Fans pay last respects to Johnny Pesky
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
LYNN — Johnny Pesky wasn’t one to forget important bits of baseball trivia. But a few years ago, talking to his friend John Hoffman, he drew a blank when asked to identify the first player to have garnered 200 hits in the first three consecutive years of his career.
“He looked at me and said to me, ‘Who did that?’ ” recalled Hoffman, 73. Pesky’s face was bewildered. “ ‘Did I do that?’ ”
For a man known as one of the most humble in baseball, Sunday’s wake — open to the public — was a fitting match for the no-frills, welcoming character beloved by his legions of fans. Pesky died last Monday at the age of 92.
Red Sox alumni Dwight Evans and Trot Nixon, along with Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt, were among those who arrived Saturday or early Sunday to pay their last respects.
But Sunday afternoon was all about fans: Several hundred streamed into Solimine, Landergan and Richardson Funeral Home to gaze upon the resting Pesky, leave flowers or gifts, and chat with Pesky’s son, David. Many arrived decked in Red Sox jerseys and bearing signed baseballs or framed photos of the iconic player.
Among them: Marsha Forman of Marblehead, 82, palming a yellowing baseball inscribed with tight cursive: “Marsha — Just a doll. Your pal, Johnny Pesky.”
“Johnny was a good man,” Forman declared.
In front of the funeral home stood a bouquet of red carnations, arranged in the shape of a 6 — Pesky’s number, which the Red Sox retired in 2008.
“He was such a warm character,” said Hoffman. “He was almost like one of the seven dwarfs. You could just walk up to him and give him a hug any time.”
Joanne Roach and her 15-year-old son, Brent Clarke, live in northern Virginia but are proud members of the Red Sox diaspora. With a trip planned to Massachusetts, they knew they could not miss the opportunity to say a final farewell.
“He’s just such a great inspiration to the youth,” Roach said. “He really instilled in people the value of kindness, of generosity.”
Some marveled that such a legend — a contemporary of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio — was still making appearances at Fenway Park this year.
“He’s Boston. He’s the Red Sox,” said Brenda Ellsworth, 29, of Lynn. “I’m just sad he died this year, when they’re not doing so hot.”
Pesky loved baseball, and the sport loved him back. It wasn’t unusual for Pesky to watch a doubleheader at Fenway Park, Hoffman said, then stop at a bar on his way home to catch another televised game.
Guy Spina of North Reading has worked for the Red Sox for 38 years, most recently as an attendant in the press box, where he and Pesky chatted during games. Even if he stayed for only two or three innings, Spina said, Pesky “had to get his Red Sox fix.”
“He knew everything there was to know,” Spina said. “He could tell you all these facts about some obscure June 1949 game in Chicago.”
John Delmore, 78, came to the wake to say his own goodbye to Pesky — but he also came on behalf of his mother, a devoted Red Sox fan her whole life. Pesky was her favorite. In the midst of World War II — as Pesky and other baseball players took leave from the game to enlist in the military — Delmore’s mother told her young son stories about the brilliant shortstop.
“Wait till all the great players return from the war,” he said she told him, “and wait till you see my boy Pesky.”
But while Pesky was recognized for his on-field prowess, mourners talked most about his generosity and charity work in the years after he retired from the field.
Several years ago, Pesky paid a visit to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, said Al Malagrifa, 79, former principal of Lynn Vocational Tech Institute. He greeted each student individually, Malagrifa said, remembering each name. When the students sang him “Sweet Caroline,” Pesky wiped tears from his eyes.
“He was so generous, but he always did things quietly,” said Rose McCarthy, 76, of Marblehead. She recalled that Pesky donated signed caps and T-shirts to Nancamp, a summer day camp program for children suffering from cancer. “I just thought that was so wonderful.”
For 14-year-old Victoria Glidden of Lynn, saying goodbye to Pesky was hard — she pressed her palms to her eyes as she exited the funeral home. A fervent Red Sox fan with shelves in her bedroom lined with team memorabilia, she admired Pesky from afar: Some of Pesky’s family lived across the street from her, so she occasionally spotted him when he came for visits.
Four years ago, she heard the doorbell ring. There was Pesky, with a signed cap and baseball. For her.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re on my porch,’ ” said Victoria. “He was just such a good person.”
Now, in her bedroom, the Johnny Pesky baseball has a shelf all to itself.Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.