Georgia Georgakakis knew next to nothing about baseball, or any of its legendary figures when she arrived in this country from Greece a dozen years ago.
In between waiting tables at the Salem Diner last week, Georgakakis was not wiping tears from her eyes simply because of the loss of a beloved former Red Sox player.
She was remembering a special individual who had visited the diner with his breakfast crew almost daily for the last decade. Someone who always had a smile for her. Someone she had come to know as a friend.
Johnny Pesky was a local legend, in Lynn, Salem, Swampscott, and other surrounding communities.
And he was one of their own.
His death last week, at 93, hit the area hard.
“All the people loved him,’’ Georgakakis said. “Little kids, older people, everyone. He was always happy. He liked to talk to everyone. I loved him, and he loved me. I can’t believe he’s gone.’’
Although he was born in Portland, Ore., and grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Pesky quickly became an adopted son of the North Shore after signing with the Red Sox in 1940. After his 1942 rookie season, he gave up three years of his baseball career to serve in the Navy during World War II.
It was the right thing to do, he always said, and he would never have done anything differently.
He married Ruth Hickey, a Lynn girl, and the couple lived in her hometown before eventually moving to Swampscott.
David Solimine Sr. first met Pesky at age 10.
His older sister lived on Eastern Avenue in Lynn, across the street from the residence that Johnny and his bride moved in with her family. Solimine grew to become friends with Pesky and had the task of directing the funeral for his friend earlier this week.
“What he meant to the North Shore was he was our local hero,’’ Solimine said.
“He was always a gentleman. He was always respectful,’’ he said. “There’s nothing in his whole world that was wrong. Everyone here loves him.
“He was born and brought up in Portland. But he married a Lynn girl. And even though for a number of years he’s lived in Swampscott, he’s a Lynn guy. He absolutely is part of this community.
“He was involved in so much of the youth activity in the area. And with Ruthie’s family, he’d be at all the kids’ games,’’ Solimine said. “He was just one of us and we were so proud of him. Everybody in the community is proud of him and everybody has a story about him.’’
Pesky, though, never understood why he was a big deal, often saying, “I’m just an old ballplayer.’’
“He was a case of humility,’’ Solimine said. “He’s just been a joy for the whole community, and he’s going to be missed.’’
But, while he may not have understood his own celebrity, Pesky could at least appreciate what his presence might mean to others.
Among the local youth activities he supported: the Alice O’Neil Challenger Little League for children and young adults with disabilities in the Greater Lynn.
“Johnny was a presence no matter where he went,’’ said Michael Phelps, a volunteer with the Challenger League.
“Whenever he was at a game, or his name was mentioned or he came to some of the banquets, the room would brighten greatly whenever he walked in. It would put a smile on everyone’s faces. He just had a way with children of any age or adults, whether it was in the Challenger Little League program or a regular Little League program.
“Here in Lynn he had a couple of great-nephews who played and he’d come down and you’d hear a buzz around the field and you could guess what it was: Johnny there to watch his great-nephews’ games,’’ Phelps said. “And he’d just show up unannounced. He wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. He was there as a great-uncle, not as Johnny Pesky.’’
Bob Grant, a retired clerk of courts from Salem, was one of Pesky’s breakfast crew at the Salem Diner. They were friends for decades, Grant guesses “at least 30 or 40 years.’’
Their daily conversations included topics familiar to most folks of a certain age — sports, politics, family, friends, ailments, along with a good dose of good-natured ribbing.
“He didn’t understand how popular he was,’’ Grant said.
“A few years ago, I asked him to go with me to the Horace Mann School in Salem. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to go because he didn’t think the kids would want to meet him. But he went, and it was wonderful,’’ Grant said. “The kids loved him, and you should have seen his face light up while he was there. It was great.’’
“I can’t believe he’s gone. I’m really going to miss him.’’
That was a common sentiment since news of Pesky’s passing on Aug. 13 filtered through the region. He’d often say he had a wonderful life, a wonderful family, and wonderful friends.
His friends, however, felt that they were the lucky ones.