History class in session
Sox legends bat around some golden memories at Hall of Fame
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- In a way, they have become museum pieces themselves, living embodiments of a past that soon will be summoned only by faded photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings, and grainy newsreels.
Bobby Doerr turned 87 a month ago. Johnny Pesky will be 86 in September. Dom DiMaggio is 88.
Old men. Old friends. Old ballplayers. Telling old stories Sunday night in an old-fashioned theater in baseball's Hall of Fame, sitting on a small stage in front of a backdrop made to look like the grandstand of an old ballpark. Adding flesh and voice and memory to the times of their lives, when they wore the same Red Sox uniform, fought in the same war, and left their youth on the same bejeweled diamond in the Fens.
Will there ever be teammates quite like these three, whose story was told so beautifully by David Halberstam in the context of their affection for the one they all believed was larger than life but who was the first of the friends to depart?
''Ted had a habit of getting on a soapbox," DiMaggio said, ''and holding the entire team captive in the clubhouse. While Ted was giving a long spiel, I'm sitting in a locker nearby, and I have a great big grin on my face. In the middle of his speech, Ted turns around and says, 'Dom, you think I'm full of it, don't you?'
''I said, 'Ted, why would you say that?' He said, 'I can tell, you got that silly grin on your face.' Then he went right on with his spiel. Didn't bother him at all."
Long after they were through playing, DiMaggio said, he was with Williams in Winter Haven, Fla., where the Sox once trained, when Williams paid him a big compliment. ''Ted said, 'Dom, you've done very well with your life.' I said, 'Ted, what about you? Don't you think you've done something with your life?' He said, 'No, not really,' and he meant it.
''I looked at him and said, 'Teddy, don't let me ever hear you say that again. You've accomplished more in your lifetime than 99 and 9/10 percent of the CEOs and company presidents out there. You've been your own man, you've served your country not once, but twice. You almost gave your life to your country. You took what was handed to you, you took it, you swallowed it and you spat it out. Don't let me ever hear you say that again.'
''Next time I saw him was two years later, at the opening of his museum. I said to him, 'Now do you believe? He had a great big grin and said, 'Yes.' But he had to have a museum built for him."
A man in the audience, displaying the kind of knowledge typical of the most ardent Sox fan, asked Doerr how it came to pass that he gave up the No. 9 that would be immortalized by Williams.
''Numbers weren't that big a deal back then," Doerr said. ''They gave me No. 9 in 1937, then for some reason I got No. 6 in 1938 and when Ted came up in 1939, I got No. 1.
''I said to Ted later, 'You think that number up there [on the Fenway facade] is retired for you?"
Doerr, like Williams, has his own number retired at Fenway Park, befitting his status as a Hall of Famer. Pesky and DiMaggio, Doerr said, should be there with him. He pointed out that their careers lacked Hall credentials primarily because they lost prime years while serving in the Navy in World War II.
''What you're saying then, Bobby," DiMaggio said dryly, ''is that Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky were penalized for serving their country? That's a pretty sad epitaph."
Pesky, the one who has yet to give up the game and won't until he takes his least breath, recalled being a kid in Oregon and going to see the barnstorming Negro league teams play.
''Oh my God, they were wonderful players," Pesky said. ''Satchel Paige. Josh Gibson. One inning, when Satchel was pitching, he'd have his infielders sit down, sit down in the dust, and every hitter that came up he'd strike out. I was 13, 14 years old, thinking, 'This guy throws the ball out of a cannon.' And Josh Gibson, I saw him catch a game once while sitting in a rocking chair."
Doerr, whose wife Monica recently died, reminded DiMaggio of his promise to come to Oregon and go salmon fishing with him.
''Like Ted says, every day you fish adds a day to your life," Doerr said.
Pesky proudly flashed his World Series ring to the audience.
''I'm going to brag a little bit," he said. ''What the hell, I'm 85 years old, I can brag. [Pee Wee] Reese, [Phil] Rizzuto, and myself, I was the best hitter."
The World Series trophy, which remained tantalizingly out of reach during their playing days, sat on a small table beside them on the stage.
''There were four or five years we should have won it," Pesky said. ''I used to think there must be a black cat in the front office."
But what they've had, he said, can never be commemorated by a mere trophy.
''We had a lot of fun together," Pesky said. ''A lot of admiration for each other. I'm not afraid to call it love."