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John Kennedy, who hit memorable inside-the park home run, dies at 77

On July 23, 1970, California Angels' Sandy Alomar is out at third base on an attempted steal with a throw from Boston Red Sox catcher Jerry Moses (not pictured) to third baseman John Kennedy.
On July 23, 1970, California Angels' Sandy Alomar is out at third base on an attempted steal with a throw from Boston Red Sox catcher Jerry Moses (not pictured) to third baseman John Kennedy.Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff

On July 5, 1970, Red Sox infielder John Kennedy set off some post-holiday fireworks of his own at Fenway Park as a pinch-hitter for starting pitcher Mike Nagy.

In his first at-bat in a Boston uniform, Mr. Kennedy hit a rare, inside-the park home run that tied the game and sparked a three-run, fifth-inning rally that highlighted an 8-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians.

As he sprinted around the bases, he heard the third base coach holler: “You can make it if you don’t pass out.” After the game, Mr. Kennedy told the Globe’s Peter Gammons that he was so winded, he didn’t exactly slide into home base: “No, I stumbled.”

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With that homer, Mr. Kennedy instantly endeared himself to Red Sox fans. During five seasons with the team, he was called “Super Sub” because of his up-tempo style and ability to play several positions.

Mr. Kennedy, who also had stroked a pinch-hit homer in his first Major League plate appearance in 1962 for the Washington Senators, died Aug. 9 in his Peabody home, where he had lived since 1971. He was 77 and had suffered several strokes in recent months.

“I still remember how John’s home run inspired us that day, really pumped us up,” recalled former Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli. “He always played hard and was fun to be around — a witty guy who would say and do things that would crack you up.”

Memorably, Mr. Kennedy also gave teammate and pitcher Bill Lee his legendary nickname, “Spaceman.”

“John had fiery red hair and was fiery on the field,” Lee said. “He was a scrappy, clutch guy who could also fill in as a starter for a few games. And he was tough as nails.”

Mr. Kennedy, who played in two World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was a defensive replacement at third base in the eighth inning when LA’s Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game in 1965 against the visiting Chicago Cubs. That year, the Dodgers won the World Series.

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A lifetime .225 hitter, Mr. Kennedy posted his highest average, .276, with the Red Sox in 1971. He also played for the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, and Milwaukee Brewers, who sold him to Boston.

“I always ran as hard as I could and played as hard as I could throughout my career,” Mr. Kennedy said in a 2010 interview with the Society for American Baseball Research.

Sent down in 1974 to the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox, when Joe Morgan was managing the team, Mr. Kennedy threw extra batting practice to budding stars Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.

In the 2010 interview, Mr. Kennedy recalled telling Morgan “that I was going to retire at the end of the season and to let the young kids play, and I would work with them to help them get better.”

Mr. Kennedy added that he thought doing so led to him landing a minor league managing job with the Red Sox in 1975.

He managed Boston’s Winston-Salem club in the Class A Carolina League in 1975, and Bristol in the Class AA Eastern League the next two seasons. He also scouted for several Major League teams, including the Red Sox.

From 2003 to 2006, as manager of the Lynn-based North Shore Spirit of the independent Can-Am League, Mr. Kennedy brought in former Red Sox standouts Rich Gedman and Dick Radatz as coaches.

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John Edward Kennedy was born in Chicago, the son of Edward Kennedy, a driver for the city’s transit authority, and the former Elsie Kalchbrenner, who crafted globes for Rand McNally.

According to family lore, on the day of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, Mr. Kennedy’s father asked him if he wanted to be president. Mr. Kennedy, who was then 3, responded: “No, I want to be a baseball player.”

Along with their first and last names, Mr. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy shared a May 29 birthday, but the two never met, though both were in Washington in the 1960s.

When Mr. Kennedy first stepped to the plate for the Washington Senators in 1962, his pinch-hit home run broke up a no-hitter. Playing later that season with the Senators in Chicago, he went 3-for-4 against the White Sox with his parents and friends in the stands at Comiskey Park.

Mr. Kennedy was a graduate of Chicago’s Harper High School, and in 1963 he married former classmate Betty Brown.

She had a career in marketing research and said she admired his sense of humor and how he “let me be my own person.”

While they were engaged, Betty wrote a letter to her future husband and addressed it to John Kennedy, Washington Senators, D.C., Stadium.

“A few days later,” she recalled, “I received the envelope from the White House with an apology that my letter had been delivered to President Kennedy, and opened by mistake.”

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A private service will be announced for Mr. Kennedy, who in addition to his wife leaves a son, Scott of Newton; a daughter, Kristen Aulbach of Andover; a sister, Carol Nutter of Oak Lawn, Ill.; and four grandchildren.

Scott fondly recalled being coached in CYO basketball by his father and playing in father-and-son games at Fenway Park when signs saying “Super Sub” and “Little Super Sub” were displayed in the stands.

In the 2010 interview with the Society for American Baseball Research, Mr. Kennedy said that as a minor league manager, he tried to inspire players to be as enthusiastic as he had been.

“I encouraged my players to go all out all the time,” he said. “Not everyone is going to play in the big leagues, but if you give your best effort every day, you can have peace of mind. If you don’t, you take the what-ifs to your grave.”


Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.