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Pesky, beloved Red Sox legend, dies at 92

When the Red Sox had their long-awaited ring ceremony in April 2005, celebrating the team's first World Series championship since 1918, it was Johnny Pesky who got the loudest ovation at Fenway Park.

This, despite the fact he played his last game for Boston in 1952.

Pesky, who died at the age of 92 on Monday, was that beloved by Red Sox Nation.

To understand what Pesky meant to the Red Sox, you need to know how thoroughly he represented the organization for 61 years.

"We have lost a dear and beloved friend," said Red Sox owner John Henry. "Johnny was happiest when wearing the Red Sox uniform. He was able to do that for 61 wonderful years. He carried his passion for the Sox, for Fenway Park, and for baseball everywhere he went, and he was beloved in return. We will miss him. We share the sadness that his family and legions of friends are all feeling."

The Red Sox will hold a public tribute for Pesky at Fenway Park at a later date. At the time of Pesky's death, he was surrounded by family and friends at the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers, Mass.

"The national pastime has lost one of its greatest ambassadors today. Johnny Pesky, who led a great American life, was an embodiment of loyalty and goodwill for the Boston Red Sox and all of Major League Baseball," said Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig in a statement.

"A part of the Greatest Generation and forever one of 'The Teammates,' Johnny was a wonderful player who excelled alongside his dear friends Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio. Just as importantly, Johnny touched the hearts of hundreds of Red Sox players and its legion of fans around the world.

"I am deeply saddened by the loss of this special man, whose number six will be a part of Fenway Park forever. I extend my deepest condolences to Johnny's family, his many friends throughout the game and all the fans of the Boston Red Sox."

Pesky came to Boston as a player in 1942, teaming with Williams, Doerr and DiMaggio and coming one win away from a championship in '46.

      "We have lost a dear and beloved friend. Johnny was happiest when wearing the Red Sox uniform. He was able to do that for 61 wonderful years. He carried his passion for the Sox, for Fenway Park, and for baseball everywhere he went, and he was beloved in return. We will miss him. We share the sadness that his family and legions of friends are all feeling."
-- Red Sox owner John Henry

"Johnny was one of the wonderful links to 70 years of Red Sox history," said Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. "He was the grandfather of the Red Sox. He was as loving and kind a gentleman as one could imagine. His stories were delightful, and his love of Ted Williams and his teammates shone through in virtually every conversation. We know that those stories, and his spirit, will continue to live on at Fenway Park. We extend our sympathies to his son, David, his daughter-in-law Alison, and all of the members of the Pesky family."

The diminutive shortstop -- nicknamed "Needle" during his playing days -- topped 200 hits in his first three years with the team, combining with Doerr to form perhaps the best double-play combination in team history.

If not for losing three years of his time with the Red Sox while serving in World War II, Pesky's playing accomplishments with the team (.313 average, 867 runs, .394 on-base percentage, one All-Star appearance) would have been even more impressive.

"You can sum Johnny up as a great player, a great teammate, but best of all, a great friend," said Boo Ferris, a 25-game winner for the 1946 Red Sox. "I remember coming back from the service and I was anxious to get to know him, and he was just a friendly, lovable guy from the start. He was a great encourager in my 1946 season and through my career in Boston, helping me and encouraging in any way he could. He could swing that bat and spray that ball over the field. He was one of the all-time greatest guys as a player and as a person."

When Pesky was traded to the Tigers during the '52 season, it could have ended his relationship with the city of Boston. Sometimes that's how it works when a player moves on. But once he returned to the organization in '61 as a Triple-A manager, he basically never left the Red Sox again, save for a short coaching stint with the Pirates in the mid-'60s.

From player to coach to manager to announcer to spokesman to all-around ambassador, Pesky lived and breathed the Red Sox experience. He was inducted into the inaugural Red Sox Hall of Fame class in 1995.

"Johnny Pesky will forever be linked to the Boston Red Sox," said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino. "He has been as much a part of Fenway Park as his retired Number 6 that rests on the right-field façade, or the foul pole below it that bears his name. But beyond these physical testaments, Johnny will be remembered most for his warmth, kindness, and loyalty. It was through his countless friendships that Johnny made his greatest impact on us, and we will miss him dearly. His was a life well-lived."

It has been said by many people over the years that the only thing Pesky adored more than the Red Sox was his wife Ruth, who died in 2005.

Even at the time of his passing, Pesky was still listed as a special assignment instructor. He spent the final 44 years of his life employed by the Red Sox.

Until the past couple of years, when his health began to decline, Pesky was a fixture at Spring Training, still wearing the uniform and carrying around a fungo bat. And yes, signing hundreds of autographs.

      "The national pastime has lost one of its greatest ambassadors today. Johnny Pesky, who led a great American life, was an embodiment of loyalty and goodwill for the Boston Red Sox and all of Major League Baseball."
-- MLB Commissioner Bud Selig

Pesky wasn't much of a home run hitter, going deep just 13 times for the Red Sox and 17 times in his career. But he had a penchant for hooking the ball down the line at Fenway Park and curling it around the pole. Mel Parnell, a pitcher on the Red Sox teams of the 1940s, dubbed it "Pesky's Pole," and the Red Sox formally gave it that name a few years back.

While the Red Sox have long had a loose policy that only players who are in baseball's Hall of Fame can have their number retired on the façade of Fenway's right-field wall, it is fitting that Pesky is the one player for whom they made an exception. His No. 6 was retired in a ceremony in 2008.

In 2004, the Red Sox named one of their Spring Training practice fields in Pesky's honor.

That was the type of impact he had.

Just ask Wade Boggs, a five-time batting champion with the Red Sox. When he was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2005, Boggs credited much of his defensive prowess to the hundreds of ground balls Pesky hit to him on a daily basis.

"The number one thing everyone has to understand is that there wasn't a greater gentleman of the game," Boggs said. "Johnny was loved by everyone. He would light up your day when he walked in the room. I have to give him credit for hitting me all those ground balls every day at 3:17. I have to attribute those two Gold Gloves that I won to the hard work that he and I put in."

Jim Rice gave similar accolades to Pesky when he was inducted in Cooperstown in 2009.

But as Rice expressed on Monday, Pesky was far more than just a teacher and a mentor.

"It's a great loss, not only for the Sox but all of New England. Johnny's been around for so long, you think about all the greats that have played with the Red Sox over the years, and he was still there," Rice said. "He was a legend with Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio, and when you think of the Red Sox, you always think of Johnny Pesky. He was a great ambassador for the Red Sox."

From Williams to Doerr to Carl Yastrzemski to Nomar Garciaparra to Pedro Martinez to Curt Schilling and down the line, there probably isn't a Red Sox player in modern history that Pesky didn't touch in some form or fashion.

"I had him as a coach," said Jerry Remy, a former Red Sox player and current television broadcaster. "He was very helpful as a coach to me and, you know, he was the kind of guy that just loved to come to the ballpark every day, put a Red Sox uniform on. I've never met anyone in my life that loved the organization as much as he did."

When the Red Sox lost Game 7 of the 1946 World Series, some say that Pesky held on to the relay throw too long when Enos "Country" Slaughter scored all the way from first on a gapper. But there is only grainy video footage of the play, so it was always more a matter of debate than fact. It was just another issue that Pesky handled with class, simply saying that he threw the ball in as quickly as he could.

"You know, it was one of those plays that everyone thinks they could have made differently, but you know that Johnny was always in the game caring about his teammates, caring about the chance of having a win," said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. "I know he went to his grave rooting for the Red Sox."

Born John Michael Paveskovich on Sept. 27, 1919, the Portland, Ore., native was signed by the Red Sox as an amateur free agent in 1940 and spent 73 years in professional baseball.

Pesky had such a rich and long-lasting relationship with teammates Williams, DiMaggio and Doerr that it was chronicled in the book "The Teammates" by the late and legendary author David Halberstam. In fact, there is a "Teammates" statue that features Pesky and the three other players that stands outside Gate B at Fenway Park.

On the night of Oct. 27, 2004, when the Red Sox at last won the World Series, Pesky watched the final out from the clubhouse. When the players came in to celebrate, Schilling immediately lifted Pesky off the ground and embraced him. Several others could hardly contain their enthusiasm when they encountered Pesky in the champagne-soaked clubhouse.

Pesky would be part of another ring ceremony just a few years later, as the Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series.

The club's most recent celebration took place back on April 20, when the Red Sox paid tribute to the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park in grand fashion.

In one of the most poignant moments of the day, recently retired Jason Varitek wheeled Pesky out to his position at shortstop, while the similarly recently retired Tim Wakefield did the same for Doerr en route to second base.

"I'm almost speechless. This is a very sad day for me, and for anyone who has ever spent any time with Mr. Pesky," Varitek said. "He was the most positive influence I ever came across who wore the Red Sox uniform. He was always there through the good and bad times with the same smile and passion for his team. 'Hello my honeysuckle, hello my honey bee, my ever lovin' Jason just got three,' Johnny used to say, wishing me three hits that night. The game, the team, the organization, and Red Sox Nation will truly miss Mr. Pesky. Love you, Pesky!"

Whether you were a cornerstone of the Red Sox for over a decade or a first-year manager with the team like Valentine, it was hard to miss Pesky's impact.

"He did it all, and he did it all with class," said Valentine. "Class and grace. My father-in-law, who is 86 years old, who knew Johnny forever it seems, had never made a call without asking if I had seen Johnny and to give him his best. And I did it every time I saw him."

The final game Pesky attended at Fenway Park was Boston's 6-4 win over the Twins on Aug. 5.

"Well, Johnny lived a life he absolutely loved and adored, and that was being part of the Red Sox family," said Remy. "When you think about it, he did everything you could do in a Red Sox uniform. He loved to have the uniform on, and it really was his whole life besides his wife. It's a sad day for Red Sox Nation obviously to see him pass on, but I'm sure he passed on content and very happy with the way he lived his whole life."

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