Johnny Pesky: the Man Behind the Pole

-From Old School

I grew up watching the Red Sox, beginning with Car Yastrzemski and the Impossible Dream season in 1967 through the team’s two recent World Series championships.  I still remember Tony Conigliaro lying flat out at home plate after being hit in the face by a Jack Hamilton fast ball that same year.  I saw Bill Buckner take the blame in 1986, when real Boston fans knew the problem was in the coaching.  I watched Carlton Fisk simply will that home run back from foul ball territory as he side-stepped down the first base line.  I also remember asking my dad, when I was too young to know, why that older man is always sitting on the bench.

Johnny Pesky was an American hero and life long Red Sox, long before it was called The Nation.  He was Sox lore and he breathed Boston air; if cut, he bled murky Charles River water.  Johnny Pesky lived on this planet for 92 years, and for 73 of them he was involved in Major League baseball; for 61 of those years he was “Mr. Red Sox”.  So beloved was Mr. Red Sox by the team that he was allowed his own seat on the team bench, even after his playing and coaching days were done.  But in 2007, Major league baseball announced the enforcement of a rule that would limit the number of coaches that would be allowed on the bench, effectively removing Johnny Pesky from his regular seat in the dug out.

Born in 1919, Johnny Pesky (born John Paveskovich) shortened his name for baseball’s sake; it fits better in the box scores and on the uniform.  From 1942 through 1954 he was possibly the best lead off hitter in the Majors.  He led the league in hits three times, on-base percentage six times, and once in sacrifice hits.  He batted .307 lifetime.  Oh yeah, he did not play baseball from 1943-1945 because he was serving in World War II.  To say that this man was a team player is simply an understatement.

Pesky played for the Red Sox from 1942 through 1952 (except for the years 1943-1945, when he played for Team United States of America in WWII).  He then played for The Detroit Tigers from 1952-1954. He finished with the Washington Senators in 1954.  He managed the Red Sox from 1963 -1964, and then again in 1980.  Over the years he was a coach in the Red Sox Major and Minor League systems.  In his later years he served as a special instructor and assistant.  When not coaching, Pesky could be seen on television and heard on Radio as the voice of the Sox.  If Triple A Sox needed a hand, Johnny Pesky was the guy.  If Double A needed his services, Johnny was on the spot.  This guy was Mr. Red Sox, and in 2007, Major League Baseball passed a rule to remove Pesky, and a few other pesky old guys around the league, from the bench where the current players sit.

The foul pole in right field at Fenway Park has been known as the Pesky Pole since Johnny’s playing days.  Stories vary on the origination of the naming of the pole, but the bottom line is simple; this pole was named after one of the most beloved and underrated players in Red Sox history.  In 2006 the Red Sox honored Johnny by officially naming the foul pole what one million Red Sox fans already called it; Pesky Pole.  One year later Major League Baseball would ensure that Johnny Pesky would not be sitting on the bench in the stadium where the foul pole bore his name!

In Johnny’s later years he was a visible member of the community, making personal appearances and such for the Sox.  He was present for the ceremonies for the team’s 2004 and 2007 World Series wins.  Johnny passed away last year at the age of 92, five years after Major League Baseball disallowed him from sitting in his most comfortable chair.  By removing him from the team’s bench, MLB tried to ensure that Johnny Pesky would never again have that special view of the game in Fenway Park.  By naming a piece of Fenway Park after him, the Boston fans and the Red Sox ensured that Johnny Pesky’s name would be synonymous with Fenway Park, because that’s what we’re supposed to do for American heroes.

This past weekend, Cape Cod was shut down from the Blizzard with power outages, downed lines, and snowbound streets and neighborhoods.  My wife worked one shift that was 22 hours long at a local assisted living center because she didn’t want her client, a WWII vet (he was a waist gunner on a B-24), to be alone at any time during his illness and this emergency.  She would say that it is the least she could for do him after the sacrifices that he made.  “It is an honor to take care of him,” she said.  It’s also the right thing to do.

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