Is there such a thing as royalty in baseball? Probably not (although you could probably make a case for someone in cricket, but I digress).
Are there some players that are the noble aspiration of what we all wish we could be? And, are there those that epitomize what we see as being what a baseball player should be like? If so, Johnny Pesky would have to be one of them.
He is Mr. Red Sox. He was, as Ted Williams called him, “Needle Nose”. He is the Ambassador of the Red Sox. He was “Pesky” and now is Pesky (he changed his name legally in 1947).
John Michael Paveskovich was born in Portland, Oregon on September 27, 1919. As this interview will attest, baseball, the culture in NW Portland, once known as “Slav Town” for the Slovakian community that resided there, and now sometimes called “Slab Town” played a large part in Johnny’s life.
On NW 23rd and Vaughn St. was Vaughn Street Park, Portland’s home for professional baseball all through Johnny’s formative years. Groundskeeper Rocky Beneventto became a mentor to many children who played baseball in NW Portland, and Pesky became one of the benefactors, working at the park by cleaning the dugouts.
Throughout this interview, those that taught at Lincoln High School and those that played baseball there, show the influence that his schooling had. Pesky continued to be a talent in baseball, and extended that talent through the Central Oregon Bend Elks and the Silverton American Legion Team, just north of Salem.
Pesky started to attract the attention of big-league scouts while playing for Silverton and offers started to come in. The amount of money being offered was not the overriding factor in the Paveskovich household. The Cardinals offered up a $2500 signing bonus, but Red Sox scout Earl Johnson so impressed Johnny’s mother, that she insisted that he go with the Red Sox, who had offered up only $500 as a signing bonus.
Starting in 1940, Johnny did exceedingly well in the minors, first with Class B Rocky Mount Red Sox of the Piedmont League and then in 1941 with the Double-A American Association Louisville Colonels where he was MVP of the league.
Johnny was then sent up to the Boston Red Sox at the end of the season, where he received a $4000 salary for his first season.
The following interview covers a wide range of topics including all three of the books that he has recently been associated with (The Teammates, Mr. Red Sox, and Few and Chosen), growing up in NW Portland, the baseball clinics that Carl Mays had in Portland, Rocky Beneventto, Bobby Doerr, Dominic DiMaggio, and Ted Williams, breaking up Virgil Trucks no-hitter, Slaughter’s Mad Dash, moving to third base when Vern Stephens arrived with the Red Sox, comments on a number of current players, re-living the Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and raising the WS banner the following year with Yaz, how he feels Major League Baseball would do in his hometown of Portland, and a whole lot more. Enjoy. – Maury Brown
(source – Bill Nowlin’s entry in SABR Baseball Biography Project on Johnny Pesky)
OSC: Where did the name Pesky come from? I know that is not your given name.
Pesky: My Christian name is Pavlekovich and that is a little hard to pronounce. And of course Ted Williams used to say ‘Paskovich’. But legally I had to go into the service and when I signed ‘Pesky’ it was kind of a nickname. And I used it. And it sounded pretty good.
Of course when I got to playing pro ball I changed it legally and my parents weren’t too happy about it. But you had to understand it was easier for me; it was easier for the writers. They had a little influence on that because of box scores and stuff like that. But I wouldn’t have changed my name; but to decipher four syllables is tough.
Anyway, I changed it and when I got married, I married with my Christian name and when I came back from the war I had it changed legally in ’47. And you had to put down on the paper if anyone had any exceptions to the change. And I put down there were no exceptions and now it is my legal name.
OSC: You’ve been a very busy man regarding several books. First there was David Halberstam’s The Teammates, Bill Nowlin’s Mr. Red Sox, and there is your book with Phil Pepe, Few and Chosen.
Can you tell us a little about each book and how they all came about?
Pesky: Halberstam did his book a few years ago—in ’01. We’ve made some appearances for Halberstam. We were over in Cambridge at Harvard and had a big crowd over there. But Bobby was still at home because [of his wife’s illness]. In the meantime she passed away. Dom and I have kept in contact and we have talked with Bobby a few times. Bobby has been back here too since his wife passed away.
Teammates was a very outstanding book according to everyone we’ve talked to. From what I understand it was a #1 in the New York Times for a whole month—so it must have been good. Halberstam’s a very fine writer. You know he is a Pulitzer Prize writer. He did a play about Vietnam and he has done a number of other plays. He is a graduate of Harvard, I might add. I am sure that means a lot because that is a higher standard of education. Of course, when they say “I’m from Harvard,” I say I am from MIT. I was lucky to get out of Lincoln High School.
OSC: You have never had a biography. Reading through Mr. Red Sox is a fascinating read…
Pesky: I have been here so many years. I guess that is why they refer to me as that. It’s very flattering. But they were looking for a title. This book was started a few years ago by Bill Nowlin. How it came about was that he was friendly with Lib (Elizabeth “Lib” Dooley) and she was at every game. She was a retired school teacher. And Bill used to sit behind her at every ball game. Between innings Ted would go by and he would wave to her. And she would holler “Get a base hit, please!”
So one time she turned to Bill and she said, “Why don’t you do a book on Johnny?” And they got to talking about it and Bill came to me and said: “Look, this Lib, this school teacher, she talked to me about doing a book about you.” I said “Oh, no! I don’t want that.” I wasn’t a big enough star to have a book written. Bill wanted to undertake it and he asked me about it. I said, “Bill, you do what you want.” He said, “Johnny, I think it’s got a chance.” Of course, [he/I] had already done a lot of work for the ball club. He started off and he went everywhere. He went to my home—Southern Oregon—to places I played. He went to the old Lincoln High School. And I think when he showed up out there my brother showed him around. And, of course, he went ahead and the book was just printed this past year. We’ve had pretty good luck with it from what I understand. We had some books down in spring training and we’ve had some books around here.
Of course, The Few and The Chosen is a national publication. Locally it has done pretty well.
OSC: How tough was it to choose the greatest Red Sox players of all time for Few and Chosen?
Pesky: Well, I had to do a lot of research. Funny thing, when I first thought about it…. Phil Pepe is a writer in New York. He was writing when I was managing and playing and we got friendly when I was playing and managing. He called me in December of 2003 and he told me what he had done with Tim McCarver. Of course, Tim had done his book on the Cardinals five best players in each position. He said he would like me to do it for the Red Sox. I said it was worth the try. So they forwarded some funds to me and I started on it; but it wasn’t supposed to be published until June 2004 and let the other book [Teammates] come out a little earlier. Of course Teammates was two years earlier so we were quite busy with books.
Bill [Nowlin] proceeded with the last one, but it was not supposed to come out until this month—the end of May or June. Well, they all came out together; so I’ve been running around. For the whole month I’ve been home maybe two days. My job is with the ball club and I worry more about the ball club than I do about the books. It’s just that we had to be available when these books were published in certain areas and we try to take care of it all— TV, radio and appearances at some of the local book stores.
I’m tickled to death that he called. It took a lot of work and I did a lot of research. I went back to some books and before I ever got here. I never saw Christy Mathewson or any of those guys. I didn’t see Speaker, Hooper, Duffy Lewis and guys of that era—1910 and all those early years of the game. But I did some research and I picked a couple of them because of what their averages were and what kind of guys they were. And that’s what I went by and of course I put my five guys together and submitted them. But before we went to print I talked to Pepe about them and we agreed on something.
The biggest thing was I hadn’t realized what I had done. I got these names out and I had presented to Phil and he said, “My God, you left out the biggest name of all!” And I said, “Who’s that?” And he said, “Babe Ruth!” I am not going to put Babe Ruth in left field over Ted Williams! I put Babe as my left handed pitcher for one and I have Left Grove as number two. And then for my right handed pitcher I have—and I didn’t even have to look this up—I put Roger Clemens.
It has been fun and I got a big kick out of The Few and The Chosen especially. Teammates was, I think, the start of all this. When Bill wanted to do this book on Mr. Red Sox, why … I wasn’t too keen on it because I never thought I was that big of a star. I was just an average, decent player. Not a great player, but a good player, I thought. But Bill wanted to do it and he said “Let me try it, Johnny.” And he started on it and he submitted it to his publisher and it kind of caught on and it’s done pretty well.
OSC: Can you tell us a bit about growing up in NW Portland, going to Lincoln High School and how baseball fit in with your life back then?
Pesky: We were very fortunate. I went to parochial school. I went to St. Patrick’s on Savior Street. We had a bunch of choir boys that played together. And, when I graduated, I went to Lincoln in southwest Portland. That was great and we took the bus there. And we went to school like every other kid. And we had every type of kid. We had the Americans, we had the Irish, we had the Jewish, we had the Chinese kids and we had the Japanese kids and we got along very, very well.
But the thing that was very important at that high school is that we had good teaching. The history teacher was Wade Williams and he coached football and baseball, of course. And Dave Wright was the basketball coach. You couldn’t find two better men. They were all for the kids and if they needed work they were after them to do this or do that. As a matter of fact, a kid from neighborhood, named John Bubalo was his name. He and I were very close and he became a doctor. He tried to play pro ball but when the war came on he went down to the University of Oregon and got his degree to become a doctor. There was a piece a few months ago about him, because he is retiring I’m sure, and he had delivered 5,000 babies. That’s over a period in the 90’s from the late 40’s.
He was a great kid when he was young. We had some great players. There was a kid named George Walker who I thought was going to be a great big league ballplayer. Vernon Reynolds was another one. Joe Erautt another one. Those names quickly come to mind. The Erautt brothers went to Lincoln High and Joe signed with the Tigers and his brother, Eddie, signed with Cincinnati. So we had some big leaguers in the area. We were well coached and we were well disciplined. I think Wade Williams was responsible for that.
OSC: Carl Mays, who is linked by tragedy in baseball, was none the less, a great pitcher. He also had baseball clinics at the old Jantzen Beach here in Portland. Can you tell me about Carl and those clinics?
Pesky: They were great. He used to get all the kids from age 14 to 16. Donnie Kusch, who I played with at Silverton, he was at Jefferson; he went to that school and the kid that played the best used to get to travel with the Portland Beavers on their next trip. And Donnie Kusch was one of the best players. There were three or four of us, but Donnie was in the running and he was a good ball player. When he played with us on the Silverton [American Legion] team, I thought he was the best player on the team. He went on to the University of Oregon and I went away to play ball right after that year—’38 and ’39. And Don went on to the University of Oregon with Bubalo and Bill Connie and that group.
We had a lot of pretty good players, certainly for a high school. And some of them went pro and did very well. I thought Joe Hiron got hurt when he played. Joe Hiron played catcher. And Reynolds was a good infielder. George Walker was built like Mantle but he got out of high school and he went to Oklahoma City. Where, at a try-out, he made the club in spring training. They kept him and they started the season with him, but after three weeks he got home sick and got back to Bend and never did play pro ball. I thought he was one of the best players. He could run, throw and hit the ball hard and far.
OSC: Can you tell us about the players you met and your time working in the clubhouse at Vaughn St. park with the Beavers? Can you tell us about Rocky Benevetto, and how you wound up working at Vaughn St.?
Pesky: Mr. Benevetto was just great. He was the grounds keeper there and I was still in grammar school. We used to hang out there and we would play catch and stuff. And what Rocky Benevetto would do, especially when we got out of grammar school and when we got into high school, he would give us jobs in the ballpark. There were four or five of us and he gave us specific jobs to do. My job was to keep the bullpens clean. After every game we filled in the dirt and did what was needing attending to. And we would clean off the plate on the hill. That was my job and that went on for a while. Eventually we moved into the clubhouse. When we worked there and the team was on the road, we got to use the field. But we had to do our chores. But working in the clubhouse I did not have to do the chores on the field any more. I had to worry about getting players shoes shined and the clubhouse was clean and that sort of thing. That was our jobs primarily. My brother was helping out and we had a kid on the other side.
I was there in the mid-30’s until I knew I was going away to play ball. I did go out to Bend to play one summer; in ’38, and in ’39 I was in Silverton. Then I decided to go pro. We all wanted to try it and we had some guys that were good players and they all tried to go and play pro ball. We were all Depression babies and we thought this would be a good way of life. And, of course, in those years the salaries weren’t anything like they are today. But someone would give us a start and we would do it with great intensity.
But I enjoyed it and I had a great time in the clubhouse. I met a lot of great players. I first met Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr that way. And Dom DiMaggio came along and five years later we’re on the team together. I had no regrets. If I had it to do all over again I would do the same thing.
Rocky Benedetto had a big part in my life. And Wade Williams had a big part in my life. And the Principal and the teachers.
OSC: When you got to the Red Sox, was there a lot of pressure taking over for Joe Cronin at Shortstop after the long tenure he had at the position?
Pesky: When you’re 21 years old, you would run through a brick wall.
The year before I thought would be my test year because my first year I did pretty well out of high school. But my manager was Heinie Manush who took a great interest and he stayed with me and he made adjustments to me. Heinie Manush led the American League in hitting in 1928 or something like that. He was an older guy. And he took a shine to me for some reason. He saw me at a pepper game and he saw I was choked up on the bat. But before that I would hold the bat on the end. He didn’t say anything for about a week. We had 14 days for spring training. Finally, he called me off to the side and he said “Johnny, you can’t hold the bat on the end like that. These guys will knock the bat out.” I weighed 160 pounds right out of high school. He knew if I could be a middle infielder that I had a chance. He suggested this to me and I took his advice. I choked up on the bat and moved closer to the plate.
I ended up making hits and the next year I thought I would go to Scranton, which is AA ball. Instead I moved all the way to AAA—to Louisville. I went to Louisville the next year and I had a good year there. But my first year at Rocky ball, he took such a liking to me I did so well, I had a great year, he wanted me to go to Boston and have Joe Cronin have a look at me and I had just gotten out of school, I’m 19 years old. He said, “I would like Joe to get a look at ya.” And I told Heinie I just wanted to go home. We played 140 games. I led the league in hits and we were up in the race the whole year.
The next year I went home after the 1940 season and the next year I went to Louisville and I had a good year there. I was very fortunate. It was a good league and I was MVP of the league. I won the MVP by one vote. The guy that should have won the thing was a guy name Ray Starr. He was a pitcher with Indianapolis and they finished in the middle of the race. However, I did get this award and that made me feel pretty good. From that I got a letter from Eddie Collins, the general manager in ’42, and he sent me a contract and I thought it should have been better. So I thought maybe I was aiming too highly. Anyway, one of my oldest brothers was a fidgety guy and he said that if I sent it back they would get mad at me and send you back down to AAA. I said, “Listen, I won’t take it.”
When you sent a contract back in those years — this is something I learned in the clubhouse — always send a note with why you are sending it back. Of course, I gave my reasons and I sent it back. About a week later I got another contract for the same amount. My brother said, “Ah, yeah! They’re gonna send you back down!” Wait a minute now! We haven’t even gotten to spring training. I said I was going to hassle this thing out. So in the letter— they always sent you a letter with the contract—it was from Eddie Collins and he said “Please sign the below contract because we don’t know if you can play in the major leagues.”
So I signed the contract and went to spring training and I was very fortunate. Eddie Pellagrini, who was in San Diego in ‘41, and I was in Louisville in ’41, and Collins treated us very well. He would play Eddie one game and I would play the next. And in the middle of spring training, about 10 or 11 days into spring training, Eddie came up lame and we had to play the Cardinals and Yankees on successive days. And they both trained in St. Petersburg. And in those years we had to take the ferry over. So I went over the first day against the Cardinals and did pretty well. But on the next day, in the game against the Yankees, I made a play where I threw DiMaggio out from the hole. It was quite noticeable and Cronin was quite impressed with it. He didn’t think my arm was strong enough. I could throw alright but I thought I had quickness that you needed. I didn’t have a Chaperra arm, or an A-Rod arm or a Jeter arm. We got back to Norville; we got back to playing Eddie one day and play me the next. And when it went down to when he had to cut to 25 players…. Well, he didn’t say anything to me but he sent Eddie to Louisville. He had to get down and I stayed with the ball club. I thought I would stay with the team until we got to Boston and they would option me out. Well, he started me opening day in Boston and he was concerned I wouldn’t fit the bill. I stayed in and had a pretty good year and led the league in base hits.
OSC: You chose Bobby Doerr as the greatest Red Sox 2B of all time. Bobby lives here in Oregon and you were born and raised here in Portland.
We had the great interview with him in 2002 and, given you’re long relationship with him, Ted Williams and Dominic DiMaggio, can you talk to us about Bobby and how you see him as a person, as well as a baseball player?
Pesky: We got Ted in ’36. Ted and Bobby were the first to come. Then we got Dom and I came a couple of years later. Dom came in ’38 and Ted was optioned to Minneapolis in ’38, but Bobby Doerr stayed with the ball club as an extra. And the next year he became regular. Ted went to Minneapolis in ’38 and had a great year. In ’39 he hit a lot of home runs and became the regular left fielder from that time. That was ’39, 40 and then, in ’41, he hit the.406. That was the year I was in Louisville. I didn’t see that, but I met him the next year and in ’42 he hit .350. With all those home runs and runs batted, he is a great hitter and he could do a lot of things. But Doerr and Dominic, they were so good as people. They were good players and they knew what their roles were. Dominic and I had a great time together. He hit first and I hit second and I should have hit well. They didn’t want to walk me and pitch to Ted. I had a good time and took advantage of it.
OSC: You’ve been involved in a number of key plays in baseball history. The Enos Slaughter play in the ’46 World Series is one, but one that maybe is less known to some baseball fans is Virgil Trucks’ no-hitter in August of ’52 when you were with the Tigers.
Can you tell us about the play with the sharply hit ball by Phil Rizzuto in the 3rd inning and what you thought about the call from the press box by the official scorer to the dugout about the play that changed from an error to a hit and then back to an error?
Pesky: It was a chopper over Trucks’ head in about the 5th or 6th inning. I was playing short that day and the ball was just hit where I could field that ball. I got my fingers stuck in my glove and by the time I could make the play Rizutto was past first base. He thought he had a base hit. Well, they didn’t put a hit up on the scoreboard. Well, the next inning goes by … then the seventh inning goes by … the eighth inning and it said ‘No-no-no’ across the board. I think John Drebinger was the official scorer. He called down to the clubhouse about the eighth inning. Fred Hutchinson was the manager and he said that John wanted to talk to me on the phone. John said, “Johnny, what about that play?” And I said, “That’s an error all the way. I got my finger caught in the webbing of the new glove I got. I should have thrown him out by five or six feet.” So they put up an error and that’s the way it was. But that last guy out in the ninth …. We got the first two guys out easily. Hank Bower was the hitter; I’ll never forget this if I live to be one hundred. Hank Bower hit a shot toward second base and luckily the ball was hit right at Al Federoff. Al throws him out; game over.
So, now we’re in the clubhouse and I was sitting down in the corner. And the reporters were in talking to Virgil. Of course, they came over to ask and I said, “Yeah, it was an error. I told Drebinger about it when he called down.” Virgil came over afterwards to thank me and I told him, ‘You’re my friend. But if you were my worst enemy I wouldn’t mind taking an error for a no-hitter.” That’s the way I put it to him and he thanked me. Virg was a fine man and he normally won 20 games a year, but he only won 13 that year. But he pitched two no-hitters that year, in ’52, ’53, somewhere around there.
A lot of people say I shouldn’t have gotten an error. From my understanding—a couple of guys that pitch in the big leagues now—that if a ball is hit to the right side and Jeter doesn’t handle it properly, they give the guy a hit. Well the guy is what I call a bookkeeper and he tells you this is the way it should be or shouldn’t be. Those guys that used to put everything in the book. I could see how a pitcher would say how he would pitch to a guy. That wasn’t uncommon in the years we played. They studied the hitters and pitchers more so. But even now you have so many more teams and you have so many things going on.
And there’s so much more in it. I mean you’ve got more practice, you get more tutelage and more, what you call psychiatry. I mean even the down side: in the years we played, you wouldn’t bring a psychiatrist in to talk to the ballplayers. That’s ridiculous. If you’ve got something wrong with you mentally, then you’d use them for crying out loud. It was baseball. It was a game of hits, runs and errors. And that’s they way we looked at it. It’s not a sin to commit an error. Hell, I’ve done it. You’re in a tough ball game about the 5th or 6th inning in a 1-1 ballgame and you boot a ball and now you got a man on first with another man at the plate. The ball is hit to you and you throw to second base and you have a double play and the inning is over.
That’s the way you looked at it. If they scored a run then you didn’t come to play. A lot of times you looked at a close ball game and I would sit on top of the plate and then I would get hit with a pitch. It’s a game of inches. It’s a wonderful game and it’s a wonderful livelihood. I’ve been in it all my life and I got training, and I didn’t say a word. And all but six or seven years have been with the Red Sox.
OSC: On “Slaughter’s mad dash”, history shows that it would have been impossible for you to make the play at the plate on Slaughter as he was nearly half way to the plate after Harry Walker’s soft shot over Doerr’s head. But you were the only player to come out and take the heat for the play saying, “Well, if they had to blame somebody and wanted to blame me, well, that was fine with me. I could handle it.”
Pesky: It doesn’t bother me to talk about this. I did what I had to do. If they want to blame me then I accept it. I learned that from when I was a boy in the clubhouse. There was a pitcher, Bill Posedel, that I just loved and he was a father figure and he liked me. He would throw a few bucks my way when I was working in the clubhouse. I love this man. He knew the right way to play ball. He used to come to the ballpark early, and this all goes back to my clubhouse days when I was about 14 or 15 or 16 years of age. “Johnny,” he says, “one thing in this game, it’s the perfect, imperfect game.” That was the first time I had heard that. “If you do something wrong, don’t make any excuses.” I even did this in my minor league days on this play where I was accused of holding the ball. Well, I accepted it. It’s just one of those things that happens to a guy that could have happened to anybody. It happened to Mickey Owen, he was considered a goat. It happened to Lombardi … and all this. They wanted to blame me and I accepted it. Really, Bobby and Dominic defended me and so did Ted.
OSC: I have seen tape of the play, there was no way you could have made the play
Pesky: Oh no. I’ll tell ya what happened is that Dominic came up lame the inning before and Culberson went out to center field. Well, if Culberson would have been playing normally where Dom was, I don’t think Slaughter would have tried. Even Slaughter said that if Dominic was in center field he wouldn’t have even tried it. He had two outs—hold up; we have one of our better hitters leading the inning off. Because that’s the way you looked at it, you always looked ahead.
Enos even said—and I have been to signings with him and everything—that on the train ride back from St. Louis, “I hope they don’t break that kid’s heart.” Well, you start to think about your reputation and you have enough self pride, you just fight back. And I think in ’47 I had a pretty good year. I had 200 hits.
It’s just one of those things that happened and it has happened to better players than me. I can still hear Bill Posedel in the back of my head say, “Accept the responsibility, whether you like it or not.” And all in all I have no qualms about it. If they want to blame me, I’ll accept it.
For a while I was sensitive about it, but after talking to my wife and thinking about it I thought I was nuts to let this thing bother me. And you kind of put it out of your mind, but it’s still in the back of your head. I just had to battle back and play harder, work harder. I don’t care how good the player is or who the player is, there are going to be plays the player regrets. Whenever you are in a play where a play has to be made, naturally you are going to take more time and think about it. “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.” Ha!
OSC: Do you think that if Dominic had been playing in center if the throw would have been to home, instead of to you at Short?
Pesky: In the first place, Culberson was in right-center, Dom used to play Walker in left-center. There is about a 30-40 foot difference. I think Slaughter might have tried to go third base, but I don’t think he would have tried to score. Slaughter himself said that.
The last games of the ’49 season against the Yankees … still a bit tough I imagine. That final game of the season has so much to it …; the early 4-0 lead …; Joe Page not being especially sharp at first but then getting sorted out from the 5th on, just so much in that game…
OSC: Can you touch on the game, and do you think that Joe McCarthy made the right moves in the game, especially putting in Tex Hughson, who hadn’t thrown in weeks at the end of the game? Was the wind out of Red Sox sails after losing that final game of the season and having to play that playoff game?
Pesky: When the manager, in those years, said something it was Gospel. I remember in the 20’s and 30’s Connie Mack used a guy name Howard Ehmke in the middle of the [World] Series. And they were one game down or two games down and he went on to win a ball game. And the A’s went on to win the ballgame. That was in the late 20’s or early 30’s when Connie Mack had those great teams with the Athletics. (editors note: It was Game One of the 1929 World Series against the Cubs. Ehmke had only pitched 55 innings in the regular season and proceeded to strike out a World Series record 13 batters for a 3-1 win. Source: MLB.com)
But, when the manager makes that decision, we all thought as players, because we had tied the day before … we thought that Parnell was going to be the pitcher. Then Parnell went to McCarthy and he wanted to pitch. And he (McCarthy) said “No. This guy is ready to pitch.” And he pitched a hell of a game the time before. One time Tex was pitching and he was a good pitcher. We felt that if we had problems with him, they would just score a lot of runs early in the game. Indeed Gene Bearden [of the Cleveland Indians] won all those games that year (1948, ed.). And I remember Ted Williams saying: “This guy won’t win 10 games again.” And two years later he was in the minor leagues.
Well, [the Yankees had] clobbered us pretty good [beating the Red Sox 10-5 at Fenway on the last day of the season in 1948, producing a tie for the Red Sox with Cleveland.] Rizzuto had three doubles in that game.
I think the final score of that [playoff game against Cleveland] game was 8-2 or something like that. (Editor’s note: the actual score was 8-3.) Dominic had a few hits. But he (Gene Bearden) had that knuckle curve. When we saw what he was winding up with, we thought this was going to be duck soup. Well, gee whiz, Boudreau had a great day. Joe Gordon had a great day. Dobby had a great day. They just clobbered us … just beat us. They didn’t just clunk a few hits here and there, they hit the ball hard. I think McCarthy used two or three pitchers. I really don’t like to think about those times.
OSC: How did you feel about moving to 3B after the Red Sox acquired Vern Stephens and Joe McCarthy placed him at SS? Word has it that McCarthy did it to spite the press.
Pesky: Well, when you’re the manager, you’re the guy running the club. Of course Stephens was a shortstop too. Vern and I talked in the clubhouse for four or five days before and he came over and said “Johnny, Mr. McCarthy wants you.” So I went in and he said “Johnny, I want you to go to third base and take some ground balls over there.” So I thought I would be there for two days. But I think I played there every game that spring because I was moved to third base. And I used to take ground balls day after day after day. Every day Paul Shriver, our batting practice pitcher, he would hit balls to me every day … maybe 100 to 150 ground balls. And then I would get ready for the game. See, when you’re 24, 25, 26 years of age you can do that.
OSC: What pitcher gave you the most trouble in your career?
Pesky: Sure, there were a few guys … I hit them, but I never hit them as well as I would have liked to. I had trouble with a guy named [Spud] Chandler. I knew him from my clubhouse days. He was a mean guy. But most of those guys knew how to pitch to areas. They would knock you off the plate and come inside. They wouldn’t throw up by your head though—at your waist on down. A lot of times in tough ball games, even in the middle or late innings, I would turn in to make sure I got on base. I would get hit in the leg or in the fanny. But we learned. We had the greatest hitter that ever lived named Ted Williams. And even with two outs we didn’t want Ted leading off. I remember a lot of times—not a lot but many times—I would bunt with two outs.
If I was playing now with a guy hitting .400 hitting behind you, you try and hit a double and put yourself in scoring position. But with a guy like Williams, this is what Joe McCarthy and Cronin used to advocate. Regardless of how many outs, we don’t want Ted leading an inning off. If he hit a ball in the corner, you could score from first base. And a lot of times he hit the ball out of the ballpark and you would pick up two runs.
But this is the way it worked. Dominic and I had a hit-and-run play and a bunt-and-run play. And we were very successful with it.
OSC: Let me throw out some names and give us some thoughts on the players:
Mo Vaughn—Wonderful kid … wonderful young man. Mo was a talent to praise because he led the league for two or three year in home runs and RBI’s. He was a great young player. He did so much for our community. And then there was some bad feeling there and he got his free agency and then he went to Anaheim and he got that big contract. Then he gets hurt badly and they think he is alright and he goes to the Mets and gets hurt even worse and eventually had to get out of the game. If he would have played four or five more years, there’s no telling how many more home runs he would have hit. I mean he hit balls a ton! He would strike out some, but not as much as you would think. He worked at the plate and he worked at first base. He would take ground balls and he would field pretty well. And a great kid. I just loved him. He was a great kid in the clubhouse, outgoing, highly educated. He went to Seton Hall with Biggio and those guys.
Carl Yastrzemski—Great player. As far as I’m concerned Yastrzemski has to be one of the best players to ever play here. That’s my opinion. We had Williams, we had Doerr, DiMaggio and all those great guys. I don’t know about the turn of the century—Speaker, Hooper and those guys. Babe Ruth too. For me just watching a guy every day you watch what he can do. Well Yastrzemski could hit, he could run and he could throw. He could do everything. And he could hit the ball out of the ballpark. To me, he and Williams were the two greatest players I ever saw.
Nomar Garciaparra—He’s a pretty damn good player. He’s a great kid and he’s very thorough. He’s a thoroughbred in my book. You never see him loaf. He’s not a guy that yaps a lot. He’s never made any excuses that I know of. He’s just a wonderful kid. God almighty, I would love to have a boatload of those guys.
Rico Petrocelli—Oh, good player. You could see it coming, how great he was. He’s the only shortstop in Red Sox history to hit 40 home runs. He was a fine, fine player. He too moved from shortstop to third base and made the All-Star team as a third baseman. Petrocelli was an exceptional player.
Pedro Martinez—He’s wonderful. But Clemens is my guy.
Don Zimmer—Very good baseball guy. He knew the game as well as anybody. He was a players’ manager. He would never get all over a player. He was always very thorough with his coaches. When you have 25 guys under your command, you have to use common sense. He has great common sense. Zimmer knows the game as well as anybody. He’s a wonderful man. Don Zimmer, in my opinion, is as fine a man as and knew the game as much as anybody around. That includes Cronin, McCarthy, Stengel. That’s how much I think about Don Zimmer.
Roger Clemens—I have been here all these years and I have seen great pitchers. I wasn’t here for Grove and that gang. But this kid came in here out of Texas University and you could see. The one thing that he did was pitch. He just pitched and pitched and pitched. He had the greatest arm of anyone I have ever known. If I had to compare him to anyone it would be Tom Seaver. But even Clemens is better than Seaver. And he’s proven it. He’s won over 300 games. He’s just a wonderful man. He works hard.
OSC: How did you get word that you were going to be retained with the Red Sox when the club was sold in 2002?
Pesky: Well at the time, I knew that the ball club was sold and when a ball club is sold you’re thinking about what can happen. And there are a lot of those that worked for the ball club and they weren’t so sure if they were going to be retained.
And I think Mr. Henry, Mr. Lucchino, and Mr. Epstein kept a lot of people on. And I happened to be one of those people. I happened to be at a speaking date when Mr. Henry called the house, and when my wife was still here, she answered the phone. So, Mr. Henry asked for me, and she told him I was at this speaking engagement. So she asked, “Can I help you?” He said, “Yes. I want you to let Johnny know we want him to stay with the ball club.”
OSC: Let’s talk about the 2004 World Series for a second… What was going through your mind during the ALCS when they were down 0-3 against the Yankees? Did you think that had a chance to pull it off?
Pesky: Oh yeah. The thing about a short series like that is, if you win one or two ballgames quickly… you never give up in baseball. I didn’t. So many things can happen. You turn around and we won four games in a row
I’ve seen so many things happen in games. You can be up 10,12 runs and the next thing you know you look up in the 9th and it’s a tied game. And you go 14 or 15 innings and you’re down and you can’t believe you lose.
OSC: What was the feeling you got during Game 4 of the World Series?
Pesky: What happened in ’04… It was like you were in the land of ecstasy, you know. Everything that happened for a week or so afterwards was like going to Heaven. That’s the only way that I can describe it. You know it felt pretty darn good because it took a long time coming.
OSC: What was the feeling in the clubhouse after the game? How did the players embrace you?
Pesky: Oh, yeah. Everybody was huggin’ and kissin’ and everyone was cryin’. And I know in my case it was the first time that I had ever won anything.
The thing I remember was Schilling picked me up and put me down and gave me a smack on the chops. And I go around the corner, and here comes Ron Jackson, the hitting coach… I never saw anybody cry so hard like that. And he said, “I couldn’t believe anything like this could happen,” but it did happen and we won. That’s the way it turned out.
OSC: How did you get word that you were going to raising the World Series banner with Yaz and how did you feel about that?
Pesky: Well, I felt pretty good. I didn’t know about it until Yaz and I were on the field. And they said Yaz and I were going to raise the flag. And well, I felt pretty good about it! He (Yaz) was one of the best players we ever had around here. You have to put him in a class with the likes of Ted Williams and guys like that. But, this is something that rarely happens. But I was quite tickled that they asked me to do it. I don’t know who the one was that started all that stuff on who should do what, but I was just glad to be there. I would have been glad to just stand on the side and just watch (chuckles).
But raising the flag with Carl, wow… He’s one of the great players in all the world. He and Ted Williams were the best players in the history of the club.
OSC: What do you think of everything that has happened with the Red Sox this off-season with Epstein leaving the club, and now coming back?
Pesky: Theo coming back… it was the greatest thing that could have happened to this ballclub. He’s a bright young man, and I don’t know what happened in the first place. Here’s a guy that came to this club that’s really a thoroughbred. He came through the ranks, and he’s smart… intelligent… he’s recognizable, and he’s got a God-given talent.
OSC: I have to ask… It was reported that you said that you’d run naked on the field at Fenway if the Red Sox ever won the World Series.
Pesky: Oh, I said that stupidly. (chuckles)
OSC: (chuckling) Well, there are those that wonder if maybe you were able to go out on the field privately…
Pesky: Well if I would have I would have gone out on the field in my underwear… I would have never done that naked. I might have done it in shorts. I’m simple, but I’m not that simple.
We were taught that you were to respect the public and if you didn’t you were out the door…
OSC: Portland is working toward a Major League club. What are your feelings about Portland, and do you see it being capable of hosting Major League Baseball?
Pesky: How big is Portland now?
OSC: 2.3 million in the metro area
Pesky: There is no reason Portland could not have Major League Baseball. They will need a new ballpark. But what Portland always had was great fans. I haven’t been back in 5 years, and the growth has been phenomenal. I looked at what’s gone in in what is now the Pearl District, and it’s simply amazing the transformation. Portland is bigger than more than a few other cities that host Major League Baseball, why shouldn’t Portland have a club?
I think they should have a shot. I think Portland will have a team in 3 or 4 years.