Fenway Park’s famed Pesky Pole is less the legacy of a single home run in 1948 than a tribute to Johnny Pesky, the Boston Red Sox Beloved Baseball Ambassador. For decades he was as well known — and loved — in Boston as Faneuil Hall or Old Ironsides.
Johnny Pesky was born John Michael Paveskovich on Sept. 27, 1919, the son of Croatian immigrants in Portland, Ore. His name was shortened during his baseball career to fit into the box score, and he changed it officially in 1947. “My mother was pretty mad,” he said.
He had a lifetime batting average of .307 and was often a league leader in on-base percentage, though he hit only 17 home runs in his career. Some of those were hit near the right-field foul pole, which today marks the shortest distance for a home run in Major League baseball.
The Pesky Pole
Red Sox pitcher Mel Parnell gave it the nickname, Pesky said, because he won a game for him in 1948 with a home run around the pole. For years it was unofficially known as the Pesky Pole until Pesky’s 87th birthday in 2006, when the Red Sox officially dedicated it with a plaque.
In 1940, he was offered a $2,500 bonus to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals, but chose the Boston Red Sox at $500 a year. He decided on Boston because his parents were so impressed with scout Ernie Johnson. They felt he’d look out for their middle son. (He also brought flowers for Mrs. Pesky and bourbon for Mr. Pesky.)
For most of the next six decades, Johnny Pesky was a fixture at Fenway Park as player, coach, manager, announcer, special assistant to the general manager and Beloved Baseball Ambassador.
He became the Red Sox star shortstop during the ‘40s and ‘50s, teaming up with second-baseman Bobby Doerr in one of the best double-play combinations of the era. The lifelong friendship among teammates Pesky, Doerr, Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio was chronicled by David Halberstam in his book, The Teammates.
Pesky lost three prime playing years to World War II – and before that, three nights a week during the season to train for naval aviation training. Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey rewarded his service by giving him a $5,000 bonus — enough for his parents to buy a house.
From 1943-45 he served in the Navy. He met his wife, Ruth C. Hickey of Lynn, Mass., at Gordon Field Naval Air Base in Atlanta, where they were both stationed. Ruth was a Machinist Mate 1st Class whose job was to start airplane engines. They were happily married for 60 years.
He spent most of his life on Boston’s North Shore, in Lynn and Swampscott. He was a ubiquitous community booster who hosted 400 people at the annual Johnny Pesky Friendship Dinner. With his contemporaries, he frequented local restaurants, such as the International House of Pancakes in Swampscott, as ‘chairman’ of the ‘Breakfast Club.’ He devoted countless hours to raising money for the Jimmy Club and other charities. And he prided himself on never saying no to a kid who wanted an autograph, no matter how old the kid.
For years he appeared as a spokesman in the deliberately corny ‘Window Boys’ commercials for J.B. Sash & Door. (Watch one of his old commercials here.)
The St. Louis Cardinals
The low point of Johnny Pesky’s career came in the eighth inning of the last game of the 1946 World Series. The score was tied 3-3 between Boston and St. Louis when Enos Slaughter made his mad dash from first to home to score the winning run. Pesky seemed to hold the ball on the relay before throwing home. St. Louis catcher Joe Garagiola later said Pesky couldn’t have thrown Slaughter out anyway.
He went home to Portland after the game and didn’t leave his house for five weeks. Finally he emerged. In a 1979 Boston Globe interview, he said, “If you’re a palooka, you’ve got to live with it.”
Sixty-eight years later, the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in four games. Johnny Pesky helped hoist the World Series banner the following spring. And in April 2012 when Fenway Park celebrated its 100th birthday, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr were the center of attention, side by side in wheelchairs at second base.
Johnny Pesky died at 93 on Aug. 13, 2012 in Danvers, Mass.