When Bill Nowlin wrote a biography of Johnny Pesky, he titled it Mr. Red Sox. How fitting.
Pesky has been with the team in some capacity for the better part of the last 70 years.
He’s been a player, a coach, a manager, and a broadcaster. Now he’s the team’s goodwill ambassador, occupying the first seat on the right as you enter the Sox clubhouse.
I spoke with Johnny, 89 years young, about having his number retired, how he got the right-field foul pole named after him, and the Hall of Fame credentials of one of his pupils, Jim Rice.
TC: You worked with Jim Rice when he was a young ballplayer. You’ve always believed he should be in the Hall of Fame.
Pesky: He should’ve gotten in five years ago. He was a threat. He worked as hard as any player we ever had. When [Don] Zimmer was here, he loved Rice, and Zimmer called me into his office and said, “Johnny, I want you to stay with Rice every day in spring training. If he goes to the toilet, you go with him.” We got real close, and Jimmy worked real hard. He worked after workouts and such. We hit him balls and he worked in the cage. I was his personal guy, and Jimmy got better. When we played a day game, he’d be out there at 9 o’clock in the morning. He used to throw sidearmed, and his ball would tail off. We got him to throw it overhand, and he went from throwing one guy out to throwing 10 to 13 guys out at home plate each year. And a great-looking hitter.
TC: That reminds me of all the work you did with other players, guys like Wade Boggs.
Pesky: Wade Boggs came to me. He said, “Johnny, they say I’m a horse[bleep] third baseman.” I asked him what he wanted to do about it, and told him to come out and work with me. He came out every day at 3 o’clock. He’d stay out there for a half-hour taking ground ball after ground ball. Hard-hit balls, slow-hit balls, everything. He had a good arm, and was always accurate with that arm. Wade Boggs and Jim Rice worked as hard as any player we’ve ever had.
TC: Does working with these young players over the years keep you young?
Pesky: Yes, and I hope I can keep doing it. I like to watch a kid during the ballgame. Of course, they came out with that rule about only having four coaches, so the commissioner wouldn’t let me sit in the dugout anymore. I felt bad about that. I thought maybe the ballclub should’ve gone to bat for me on that, but sometimes you’re better keeping your mouth shut.
TC: A lot of other people spoke up about that for you.
Pesky: Yes, and the team really surprised me when they retired my number. I was very happy about that. They said they wanted to see me and I met them at the ballpark and we went down to John Henry’s office and they said, “Johnny, we want to retire your number.” I said are you sure? They were real good about it. I was flabbergasted. I never dreamed I was that type of player. I was no Dom DiMaggio or Ted Williams or BobbyDoerr. That’s pretty good company.
TC: But you were an on-base guy before anyone cared about on-base percentages.
Pesky: I got 200 hits each of my first three seasons. I was on base all the time. I was a pain-in-the-ass player, and being a middle infielder I got away with it. I knew the strike zone very well, and later when I became a hitting coach I had some luck with a couple of guys.
TC: You were a table-setter. Every team needs them. Now you’ve got a second baseman like Dustin Pedroia who’s not a big guy, but he’s the MVP.
Pesky: Rookie of the Year and then MVP. When they signed him, Terry [Francona] came to me and said he wanted me to talk to the kid. I said OK, and I went and watched him field the ball. And when I saw him, I thought he looked just like Bobby Doerr. He was a groundhog. He made good throws and he could position himself. I spent three days with him, and went back to Terry and said, “Terry, he doesn’t need me. I’ll just sit back and watch him every day.” He’s a great kid.
TC: Here’s a little guy playing alongside all those big guys and he wins the MVP Award. Not bad.
Pesky: Yeah, but he can hit. How many home runs did he hit? Seventeen? That’s not bad. I only hit 17 in my whole career.
TC: Only six of those home runs at Fenway, but you’ve got one of the foul poles named after you.
Pesky: That was an accident. [Mel] Parnell started that business. Someone hit a home run around that pole and Parnell was talking to [broadcaster] Ned Martin about it, and Mel got on the air and said, “Pesky won a game for me in 1948, he hit a home run right around that pole. We call it Pesky’s Pole.” That’s how it got started.
TC: And now the No. 6 — your No. 6 — is hanging right up there above the pole.
Pesky: I’m very flattered. There were a lot of players around the league like me. [Phil] Rizzuto. Pee Wee Reese. All I wanted to do was play.
TC: Nearly 70 years later, you’re still in the game. Do you ever think about what your life would be like without baseball?
Pesky: Oh, God. I’d probably be working at a sawmill somewhere. [laughs]
TC: You did it all. Player, coach, manager, broadcaster.
Pesky: I wish I’d have been a better broadcaster. Jerry Remy puts me in the back seat he’s so
good. He’s very good. He does those commercials, he’s a professional broadcaster.
TC: Any New Year’s resolutions?
Pesky: I just hope we win. We’ll need to fill in for that bat we lost with Manny [Ramirez]. I think our pitching’s going to be real good. I think [Josh] Beckett is going to bounce back and have a great year.
TC: Think they could get you another ring?
Pesky: They could. I’ve got the ’04 and ’07 rings. I’m wearing the ’07 ring right now. I just got back from breakfast, and I made sure to wear it.
OT contributor Tom Caron is the studio host of Boston Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network.