If it had something to do with the Red Sox, it had something to do with Johnny Pesky.
The Red Sox are 112 years old. Fenway is 100. Johnny “only” lived to be 92. But his life touched everything that ever had anything to do with the Red Sox.
The Carlton Fisk home run in the 1975 World Series? Johnny Pesky was the first to congratulate Pudge. Johnny was coaching first base for the ’75 Sox.
Jim Rice? Johnny worked with Rice every day, hitting him thousands of fungoes. Johnny made Rice a good outfielder.
Nomar? Johnny loved Nomar and Nomar loved loved him back. Johnny said Nomar reminded him a little of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. And Johnny, of course, played with Joe’s brother, Dominic DiMaggio.
Tony Conigliaro? Johnny was his first big league manager.
Yaz? Johnny managed Yaz, clashed with the young slugger, and there were reports that Yaz went upstairs to complain about his manager (sound familiar?).
Babe Ruth? That’s an easy one. Johnny was born on Sept. 27, 1919, which just so happens to be the day that Ruth played his final game with the Red Sox. Johnny married a woman named Ruth.
Jimmie Foxx? Johnny’s rookie season (1942) was Foxx’s last season with the Red Sox. Johnny loved to tell the story of riding a train north with the team after spring training. Rookies always had to sleep in the upper bunks and Foxx literally threw the lightweight shortstop into the top bunk with one hand. “It was one of the highlights of my career because I’d read a lot about Foxx,’’ said Johnny.
Pesky died Monday, but he’s immortal at Fenway and in Red Sox Nation. He touched all of us.
Truly. Is there anyone out there in our reading audience who never met him? It’d be hard to find those unlucky souls. If you live and work around Greater Boston, you probably met Johnny at one time or another. When word spread of Johnny’s passing, there were hundreds of thousands of conversations that started with, “I met Johnny once. He was the nicest guy.’’
Autographs? Johnny signed a million. Maybe that’s the real reason he changed his name from Paveskovich. “Pesky” is so much easier.
I grew up in an era in which most of New England featured photographs of John F. Kennedy and Richard Cardinal Cushing. Today it’s hard to find a regional household without a Johnny Pesky autograph stashed somewhere.
He had time for everyone. In more than 70 years in professional baseball, Pesky served the Red Sox as an All-Star ballplayer (a .307 lifetime hitter), manager, coach, assistant general manager, and broadcaster. He served his country in World War II and was a tireless Jimmy Fund soldier, but he goes down in local sports lore as the Red Sox’ eternal goodwill ambassador.
Johnny was at his best in spring training. The informal rhythms of baseball’s February and March suited him perfectly. At the ballpark Pesky would set up shop in a folding chair near the Red Sox dugout, meeting and greeting hundreds of fans every day. Snowbirds looking for Roger Clemens or Mo Vaughn were delighted when they instead got quality face time with Johnny Pesky.
It was even better at the spring training hotel. Johnny’s last Grapefruit League residence was the Homewood Suites at the Bell Tower in Fort Myers. Swedish meatballs and conversations with Johnny were served nightly at 5:30 in the common area. Folks with white hair would talk to him about the 1946 World Series. Touring college baseball and softball players would introduce themselves to the man who was one of Ted Williams’s best friends.
I got an e-mail Monday from a friend who these days lives far from Boston. The man wrote, “For some reason, Johnny always reminded me of my father and my father’s time.’’
Bingo. Johnny was part of Boston baseball’s greatest generation.
Dan Duquette’s biggest blunder? It had nothing to do with Roger Clemens or Jose Canseco. In 1997, Duquette had Pesky bounced from the Fenway dugout. It was a sin for which Duquette could not be forgiven. You could run the Red Sox into the ground, but you could not break Johnny Pesky’s heart.
The current Red Sox administration finds itself in chaos and disfavor, but Pesky’s death reminds us of the things they do well. I’m not talking about the beautification of Fenway, the globalization of the Sox brand, or those two championships; I’m talking about respect for those who came before us.
The Sox of John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino have been top-shelf when it comes to honoring the men who made the Sox part of everyday life in New England.
In 2004, the Sox had enough smarts and heart to bring Johnny to St. Louis for the clinching game of the World Series. When Keith Foulke retired Edgar Renteria for the final out, Johnny was sitting inside the clubhouse, weeping gently.
Entering the clubhouse, grabbing a bottle of champagne, Curt Schilling put Johnny in a bear hug and lifted him off the ground.
“It was the highlight of my life,’’ said Pesky.
The Sox didn’t stop there.
Along with Yastrzemski, they let Johnny raise the 2004 championship banner in April of 2005. They officially named the right-field foul pole after Pesky in 2006.
In 2008, they retired Pesky’s No. 6, even though he fell short of some of the contrived requirements that had been put in place by the previous administration.
Outside Fenway Park’s Gate B, a bronzed Johnny Pesky -- alongside teammates Williams, DiMaggio, and Bobby Doerr — greets Sox fans and Fenway tourists.
The foul pole, the retired number, and the statue are well-deserved, but we don’t need them to remind us of Boston baseball’s nicest guy. Those of us who knew him — and that seems to be just about everyone — will never forget Johnny Pesky.