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Johnny Pesky, guiding soul of the Red Sox family, dies at 92

Johnny Pesky, who during a six-decade-long association with the Red Sox as player, manager, broadcaster, coach, and executive became one of the most popular figures in the team’s history, died Monday. He was 92.

A lifetime .307 hitter, Mr. Pesky recorded 200 or more hits in each of his first three seasons, leading the American League in that category all three years. He hit .331 in 1942, his rookie season, finishing second to Ted Williams in the batting title race and was third in most valuable player voting. An All-Star in 1946, he was a fine fielding shortstop, his primary position. He also played third base and second base.

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In 2008, he was the first player to have his number, 6, retired by the Red Sox who was not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He was phenomenal in those first three seasons,” said his first Red Sox manager, Joe Cronin. “You couldn’t ask for more than he gave.”

Mr. Pesky was among the first class of inductees into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, in 1995. He never made it to Cooperstown, though, which was largely attributable to three factors.

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He lost three seasons at his playing peak to wartime service.

He played in an era of outstanding shortstops, including the Cardinals’ Marty Marion, the Yankee’s Phil Rizzuto, the Indians’ (and later Red Sox’) Lou Boudreau, the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese.

And he held the ball.

No Red Sox fan needs to be told what that means. It was during the eighth inning of the seventh and deciding game of the 1946 World Series. The Sox and Cardinals were tied 3-3. There were two outs, with the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter on first. Slaughter broke for second, attempting to steal, and Harry “The Hat” Walker hit a line drive into left-center field. Slaughter kept on going as Leon Culberson fielded the ball. He kept on going as Culberson made a poor throw to Mr. Pesky, the cutoff man. He kept on going as Mr. Pesky turned around. By the time Mr. Pesky realized Slaughter was heading home, it was too late.

It’s widely believed that Mr. Pesky hesitated before throwing. Films of the play indicate it was more a case of Mr. Pesky simply needing to hitch his shoulder for a stronger throw. Either way, Cardinal catcher Joe Garagiola has stated that with or without any hesitation Mr. Pesky wouldn’t have caught Slaughter because of the head start the baserunner had gotten from the attempted steal.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Mr. Pesky had joined the list of famous Series goats that includes Fred Snodgrass and Mickey Owen (and later the Red Sox’ Bill Buckner).

Mr. Pesky went home to Portland, Ore., after the Series and stayed in his house for five weeks before finally coming out. With characteristic good cheer, he soon adjusted to his newfound ignominy. “If you’re a palooka, you’ve got to live with it,” he said in a 1979 Globe interview.

A classic baseball lifer, Mr. Pesky knew how to take diamond good with diamond bad. “He’s the most dedicated guy I’ve ever known,” his Hall of Fame teammate Bobby Doerr once said of Mr. Pesky. “The game of baseball is his life. I don’t know a single person who loves the game as much.”

Such Red Sox greats as Williams, Doerr, Cronin, and Carl Yastrzemski have plaques in Cooperstown. But only Mr. Pesky could claim that part of the park bears his name. The right-field foul pole became known as Pesky’s Pole, a term popularized by Mr. Pesky’s teammate Mel Parnell. Parnell named the pole while broadcasting a Red Sox game in the mid-’60s. The implication was the lefthanded-hitting Mr. Pesky placed numerous home runs just inside the pole. In fact, his career total was 17 — and only six came at Fenway. The Red Sox made the title official in 2006, placing a plaque on the pole honoring Mr. Pesky.

Mr. Pesky, who was short, easygoing, upbeat, and a spray hitter with little power, could hardly have been more different from Williams. Yet they were a classic case of opposites attracting. Writing in 1989, David Halberstam described their friendship as “a fifty-year marathon of playful insults.”

Williams’ teasing masked profound affection and professional respect. “It didn’t take an expert to see he was going to make it real big right from the start with that quick bat, blazing speed, and good glove,” he once said of Mr. Pesky.

During his time with the Red Sox, Mr. Pesky batted second. “I hit behind Dominic DiMaggio and in front of Ted Williams,” he once said. “I hung on Ted and Dominic’s coattails.”

The advantage of hitting in front of Williams was great: Mr. Pesky got good pitches to hit because no one wanted to walk him to face Williams. The disadvantage was he couldn’t put his speed to use stealing bases (he was third in the league in 1947) because pitchers would then likely walk Williams with first base open.

Williams dubbed Mr. Pesky “Needlenose” or “Needle” for his most prominent facial feature. He put his nose to good use on the field, flicking it as a hit-and-run sign to DiMaggio. “Even a guy with thick glasses like DiMaggio couldn’t miss that sign,” Mr. Pesky joked. The nickname stuck, but its bearer didn’t mind. “They could have called me whatever they wanted,” he liked to say. “It was just wonderful being in the majors.”

Few players have had a more fitting name. Mr. Pesky really was a “Johnny Pesky”: quick and wiry, compact and boyish. Yet it wasn’t his given name. That was John Michael Paveskovich. Born on Sept. 27, 1919, in Portland, he was the son of Croatian immigrants, Jacob Paveskovich, a lumber mill worker, and Mary (Bajama) Paveskovich.

“ ‘Pesky’ was the nickname the kids came up with for me,” he later explained. “It was kind of catchy.” The name later appeared in box scores as an abbreviation. Mr. Pesky made it his legal name in 1947. “My mother was pretty mad,” he admitted.

Mr. Pesky worked as an assistant clubhouse boy for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. “The best job in town,” he later recalled. “The ballplayers were my heroes, and I was around them all the time. I saw the games for nothing — I used to help out as bat boy, too — and in the mornings, or after my work was done, I could get out on the field and play.”

Several major league teams were interested in Mr. Pesky. He signed with the Red Sox for $500. Their scout, he later explained, “was the one who was nicest to my family... He used to bring my mother flowers and my father bourbon.”

During World War II, Mr. Pesky served in the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant j.g.

In June 1952, the Red Sox traded him to the Detroit Tigers. Mr. Pesky spent his last season, 1954, with the Tigers and Washington Senators.

Mr. Pesky managed in the Tigers’ minor league system for five years, then returned to the Red Sox organization to manage their Seattle farm team.

He managed the Red Sox in 1963 and ’64, finishing seventh and eighth in a 10-team league. “Let’s just say I became manager of the Red Sox at the wrong time,” Mr. Pesky once said. The organization was in the depths of its lackadaisical “country club” phase. A combination of little talent on the field and much dissension in the clubhouse (Mr. Pesky had notable run-ins with first baseman Dick Stuart) sealed his fate.

Mr. Pesky had a managerial record of .451 (which includes five games at the end of the 1980 season). Asked once how it felt to win as a manager, he replied, “The sky is a little bluer, the beer tastes a little better, and my wife looks like Gina Lollobrigida.” Asked whom his wife resembled during a losing streak, Mr. Pesky said, “Bela Lugosi.”

Mr. Pesky coached for the Pittsburgh Pirates for several years and managed in their minor league organization. He returned to the Red Sox as a broadcaster in 1969, replacing Parnell. Mr. Pesky brought great partisanship to the broadcast booth — he could occasionally be heard in the background cheering quietly for the Red Sox while his partners Ken Coleman and Ned Martin handled play-by-play chores.

The Red Sox named Mr. Pesky first-base coach in 1975. He became special assistant to the general manager in 1985 and later special assignment instructor.

In 1982, Mr. Pesky lost 40 pounds, his life threatened by a mysterious ailment. It was finally diagnosed as a late-developing allergy to gluten.

There was a media flare-up in 1997 when general manager Dan Duquette decreed that Mr. Pesky couldn’t suit up and sit in the Red Sox dugout during home games. The ensuing outcry was further proof of the special place Mr. Pesky had in the hearts of Red Sox fans. In 2004, the team named one of the fields at its spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., for Mr. Pesky. “You had a pole all this time,” Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra teased Mr. Pesky. “Now you have a whole field.”

“I wasn’t a great player,” Mr. Pesky once said. “I was a decent player. I knew the game, I’d like to think. I know I had a lot of fun.”

Mr. Pesky’s wife, Ruth (Hickey) Pesky, died in 2005. He leaves a son, David.

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