LYNN -- Johnny Pesky already had his chance to say goodbye. He and his son, David, clutched the hands of his wife of 60 years, Ruth Hickey Pesky, as she died Friday at age 82.
Last night, friends, extended family, and the rest of Red Sox Nation had their chance to bid farewell to Mrs. Pesky, a woman with a wicked sense of humor and an infamous indifference to the spotlight. It wasn’t easy: She was married to a famous ballplayer in a baseball-crazed city.
“She was a hell of a gal,” Johnny Pesky said yesterday. “She was a good wife and a great mother.”
Mourners gathered at a memorial service last night at St. Mary’s Church in Lynn. Three generations of fans paid tribute. They wore suits affixed with Red Sox pins. They gazed at the black-and-white photo of a smiling Johnny and Ruth on their wedding day. And they told heartfelt stories about a woman who was an integral part of Boston baseball for six decades.
“Everyone knows Johnny Pesky as Mr. Red Sox,” said Dan Maher, 17, a great-nephew of Mrs. Pesky who lives in Lynn. “But not a lot of people knew Ruth, and that’s a shame because she was an incredible person, too.”
Known for her 60-year marriage to one of the most beloved members of the Red Sox, Mrs. Pesky was far more than a baseball wife. She was her own person.
She was born in Salem and grew up in Lynn, graduating from Lynn English High School. She served in the Navy during World War II, and was stationed at a naval air station in Atlanta in 1944 when she met Johnny.
“I was walking down the tarmac and I saw this cute little blond gal revving a plane,” Pesky said before yesterday’s service. “She had this New England accent, so I said I’m a ballplayer in Boston. That didn’t sink in. She wasn’t impressed.”
Mrs. Pesky was always independent-minded. Family friend Raymond McGuiggin told a story during the service about how Ruth built the family home in Swampscott with blueprints lifted from a magazine. He called it the “house that Ruth built.”
Tim Samway, a longtime family friend and president of the BoSox Club, said before the service that when Ruth played bingo which she often did with the players’ wives during spring training in Florida she liked to play Carl Yastrzemski’s number, 8, instead of her husband’s number, 6.
“Yaz was a favorite,” Samway said. “She loved Yaz’s number. I’d say, `Why don’t you pick number 6.’ And she’d say, `Because I have to play number 8.’ That was Ruthie Pesky.”
Mrs. Pesky’s nephew Michael Hickey described a road trip to New York, where he thought he was going to see a four-game weekend series between the Red Sox and Yankees. Instead he went with Mrs. Pesky to a Beatles concert, a play, and a taping of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” He made it to the ballpark on Sunday.
“I finally got to meet Mickey Mantle,” he laughed.
Mrs. Pesky suffered a heart attack in February and spent time in a nursing home in Lynn before she died. Michelle Desmarais, who cared for her, described her as “a lovely lady who was always feisty and always in charge. She was in charge of all of us. She was the manager.”
A number of former Red Sox players, personnel, and members of the ownership group paid their respects earlier in the week. Dom DiMaggio, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, and Joe Morgan attended the wake Monday.Pesky said he also got phone calls from Nomar Garciaparra, Bobby Doerr, and Don Zimmer.
“I’m so pleased that they all turned out,” Pesky said. “We were close. That’s something I’ll never forget.”