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From the archives | 2002

What’s Johnny Pesky’s secret to staying young?

Johnny Pesky, with whom Manny Ramirez had some fun in Fort Myers, was happy to be at spring training in early 2002 after new team owner John Henry hired him as an advisor.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Johnny Pesky, with whom Manny Ramirez had some fun in Fort Myers, was happy to be at spring training in early 2002 after new team owner John Henry hired him as an advisor.

Johnny Pesky always hustled, and it may have been because he remembered the day his Red Sox buddy, Ted Williams, didn’t.

“It was my rookie year [1942],” says Pesky. “I remember Williams didn’t chase a ball down in left field in June. He played a single into a double. He didn’t hustle after a ball, and it cost us a couple of runs.”

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The Boston manager, Joe Cronin, was not pleased. After the inning ended, Williams headed in from left field.

“Cronin was waiting on the top step,” recalls Pesky, “calling him a bush [expletive]. He told him to go up to the clubhouse. I couldn’t dare use the translation properly. Something like, `Go back to Minnesota and fish your brains out.’

“Ted apologized the very next day, to the whole ball club. He said, `I won’t do that again,’ and he didn’t. He made a mistake and he realized it.”

Sixty years after he set a Red Sox record for hits by a rookie with 205 (since broken by Nomar Garciaparra), he still suits up with the Red Sox as a “special assignment instructor” at age 83.

“I don’t get fatigued,” says Pesky. “I don’t get tired at all. My hand-eye coordination is good. Oh yeah, I can get the ball in the air [when hitting fungoes] but not with as much power.

“So far my coconut is on straight - my head - and I haven’t let it bother me that I’m 83 years old. I shouldn’t be in here - but they wanted me here and I’m still bouncing around like I’m 25 years old.”

How does he do it?

“I don’t think there is a secret,” says Pesky, who still chews tobacco and smokes a cigar a day, down from four a day.

In the fall of 1982, Pesky was hospitalized for eight days and his weight plummeted to 130 pounds - 40 below his playing weight. Like his namesake landmark at Fenway Park, Pesky was becoming a pole, literally. Doctors discovered he had a gluten intolerance and was allergic to flour, wheat, barley, and oats.

“They changed my diet and my whole mode of living, in essence,” he says.

He was told he couldn’t go to spring training the next year unless he got up to 150 pounds. He hadn’t missed spring training in 40 years.

“I was eating a lot of ice cream,” he says. “I got up to 153 pounds.”

The doctors reluctantly allowed him to go but wouldn’t let him put on his uniform or travel with the Sox.

Fully recovered, he now watches what he eats.

“I’m up at 7 and out,” he says. “I know where I can go [for breakfast] and I have my own gluten-free bread that I take. I can have bacon and eggs and ham.

“I’ve got my no-no’s, certain types of gravies I can’t have. The doctor took my beer away from me. Whiskey I can have, or wine. I drank my share of brandy. I haven’t had brandy in seven years.

“In baseball, drinking is a part of the routine - some guys do it more than others. That was never my bag. You’d see [Mickey] Mantle, [Whitey] Ford, and Billy Martin at a restaurant. They’d call you over for a drink. The only guy in that trio still alive is Ford. Mantle and Martin should’ve lived to be 70-75. They were fun-loving. But I knew where they were going, so I’d get out of there after one drink.”

Pesky has been on the Red Sox payroll for nearly 60 years. In a 10-season big league career (he lost three years while he served in the Navy during World War II), he compiled a .307 lifetime average. He began his career with three straight 200-hit seasons.

With the Red Sox, he has been a player, coach, manager, broadcaster, advertising salesman, and special assistant. After a brief purge by former general manager Dan Duquette - who according to Pesky “had no use for me, for some reason” - the new Sox owner, John Henry, called Pesky prior to 2002 spring training.

“My wife said, `Guess who called? John Henry,’ “ says Pesky. “I thought it was John Henry Williams.

“I didn’t expect it. Who the hell is going to hire me at my age? It made me feel real good.”

But the season became one of disappointment and sadness for Pesky.

“I would’ve bet the house they would’ve won this year,” he says. “I sat here 10 years ago and said I’d give 10 years of my life to win a World Series, and I still probably would. If we had won this year, I’d stop and relax, because I don’t know how much time I have left.

“Losing Ted was a blow for me, but Dom [DiMaggio] and I talk all the time. He had quadruple bypass surgery but he’s still very sharp.”

Asked about his longevity, Pesky says, “I really can’t tell you there’s any secret. My wife’s been a great champion. She’s a wonderful girl and we have a great marriage. I’ve been married 57 years.

“I can drive at night. I never have trouble going to sleep. I get two physicals a year. I don’t have any fat on me. I get a B-12 [vitamin] shot.

“I should walk more. I don’t stretch, I don’t have to.”

He also works with Sox third baseman Shea Hillenbrand on footwork. When Pesky is in the field for batting practice, Sox players make sure he doesn’t get tattooed by line drives. But every once in a while he shows the youngsters a little something.

Before a game last season, he speared a ground ball at shortstop that was headed for the hole. “I just reached out and caught it,” says Pesky. “A guy asked, `How could you do that?’ I looked at him and said, `Very easy.’ “

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