I used to tell people, if you ever wanted a vicarious ego boost, walk into a crowded room with Johnny Pesky. I was only half-joking. The immediate reaction Johnny would receive was unlike just about anything I had ever seen or heard for anyone else. It was as heart-warming and genuine as it was loud.
It was also well-deserved.
After writing a book with Johnny a few years ago, I had the pleasure and honor of walking into crowded rooms with him on several occasions. I consider myself very fortunate to have had that vicarious experience.
I consider myself even more fortunate to have called Johnny Pesky a friend. I am certain the world especially the baseball world will never see another like him.
Growing up in Lynn, I often heard about Johnny Pesky, even though his playing days were done by then. The Oregon native had become an adopted and favorite -- son of the North Shore. Marrying a Lynn girl, they adopted a son, and had a large extended family. One of the first times I saw Johnny Pesky around town was in church, sitting at the end of my pew. I was pretty young at the time, but I was old enough to know who he was. It was probably my father who pointed him out to me. Im pretty sure I probably behaved a little better in Mass that day. Later in life, I told Johnny that story, drawing a loud laugh from him. He said, "Tell you parents I said Youre welcome.
Johnny added to his family with the friends he attracted throughout his life. These were people from all walks and ages. It didnt matter to Johnny how much money you made, how old you were, what you did for a living, the color of your skin, or if you were a woman covering baseball. If he liked you, he liked you. And there werent too many people he didnt like.
And, if he did like you, you could tell by the wisecracks youd get from him. That, too, didnt matter who you were. But, it was all in jest. Johnny almost never uttered a negative word.
He had an impressive baseball career a .307 average, with a .394 on-base percentage over 10 seasons. In 1,270 games, he struck out just 218 times. He led the American League in base hits three times his first three seasons, when he had over 200 hits each year and was among the top 10 in on-base percentage in six of his 10 season. The Rookie of the Year Award did not exist in 1942, but he would have been an excellent candidate for it, with a .331 average, 105 runs scored, a .375 OBP, and .416 slugging percentage.
He also would have been an excellent candidate for the Hall of Fame, too, if he hadnt given up three full seasons to military service, enlisting in the Navy during World War II when he was 23.
Throughout his life, though, Johnny steadfastly maintained he would have done nothing differently. Serving his country was the right thing to do. He had a good life, a happy life, and hed be the first to tell you that, he always said.
Johnny began his career as a clubhouse kid for a team in Portland, where he shined shoes for players such as Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, who would later become his teammates and lifelong friends. Johnny never won a World Series as player but, with Carl Yastrzemski, raised the Red Sox 2004 World Series banner on Opening Day in 2005 at Fenway Park.
Johnnys association with the Red Sox spanned seven decades as a player, coach, manager, minor league instructor, broadcaster, and all-around goodwill ambassador. He was easily the most popular person to ever put on a Red Sox uniform. Kids whose parents never even saw Johnny play were awed to meet him.
One of my favorite stories about Johnny isnt even mine. Its my Dads. In the hospital as a young boy, my father told my grandmother he couldnt talk to her because the Red Sox were on the radio and Ted Williams was on-deck, meaning Johnny was at-bat. When I told Johnny the story, he replied, I better have gotten on-base or that expletive would have killed me! Johnny could refer to Williams as an expletive in a way that only lifelong friends can.
Meeting Johnny for breakfast or sitting in his living room on a snowy winter day listening to him talk baseball, the stories he could tell, the names he could drop without a hint of being a name-dropper were truly a joy. But, he made sure it wasnt just about him, asking about me, my family, other friends, how everyone was doing, like a good friend does.
Up until recent years, when the trip became too arduous for him, Johnny would sit for hours in uniform every day on a folding chair in the Fort Myers sun signing autographs. He would continue signing as long as there was someone who wanted his signature. The line often moved slowly as Johnny chatted, asking questions of those who sought his signature, taking pictures with them, or signing multiple items for the folks in line. He never charged a dime. Wouldnt think of it.
With Johnnys passing, its the end of an era. For baseball. For the Red Sox. For all his friends. He will truly be missed.
Godspeed, Johnny. Youve earned it.