We are not dismayed by our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Johnny Pesky was the heart and soul of Red Sox Nation. More than Ted Williams or Carl Yastrzemski, he personified the team. He was the one constant over the decades. And like so much of Red Sox history, his story is centered in one play. For most sports fans, it is the story of a mistake, but for those who look more deeply, it is a parable.
In the bottom of the eighth inning of seventh game of the 1946 World Series, the Red Sox and Cardinals were tied 3-3. The game was played in
Louis, and the Cardinals were at bat. Enos Slaughter
was on first base and Harry Walker was at the plate. Walker hit one into the gap in left
centerfield. Slaughter, who was known for his speed, was already running. When
Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky took the throw from the outfield, Slaughter had
already rounded third. Pesky turned toward the infield and threw to the plate,
but it was too late. Slaughter had scored, the Cardinals had the lead, and the
radio announcer screamed, “Pesky held the ball! He held the ball. Johnny Pesky
held the ball!”
That one play sent Enos Slaughter to the Hall of Fame and kept Johnny Pesky out. The story was that Slaughter had scored from first base on a single, because Pesky held the ball. It was a career defining moment for both men. And that one play has followed John Pesky for the nearly sixty years since then. Years later, at a football game, after a running back had committed his second fumble, someone in the stands yelled, “Give the ball to Pesky, he’ll hold onto it!” It is part of the legacy of Red Sox Nation, like Bucky Dent’s home run and Bill Buckner’s error (another guy who, except for that one play, would probably be in the Hall of Fame).
In his book, “Teammates,” David Halberstam asked Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr about that play. The real story is more complicated than the legend and it tells us more about the character of Johnny Pesky than it does about his baseball skills.
The Red Sox had been trailing 3-1 in the top of the inning, when Dom DiMaggio doubled to drive in two runs and tie the score. Unfortunately, Dom pulled a hamstring running to second and had to leave the game. He was replaced by a journeyman outfielder named Leon Culberson. The change was critical, because Dom DiMaggio was the best defensive centerfielder in the American League (yes, Yankee fans, he was better than his more famous brother, Joe). Culberson was a competent player, but not at the same level as DiMaggio, and he could not match Dom’s throwing arm, which was probably the strongest in the league.
Walker came to bat, with Slaughter on first, DiMaggio
motioned frantically to Culberson from the dugout, trying to move him toward
left field. Eventually, he took a step or two, but not enough. When the ball
was hit, Culberson was slow to react, and threw weakly to Pesky, who had come
out into the outfield to take the throw. If you watch films of the game, you’ll
see Pesky turn and throw without any hesitation. But since the dominant record
of the game etched in the memory of fans came from the radio announcer, that
was the image that stuck. And though most people think Slaughter scored from
first on a single, Walker’s
hit was actually a double.
Slaughter himself said that he never would have tried to score if DiMaggio had been playing center. And when Dom was asked whether he thought he could have thrown Slaughter out, he answered with certainty, “I would have thrown him out—at third!”
Over the years, when Pesky was asked about the play, he would smile and say, “Well, I guess I must have hesitated when I looked in to the infield.” He stuck with that explanation because the alternative would have violated one of Pesky’s core principles: you never blame your teammates. He would rather take the fault himself than blame Culberson for a bad throw.
People who knew him say that Johnny Pesky was a simple guy. He didn’t spend any time wondering what should have been or could have been, or why he had to be the one to carry the blame for the loss. He considered himself lucky to have been paid to play a game. And lucky to have been a part of some great teams.
In sports, coaches and commentators will often speak of character when their teams come from behind to win the game in the last minute or the last inning, as if athletic success had an intrinsic moral quality. But when I think of character, I’ll think of John Pesky, smiling at his critics.