Johnny Pesky connected generations
From Ted Williams to David Ortiz, Red Sox legend brought a nation together
BOSTON -- Any time the Boston Red Sox would honor Johnny Pesky, or one of his generation of Red Sox players, he would struggle to fight back the tears, especially later in his life.
Now, the tears are for him.
Pesky passed away on Monday. He was 92.
Throughout the day, former Red Sox players and personnel were asked to comment on Pesky's life and career in the game. The common theme was that he was always just one of the guys. If you cared about the Red Sox, then Pesky cared about you.
His playing career lasted only 10 years (he missed three seasons while serving in World War II) but his legacy transcended a lifetime.
"A very dark day today for Red Sox Nation," Red Sox veteran David Ortiz wrote in a post on Twitter. "A good friend of mine passed away. Johnny Pesky, it was an honor meeting you. R.I.P."
Former Red Sox outfielder and fan favorite Darnell McDonald also posted a tweet.
"Honored to have had an opportunity to meet one of the biggest ambassadors of the Red Sox, Mr. Johnny Pesky," McDonald wrote.
Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona learned first-hand what Pesky meant to the team, especially the fans. Until recently, Pesky attended spring training every year, often sitting in a chair and signing autographs for hours with the hot Fort Myers, Fla., sun beaming down.
"When I got there in '04 he was still pretty active," Francona said. "He would walk around with his fungo and talk to the players and work his way around the field. Then, as the years kind of caught up, he would sit in that little lawn chair and sign autographs for fans. He was really good to the fans and you could tell how much they appreciated him.
"At every event, when somebody would introduce Johnny, it just meant so much to him. You could see how when people recognized him, he just lit up."
Of course, Pesky will forever be linked to Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr; the four are featured in a statue outside Fenway Park.
"Everybody just liked him," said Francona, now a baseball analyst with ESPN. "He was an ambassador for the Red Sox. He certainly loved to tell stories about Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio, and everyone just ate that up, especially the fans."
Francona, who managed eight seasons in Boston and won World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, was thrilled to see the reception Pesky received at Fenway Park, especially at the 100th anniversary celebration of Fenway on April 20, 2012.
"It was cool," Francona said. "Those types of things were really special to Johnny, like in '04 when we raised the [World Series] flag and when they wheeled him out for the 100th anniversary. When he was recognized like that, like I said, you could just see his eyes light up."
It was commonplace to see Pesky sitting at his locker in the Red Sox's clubhouse, putting on his No. 6 uniform, sticking a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek and hanging with the current players.
"Most of my memories of Johnny were just him hanging around the ballpark and joking with the guys all the time," said Bronson Arroyo, a former Red Sox and current Cincinnati Reds pitcher. "He was just a classic Red Sox guy who loved putting on the uniform and sitting in the dugout as long as they would let him.
"He still wanted to be part of the boys' club, especially after his wife died. He always wanted to come to the ballpark and feel part of the ballclub. Johnny was a likable guy who was always joking around. He was one of the boys."
The Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004, ending an 86-year drought, meant the world to Pesky.
"He was almost like a fan by the time we won it. I remember him saying, 'You guys finally did it for me, for us, for everyone.' It was like he was just another New Englander, just soaking it up and being proud of a ballclub that finally got over that hump," Arroyo said.
"He had seen everything that has happened in that ballpark, for the most part, and I think he was appreciative that there was a ballclub he was close to and was a part of and could finally put on a ring. He thoroughly enjoyed the day we got our rings and he was on the field with everyone else."
Pesky served many roles during his career with the Red Sox. After his playing days, he managed the club in 1963, 1964 and 1980. He was also a broadcaster from 1969 to 1974 before becoming a coach from 1975 to 1984.
"He must have hit a million fungoes to me and Jimmy Rice," former Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn said. "He would take Jimmy out to left field every day and hit balls off the wall for him. Whatever you would ask him to do, he would do for you."
"Johnny's theory of hitting was not mine," Lynn added. "Somewhere between Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky I'm floating around in there somewhere. I'd line out, come back to the dugout and he'd say, 'You didn't see that guy standing there?' That was his idea of being a hitting coach. 'See that guy? Don't hit it to him. What's the matter with you, college kid, you can't see that guy there?'"
"Lasorda was Dodger blue, then Johnny Pesky was Red Sox red," Lynn said.
Pesky's No. 6 was retired on Sept. 28, 2008, joining the likes of Joe Cronin (4), Doerr (1), Carlton Fisk (27), Rice (14), Williams (9) and Carl Yastrzemski (8).
"When you think of the Red Sox, you think of Ted Williams and Jimmy and Carl, but it's Johnny Pesky who has been there the most and the longest," Lynn said. "He's synonymous with the Red Sox. He was the nicest man."
Lynn still appreciates all the times Pesky asked about his family, especially his father.
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"He was like my dad," Lynn said of Pesky. "He was like everyone's dad."
Pesky's legacy reached the entire Red Sox organization. He was the manager of the club's Triple-A affiliate, the Pawtucket Red Sox, for half a season in 1990. He wanted to return in the same role the following season, but the Red Sox's front office had other ideas. That didn't stop Pesky from visiting McCoy Stadium.
He would show up, still hit fungoes before the game, then he would sit in the owner's box with Ben Mondor and Mike Tamburro. There were plenty of times he would bring Dom DiMaggio with him.
"He loved coming here and everyone around here," PawSox vice president of public relations Bill Wanless said. "We loved having him. He was that type of guy that you loved to see come in. The thing about him, he was like Mr. Red Sox, but the great thing about Johnny, he never acted like Mr. Red Sox. He was always Johnny and wanted you to call him 'Johnny,' and he always treated everyone so great, with such class."
Not only was 2004 a special season for the Red Sox, the PawSox hosted the Triple-A All-Star game that summer and Pesky played a major role in the festivities. Along with Doerr and DiMaggio, Pesky participated in a question-and-answer roundtable, mostly talking about their relationship with Williams. Many of those in attendance were spellbound by the conversation.
"To have those guys in the same room, that just captivated all of the baseball people that were here," Wanless said. "To this day, I've never been to an event like that. They spoke for 30 minutes and it felt like they could go on all day long. Everyone was hanging on every word.
"Unfortunately, they don't make 'em like Johnny anymore. He will be sorely missed."