“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone.”
Those words were written by A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1977, before he was President of Yale, or the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan and he died before seeing a season that ended in anything but heartbreak. Long time Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione traditionally reads those words at the close of every season.
There will be no October baseball in Boston this year. The amazing team that went from last place in 2012 to winning the World Series in 2013 has sunk back to last place. And so I find myself looking back to years past. The 1946 World Series produced one of my favorite Red Sox stories.
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 St. 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).
The real story, however, 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.
When 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 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 remember Johnny Pesky, smiling at his critics.