Remembering Johnny Pesky
It was some years ago when I was at Fenway park doing research and interviewing for one of my baseball books. My son Fred was then a teenager and he accompanied me to the park dressed in a red sweater and packing his baseball glove -- just in case.
We arrived at the legendary park quite a few hours before game time as is my practice when I am working. Fenway was empty. There was no one in the stands but my son anxious to catch a ball.
I interviewed one player and then another and then interrupted Johnny Pesky who was hitting fungoes and interviewed him. Gracious, enthusiastic, informed, the man they call "Mr. Red Sox" gave me more than the time of day.
So I figured I could impose.
"See that kid in the outfield stands with the red sweater. Could you hit a ball out to him?"
"And if I hit him on the noggin, then what! We are all in trouble."
"You are right," I said, and walked away to interview others.
Minutes later through the empty ballpark I heard my son's voice and saw him running through the stands to the home plate area. He was shouting: "I got it. I got it." And he had a ball in his hand.
Pesky was near me and yelled. "Get me that ball. The kid isn't supposed to have it."
I went over to my son and got the baseball and brought it to Pesky.
"What's your son's name?"
I told him. He autographed the ball "To Fred. Great catch. Johnny Pesky"
That was my first meeting with Pesky and immediately I knew I had come into contact with a mensch, good guy.
But since I am an oral historian and know there are various remembrances of things past, equal time now for my son who today is an AP correspondent based in Washington, D.C.
FRED FROMMER: My first time at Fenway Park was September 6, 1981. I'd come along very early with my father who was down on the field interviewing players during batting practice for a book he was writing. I was a huge baseball fan, and I had never been in a stadium that seated fewer than 50,000. Now, I had this 34,000-seat ballpark virtually to myself; it felt like a backyard.
From the first row behind the short right field wall by the foul pole, I could see balls careening all over the field like pinballs and my dad talking to Red Sox coach Johnny Pesky, who was hitting fungoes.
"That's my son out there, by the foul pole," I heard him say. "Can you hit a ball to him?"
"No way," said Pesky. "What if it hits him in the head?"
"He’ll catch it," my dad assured him. He was confident the endless evenings he had spent hitting me fly balls would pay off.
But Pesky shook his head. "Sorry, I can't do it."
A few minutes later, I heard a crack and a bunch of Red Sox players in right field yell, "Heads-up!"
I looked up, and there in the blue New England sky was a perfect white sphere. I camped under it. With Pesky's incredible aim, I didn't have to move. The ball just landed in my mitt.
"Hey, nice catch," one of the Red Sox shouted up at me. “We could use you out here, the way we're playing."
Just before the game started, Pesky found my dad and told him to get the ball from me. He autographed it: "To Freddy, Nice Catch. Best Wishes, Johnny Pesky."
I still have the ball.
Flash forward to the 21st century and my getting a contract to write what has been called the definitive book on Fenway Park. My first thought was to try and get Johnny Pesky to write the foreword and to also agree to be one of the 140 oral history voices in the book. I scored on both accounts.
What follows is the marvelous and self effacing foreword by the Red Sox legend:
They call me “Mr. Red Sox.” And that is a special honor considering all the great stars and personalities who have been with the franchise through all the years.
It’s been a wonderful ride for the kid out of Portland, Oregon who signed for a five hundred dollar bonus. I first showed up at Fenway Park in 1942 and never believed that when 2010 rolled around, I would still be on the scene, still be coming to the ballpark, still be putting on the Red Sox uniform, still having my own locker in the clubhouse.
The organization has honored me by naming the right field foul pole after me, putting me in the Red Sox Hall of Fame, retiring my number.
As author Harvey Frommer, in this book, brings the great story of Fenway Park to all of us in tremendous detail, I think back to all the greats I have known, those I played with or saw play at Fenway Park, a kind of who’s who in Sox history - - Mr. Tom Yawkey, Joe Cronin, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Tex Hughson, Mel Parnell, Boo Ferriss, Dick Radatz , Reggie Smith, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Tony Conigliaro, Jimmy Rice, Jim Lonborg, Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans, Dennis Eckersley, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, Dustin Pedroia, Curt Schilling, Jacoby Ellsbury . . .
I think back to so many moments at Fenway, good and bad – our winning the 1946 pennant, Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at bat, the Impossible Dream season, the Carlton Fisk home run, that 1975 team that battled the Reds in the World Series, the Bucky Dent homer, the heartbreak loss of the 1986 World Series to the Mets, the great changes in the old ballpark and the exciting work done by the new ownership, the thrill of “breaking the Curse of the Bambino” and winning world championships in 2004, 2007.
I have played for, coached, managed the Sox. I have been in the front office, a television and radio announcer, even an ad salesman. I have probably seen more Red Sox games, hit more fungoes, put in more time at Fenway Park than anyone else in Red Sox history.
As I said, it has been some ride. Seven decades-worth and counting, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. Many of these moments are captured in this book through Harvey Frommer’s riveting narrative, through great photos, and most importantly though the words of those who lived it.
And as a voice in my book and a person to interview, Pesky was honest, on target, full of BoSox pride, not full of himself. Just a few of his comments from Remembering Fenway Park follow:
JOHNNY PESKY: Manager Joe Cronin let me play. That was how it all started in 1942 when we went up against the old Boston Braves, an exhibition City Series, one game at Fenway and one at Braves Field.
I made four errors in the exhibition game and felt just terrible about it. I thought Cronin was going to send me down to either Scranton or Louisville. But he didn't say anything to me.
The first time I saw Fenway Park, it was dark and dreary. I was mainly concerned about playing as well as I could and keeping warm.
Opening Day was Tuesday April 14th . I was 22 years old. I came up the runway, up the three steps and looked out from the dugout. It was an old park even then. But it was very well kept, clean and nice. And right in the middle of the city. I thought it was beautiful.
We lived on Bay State road just across from Kenmore Square and could walk across to the ballpark. I batted leadoff ahead of Dom and Ted.
JOHNNY PESKY: Ted and I lockered next to one another. We always talked baseball. When you’re talking to the greatest hitter, it was like talking to the Holy Father.
He said: “Johnny, you’ve got to hit strikes. Don’t’ be afraid to take a pitch. And you’ve got to keep that bat on the level.” He’d stand up and show me his approach to hitting. And it stayed with me.
JOHNNY PESKY: Coming back from the Navy in 1946, I was impressed with how beautiful the ballpark still was. Mr. Yawkey came down and talked to us. He said he felt good about the team. He loved Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr. He was very nice to me, too.
Fenway Park was my comfort zone. Very homey. Fans were close, liking their ball. After the war, we had great crowds. The club now got going pretty good. There was much interest in Red Sox baseball and being in Fenway Park.
JOHNNY PESKY: A big left handed pitcher was going against us. Piersall was going up for his first at bat. “Goddamn this guy’s awful wild, God damn it, I’m afraid,” Jimmy said.
“If you’re afraid,” I told him, “you better get a lunch pail and go home.”
JOHNNY PESKY: I think Yaz was as good as any outfielder that ever played there, and I’m not taking anything away from Ted. Yaz was like an infielder from the outfield. He threw well; they couldn’t run on him. And he knew how to play that Monster.
The bio featured in Remembering Fenway Park reads:
JOHNNY PESKY is MR. RED SOX. A member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame whose number has been retired by the team, he has been a player, manager, coach and goodwill ambassador for the Red Sox since the 1940s.
That bio tells just half the story. He was also beloved, respected, and honored - -all for the right reasons.
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