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Pesky: Portland to Boston

January 20, 2013

Loved by generations of Boston Red Sox fans, Johnny Pesky was so much a part of that storied baseball town that the right-field foul pole at Fenway Park was named for him.

 

It all started in Oregon.

 

Pesky, a Portlander who played, managed and served as a broadcaster for the Red Sox in a baseball career that lasted more than 60 years, died in August at 92.

 

"The national pastime has lost one of its greatest ambassadors," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said at the time.

 

Pesky was more than a great guy. He was a lifetime .307 hitter and one of the best shortstops of his era.

 

It began in Northwest Portland, where he was born John Michael Paveskovich to Croatian Catholic immigrants. He attended St. Patrick School and the parish church, where many of the Portland Beavers baseball players would attend Mass. The nuns at school would cancel classes on opening day.

 

Johnny moved on to Lincoln High and worked as clubhouse boy for the Beavers at nearby Vaughn Street Ball Park. In addition to cleaning muddy spikes and sweaty wool jerseys, he worked out with the Beavers. That's how he got noticed.

 

Ernie Johnson, after a stint as Beavers Manager, became a talent scout. Johnny had made a semi-professional team in Silverton, a team that played near a lumber park that was part of the massive Yawkey lumber corporation. It was the same Yawkey family that owned the Red Sox. Johnson put it all together and invited the young shortstop to join the Red Sox system.

 

His parents, who did not speak English, thought they would have to pay to have their son join the team. When Johnny's sister translated and explained that, no, he would get money to play baseball, the parents were amazed and delighted. Johnson had sent flowers to the mother and bourbon to the father as a sweetener.

 

In 1939, with his parents' consent, Johnny went to the minor league team Durham, Louisville and eventually to Boston in 1942, where he filled the shoes of shortstop Joe Cronin. He took the name Pesky, which agents said were more pronounceable and catchier. As a rookie sensation, he topped 200 hits and hit .331.

 

He spent three years in the Navy during World War II and returned to the Red Sox. Though his career took place amid the team's legendary World Series drought, they came close in 1946, losing in game seven to the Cardinals.

 

The term Pesky's Pole was coined by former Red Sox pitcher Mel Parnell, who became a broadcaster in the 1950s recalled Pesky winning a game for him with a home run around the foul line marker.

 

Pesky spent two years with the Tigers and Senators before starting a coaching career that included a two-year stint as Red Sox manager in 1963 and 1964. He came back to the Red Sox in 1969 and stayed there, even filling in as interim manager in 1980.

 

Pesky became a favorite in the clubhouse. He would encourage young players and hit grounders to them with an ever-present fungo bat. As he aged, he would simply sign autographs and chat with fans.

 

He was an instructor for the team in 2004 when the Red Sox claimed their first World Series in 86 years. His eyes welled up after the win.

 

Curt Schilling, a pitcher starred on that team, tweeted this after Pesky's death: "One of my career memories was hugging and kissing Johnny Pesky after we won it all in '04. God rest and God bless his gentle soul. I miss you."

 

Pesky is survived by a son, David. His wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1944, died in 2005.

 

His brother Vince Paveskovich, 91, is one of the longstanding members of the Old-Timers and Active Baseball Association. He is a former educator who himself worked at Vaughn Street ball park as a boy and played baseball at University of Portland.  

 

Vince Paveskovich still lives in the family house not far from St. Patrick's where he takes care of his 97-year-old sister and is an active parishioner.

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