He collects pals the way some kids used to collect baseball cards. Some of those pals had names like Williams and DiMaggio and Doerr, but you know them because they’re famous.
But for longer than Johnny Pesky can even remember and the man can still tell you about making $150 a month playing ball in 1940 in Rocky Mount, N.C. he has been doing this every morning, Monday to Friday, filling up a couple of booths in a breakfast joint and having his sausage and eggs, coffee and hash browns, with guys who have little in common other than their affection for an old ballplayer.
Saturday mornings are for breakfast with his wife, Ruth, Ruth’s brother and Pesky’s best friend, Jack Hickey, and Hickey’s wife, also named Ruth. Sundays, Pesky says, “we cook at home.”
But on this morning in the Salem Diner, Earl the Lawyer from Marblehead and Joe the Shipbuilder from Swampscott and Buzz the Peddler from Beverly and Bob the Court Clerk from Salem are informed by Pesky, who lives in Swampscott, that Terry Francona, the new manager of the Red Sox, had called him the night before. “He wants me to come to spring training,” Pesky says, and you’d have to be blind not to see the extra sparkle in his eyes. “This might be my last year. ‘Course, I’ve been saying that for the last five years.”
The places have changed. Years ago, it was the old Anthony’s Hawthorne by the Sea in Swampscott, and Anthony Athanas himself, Pesky says, used to do the cooking and come out and wait some tables. Then it was a breakfast spot on Paradise Road in Swampscott, one they liked a lot until the owner refused one bitterly cold morning to turn up the heat, which led them here, where Georgia the Waitress doesn’t even bother asking Pesky what he wants. She always knows.
But when you live as long as Pesky has -- he’ll be 85 in September -- some of the faces around the table disappear. “We’ve lost a couple of guys,” Pesky says. “Eddie Mylott we used to call him the Bootlegger he’s been gone almost 10 years. Then there was that little leprechaun from Salem, Jack Kelleher, a funny little guy, a great storyteller. He was smarter than an outhouse rat. And Henry the Hatter. He had a hat business on Monroe Street [in Lynn]. His brother, Morris, ran a haberdashery in Gloucester. The guys used to go up there. He’d give us a great deal.”
They come, they go. Earl Weissman, the lawyer, remembered Pesky when the Red Sox legend still lived on Western Avenue in Lynn and used to come into the hardware store that Weissman’s father ran. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Weissman, now 70, was standing and talking to Pesky across the table in one breakfast spot when Pesky told him, “Sit your butt down and talk to us. You don’t need a blood test.”
“That was my initiation,” Weissman says. “It was like, `You’re in.’ “
At 85, Joe Sanchez, the shipbuilder, doesn’t get around as well as he used to. “The legs,” he says. The other guys take turns picking him up and driving him home from breakfast. He started in the shipbuilding business in 1936 “for $12 a week and lucky to get it, because of the Depression.”
Sanchez met Tip O’Neill when they were both in the Navy, in World War II. His friendship with Pesky goes back almost 50 years.
There are a couple of other regulars, too, like Louie the Photographer, who like to sit nearby. “Mr. Yankee,” Pesky calls Louie, because of Louie’s devotion to things that come in pinstripes. When the Sox lost a heartbreaker to the Yankees in Game 7 of last fall’s playoffs, Earl the Lawyer says, “We had a funeral here. We had crepe hanging over.”
He was exaggerating, of course, a not-uncommon practice at this table. The morning papers were there “I read ‘em front to back,” Pesky says but he needs little prompting to comment on that day’s hot topic, Pete Rose’s admitting that he’d bet on baseball in his latest attempt to be reinstated to the game and win election to the Hall of Fame.
Pesky told how he’d had dinner once with John Dowd, the point man for Major League Baseball’s investigation into Rose’s gambling, which led to his banishment.
“Dowd had more than enough to hang him,” Pesky says. “Rose did nothing to help this game. Baseball should stay pure, the way I look at it. He committed a sin, he should pay a price.
“But why isn’t Jimmy Rice in there?” Pesky says, bringing up the former Sox outfielder who has been an also-ran in the Hall balloting since retiring from the game. “Because,” Pesky says, answering his own question, “a couple of writers thought he was a jerk.”
Buzz Martin, the retired machine parts salesman who is usually the first of the group to arrive every morning, says he’s been having breakfast with Pesky for nearly 20 years. “He’s always been a hero of mine,” he says.
“Don’t write that,” Pesky says. “You’re embarrassing me.”
A few more stories, and it’s time to go. They take turns picking up the tab. Earl the Lawyer keeps the rotation on a calendar Georgia keeps behind the counter. They argue over who is the best tipper.
“We have a lot of laughs,” Pesky says. “Nobody gets mad at each other. Nobody ever leaves here mad.”