Johnny Pesky lived, breathed Red Sox

BOSTON -- He was born -- Sept. 27, 1919 -- on the day Babe Ruth played his last game in a Boston Red Sox uniform. He was teammates with Ted Williams, managed Yaz and Tony C., sparred with Dick Stuart, shared a microphone with Ned Martin, coached Jim Rice and Fred Lynn, hit fungoes to Nomar, wept tears of joy with Tim Wakefield and Curt Schilling, and with Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr this past April was an honored guest at the 100th anniversary of Fenway, escorted to the center of the diamond by Jason Varitek and David Ortiz.

More than anybody else, Johnny Pesky embodied the Red Sox. More than anybody else, Johnny Pesky loved the Red Sox. More than anybody else, Johnny Pesky shared that love with anyone who ever asked for a picture, an autograph, a smile, a story. And often, you didn't even have to ask.

On Monday, just more than a month before his 93rd birthday, Johnny Pesky died in the Danvers, Mass., hospice in which he'd spent the final months of his life, slipping in and out of the fog of memory.

The Red Sox lost the greatest ambassador they ever had, and a damn good ballplayer too, a shortstop who had 200 hits in each of his first three seasons, a lifetime batting average of .307 and, like Williams, might have put up even gaudier numbers if he hadn't joined the Navy during World War II.

The rest of us lost one of our own, a guy who decided long ago he wanted to remain in the neighborhood, who spent the better part of six decades living in the same middle-class Swampscott house, married for 42 years to the same woman, his Ruthie, whose death preceded his in 2005, and who never embraced the notion that playing for the Red Sox entitled him to the prerogatives of royalty.

For Pesky, VIP treatment meant a table at the Salem Diner, where every morning, Monday to Friday (breakfast on the weekend was reserved for Ruthie), he would gather with a motley assortment of friends -- Earl the lawyer from Marblehead and Joe the shipbuilder from Swampscott and Buzz the peddler from Beverly and Bob the court clerk from Salem. There they would swap stories, and tease Georgia the waitress, and take turns paying the bill. Earl Weissman, the lawyer, of course, kept track of whose turn it was.

Weissman remembered Pesky when he still lived on Western Avenue in Lynn and used to come into the hardware store that Weissman's father ran. How did Weissman become part of this breakfast club? "Johnny said, 'Sit your butt down and talk to us. You don't need a blood test.'"

Weissman told me some years ago, "That was my initiation. It was like, 'You're in.'"

Pesky loved the uniform. Up until the very last years, he had his own locker in the Red Sox clubhouse in Fenway Park, and even after he stopped hitting ground balls in spring training could still be found encamped in a folding chair near the box-seat railings to engage a receiving line of fans.

But no one ever made that uniform more accessible. It didn't matter if you were Mo Vaughn or a fantasy camper living out a middle-aged dream of playing for the Sox, Pesky had time for you. If you were lucky, he'd tease you, because that was part of the game Pesky always treasured, the give-and-take of ballyard humor in which everyone was considered fair game, especially when you were the son of a Croat immigrant with a long last name (Paveskovich) and a prominent nose. (Williams delighted in calling him "Needle" or "Needle Nose.")

Johnny liked to tell of how Williams would threaten to thrash him if he ever swung at a 3-and-1 pitch, even though that was a hitter's count, because Williams wanted to make sure Pesky was on base ahead of him, and a walk might be a more likely outcome if Pesky didn't get too eager.

Oh, there were a couple of things that were off-limits, even for Johnny. You didn't joke about the famous play in the 1946 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in which Enos Slaughter scored from first while Pesky was said to have hesitated before throwing home. He considered that a bum rap.

You didn't mention Dan Duquette, the general manager who in 1997 banished Pesky from the dugout (he was allowed back by the new ownership group). And you stayed clear of bringing up Dick Stuart, who tormented Pesky when he was manager.

Once, Stuart ignored a bunt sign Pesky gave him. The late Dick Radatz used to tell the story of what happened when Pesky confronted him. "Stuart said, 'Let me tell you something, Needle. I get paid to do one thing on this ballclub, and I do it very well, and that's hit the ball out of the ballpark. Don't you ever give me the bunt sign again as long as you live.'"

But Pesky loved the promise of the kids coming up through the system -- he spent parts of his summers with the Red Sox minor league teams in Lowell and Pawtucket -- and he'd collar you and tell you about that "tough little S.O.B. Pedroia" and "this kid Ellsbury, who runs like the wind and comes from my home state, Oregon." And he reserved a special place in his heart for Nomar Garciaparra, who poignantly leaned over his wheelchair and embraced him at the Fenway centennial.

It meant something to Johnny that they made it official a few years ago and named the right-field foul pole the Pesky Pole, that they named a minor league field for him in Fort Myers, that they retired his number 6, the only Red Sox player who isn't in the Hall of Fame to have his number retired.

But no moment in his career comes close to the champagne shower he received, weeping, in St. Louis in 2004, when the Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

He was deeply moved at how those so-called "Idiots" treated him with such affection. "They treat me like a king," Pesky said. "Lowe, Schilling, Myers, Manny, Ortiz, they all give me hugs, like you only used to get from your family.''

For years, Pesky's friends staged a dinner in his honor every January in a restaurant in Lynn. Friends and cronies, old teammates such as Eddie Pellagrini and the occasional scribe or two would gather to tell stories and swap lies and roar with laughter.

In some ways, it was an odd tradition -- c'mon, how many times do you have to honor a guy? -- but with Johnny, it was always perfect. Because he had a way of turning it inside out and making everybody else in the room feel special, because he'd tell you how lucky he was to have played for the Sox, lived here and all these years later to still be a part of it, and who ever had a better group of pals than he did?

No, Johnny, we were the lucky ones.