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Johnny Pesky remembered

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I've been thinking about Johnny Pesky lately -- for no special reason, really. It's just that old guys like me like to muse once in a while about the long vanished days of our boyhoods.

Johnny was one of the four pillars on which the great Red Sox teams of the post-war period were built. The others were Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and Bobby Doerr.

Johnny considered himself lucky just to know the other three, let alone to play alongside them. He was totally devoid of ego, not that he didn't have an understanding of his own gifts as a ballplayer. When he was a rookie during his first spring training, he was especially nervous about meeting Ted Williams, only a year older than Johnny but already famous -- and famously volatile. Johnny was sitting in the clubhouse with some other players when in came Williams, larger -- and louder -- than life. He pulled up a chair next to Johnny and pronounced, "So you're our new shortstop. You can help us if you can hit .280." Johnny surprised even himself when he blurted out, ".280? Hell, I can bunt .280!" And he could, too. He led the league in base hits with more than 200 of them in each of his first three seasons with the Red Sox.

Williams, DiMaggio, Doerr, and Pesky were to kids like me the great gods of Red Sox baseball, unknowable and unreachable but with superhuman powers. But then a miracle happened. Sam Mele got married. The Red Sox right fielder married Connie Clemons, the most beautiful girl in Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Quincy -- and here's the miraculous part: I was chosen to be one of the altar boys. This was my chance to see at least some of my heroes up close and personal. The wedding took place in January so those teammates who lived in the area year-round would be in attendance -- and that included Johnny Pesky. But my good fortune of being an altar boy at the wedding turned to utter frustration when, that very morning, while playing basketball in the neighbor's driveway, my glasses got knocked off and one of the lenses was shattered -- this was in the days before they were unbreakable. But the show must go on, and the wedding, too. I was on the altar without my glasses and a lot of Red Sox were in the congregation -- including Johnny. At least that's what I was told. As far as I was concerned, they all were just an out-of-focus blur.

I did get to see Johnny and all the others up close the next summer, though. That's when I started collecting autographs in and around Fenway Park. I never saw Johnny turn down a request. We'd say, "Mr. Pesky, would you sign this please?" and he'd say as he was signing, "There's no 'mister' at the ballpark. You call me Johnny, okay?" And we'd reply, "Okay. Thank you, Mr. Pesky." Seventy years later, he was still signing every autograph, and still telling kids to call him Johnny.

Johnny was taught as a young boy that you never shift the blame for a play gone wrong onto a teammate even if he'd been the one responsible. So when Enos Slaughter made his "mad dash" home to win the 1946 World Series for the St.Louis Cardinals, he took full blame rather than point out that substitute centerfielder Leon Culberson had been late retrieving the ball and then made a casual lob back to the infield, which gave Slaughter his opening. It was, as far as Johnny was concerned, a cardinal rule of the game that you never blame a teammate, and he always played by the rules.

When he was unexpectedly traded to Detroit, he was heartbroken and was never the same player he had been with the Red Sox.

When his playing days were over, he eventually came back to Boston as a manager, coach, broadcaster, and -- always -- a goodwill ambassador. His time as manager was not always happy. He often butted heads with general manager Mike Higgins, who never gave him his full support. For some reason, Higgins did not like Johnny's pitching coach, Harry 'Fritz' Dorish, and he ordered Pesky to fire him. Johnny, who knew Dorish to be an excellent coach who got along well with the players, fought the move but eventually he obeyed the general manager's order -- to his everlasting regret. He thought he should have stood his ground against Higgins. It probably would have cost Johnny his own job, but, as he saw it, it would have been the right thing to do.

When I managed to find a job on television delivering off-beat, humorous commentaries -- at least I thought they were humorous -- I became a regular on the banquet circuit. That's when I got to know Johnny pretty well. If a dinner had a sports theme you could be sure Johnny would be there, telling stories about the old days with Ted and Dom and Bobby. He still couldn't believe that he was their friend and that they actually liked him. Everybody liked Johnny.

It got to the point where I used to make regular trips from my home in Quincy up to the Salem Diner just to have breakfast with him and his pals. You have to really like a guy to drive through the heart of Boston in the middle of the morning commuter rush hour just to share a plate of bacon and eggs, but it was worth it.

Without a doubt, the high point of the hot stove season every year was the annual Pesky Friendship Dinner held in Lynn. It started as a couple of his friends inviting him to dinner before he left for spring training, but others heard about it and wanted in. It eventually swelled to a total of 400 diners, who sold out the banquet hall where it was held. The organizers wanted to move it to Downtown Boston, where they could accommodate more people, but Johnny said no, it was just for his friends in Lynn. The dinner became a 50-year tradition and never moved out of Lynn.

The truth is if they wanted to accommodate all his friends they could have sold out Fenway Park several times over. Weren't we lucky to have had him in our midst for so many years?

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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