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A different look at Johnny Pesky

08.13.12 at 9:11 pm ET
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“Are athletes special people? In general, no, but occasionally, yes. Johnny Pesky at 75 was trim, youthful, optimistic, and practically exploding with energy.”

– Bill James

Johnny Pesky was a lot of things.

In no order — manager, announcer, Navy veteran, husband, Halberstam subject, baseball lifer, father, storyteller and part of the Greatest Generation.

There are other people who knew Johnny Pesky far better than I did who will no doubt write wonderful stories about his life and times over the next couple of days, filled with anecdotes from Sox players over the last 60 years. I suggest you find those stories and read them — and here’s hoping Pesky will be the subject of the first column of Bob Ryan’s next chapter with the Globe.

Instead I wanted to take a look at Johnny Pesky the player. Look, the Pink Hats looked at Pesky as a mascot, or the lovable grandfather of Wally the Green Monster, and I get why. The man retired in 1954, the same year Dennis Eckersley was born. For some, it’s hard to imagine, I suppose, that when John Michael Paveskovich (changed his name legally in 1947) would shuffle out for a standing ovation or throw out a first pitch over the last decade or two that this was once a great baseball player.

But he was. Talk to his teammates — and look at the numbers — and this becomes clear in a hurry.

“He could really put that ball in play — his first three years he had over 200 hits,” said former pitcher Boo Ferriss, who played with Pesky from 1946-50, from his Mississippi home on Monday night. “That’s an incredible record, to do that before and after the Navy. He usually hit second, Ted [Williams] hitting third in the lineup. He was an on-base guy for Ted. He didn’t steal a while lot of bases, because that would leave first base open for Ted. But he could really just spray that ball around, went with the pitch.”

As a 22-year-old rookie in 1942, Pesky led the American League with 205 hits, was sixth in runs scored with 105 — he scored at least 100 runs in each of his first six seasons — was second to Williams with a .331 batting average and was third in MVP voting, behind Joe Gordon and Williams (who got absolutely screwed — Gordon had a perfectly representable season but Williams had 18 more homers, 34 more RBI, hit 34 points higher, slugged 157 points higher and scored 53 more runs) for a team that won 92 games. His one screaming flaw that season? Strikeouts. Pesky set a career high that year with 36.

That’s right, 36 times in 686 plate appearances. That’s a month for Jarrod Saltalamacchia (more on Pesky’s absurd K/BB numbers later).

The Rookie of the Year Award wasn’t introduced until 1947 (when just one was given out, the AL and NL each got winners in 1949) but Pesky almost certainly would have been a blowout winner in 1942. It stands as one of the great debut seasons in major-league history, right next to Fred Lynn and Ichiro and Dwight Gooden and Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. This was looking an awful lot like the start of a Hall of Fame career.

He didn’t play again until 1946.

You hear announcers (and coaches) talk about players demonstrating “courage” when they throw 120 pitches in a start or take a charge or go for a Par-5 in two. Johnny Pesky missed three years of a hugely promising career, spending all of it with the Navy in World War II. I don’t think he got 18 off days a year in the Pacific.

In 1946, Pesky returned (now age 26), played 153 games, again led the league in hits (208), again scored over 100 runs (115) and hit .335. He finished fourth in MVP voting for the American League champions, a tremendous year by most standards but truly remarkable when you realize where he had been for the previous 36 months.

“A very important player to us in 1946, when we won the pennant by 12 games,” Ferris said. “Ted was the star, but Johnny had a wonderful season.”

He led the league in hits — again, the only player in history to do so in his first three seasons — in 1947 and scored a career high 124 runs in 1948 and scored over 100 runs and walked over 100 times in both 1949 and 1950 (the 1950 offense was the best in Sox history, one of six all-time to score over 1,000 runs — Pesky was third in the AL that year in walks and OBP).

Pesky had seven seasons with at least 50 walks and zero with 50 strikeouts. His career BB/K numbers are 662-218, about as good as any player in history. In 1949 and 1950 he walked a combined 204 times and struck out 50 times. His career OBP with the Sox was .401, seventh in franchise history.

There was no power — just 17 home runs in 5,516 career plate appearances — but Pesky was pretty much a lock for a .300 average, 100-plus runs, 200 or so hits and 100 walks for seven seasons. It’s fair to wonder if the three missed seasons cost him a place in Cooperstown. Not a lot of players with five or six 200-hit seasons and eight or nine 100-run seasons not in the Hall of Fame (Pesky lasted only one year on the ballot, receiving just one vote in 1960).

Johnny Pesky was a great player for seven seasons — nine, if you count the three lost years — and that was it. There was no slow decline, Pesky was done as an everyday player after 1951 (he was traded by the Sox in 1952).

But he was just beginning an association that lasted 70 years. Think about it — that’s Dustin Pedroia sticking around until 2076.

“He was a great teammate, a great man,” said Ferriss. “He was good to me in the years we played together and after that. It’s a sad day for the Red Sox.”

Pesky will (understandably and not incorrectly) be remembered by many if not most for what he did when his career was over, but that’s not a knock on a superb and underrated seven seasons. Pesky was a great player for a fairly short time but an all-time great ambassador for the Red Sox when his career was finished.

Not a bad legacy.

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