenner. I don't know how it would be to work for him, but he really cares, and he has the right guy running the club in Joe Torre.
'This is an unusual group of guys. We have a better club than we did last year, baseballwise and clubhousewise. Nomar is a gift from heaven. Bill Mueller is a fine young man. Trot Nixon is a sweetheart, a throwback from the old days, a kid you want to take home.'
Once, many years ago, DiMaggio offered Pesky a job outside of baseball. 'I told him, 'Dom, I couldn't love my own brother more than you, but I'm a jock, and I'm going to die a jock,' ' Pesky says.
When he was 75, he told Ruth he probably would retire when he was 80. Now, he says maybe at 85.
'I'm thinking about it, but what would I do?' Pesky asks. 'I don't have any hobbies. I would probably drive Ruth crazy if I were around the house all the time. I'm still going, and I don't feel bad. I can drive at night. I wear glasses to read. I don't take a lot of pills. My doctor says, 'John, just keep doing what you are doing.'
'I don't worry about death. If it happens, it happens. I worry more about Ruthie than I do about me. It's not time to start feeling sorry for myself.'
The Peskys pose for a few photos, then prepare to bid their visitors goodbye. They smile and stand at the door as the cars drive away. These are happy folks. In the late innings of life, Johnny Pesky and his little Irish leprechaun are making out pretty darn well.