Pesky came from the Decade of the Shortstop: the 1940s. That’s right sports fans, the modern day group of shortstops can’t hold a candle to the fellows of the 1940s. The little man from Boston was measured against position peers like Luke Appling, Arky Vaughan, Cecil Travis, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Vern Stephens and a few more, and he didn’t come up wanting. Pesky was an expert batsman who missed three pivotal years of his playing career to service in the military during World War II.
Born in Oregon, Pesky was raised as a sports fan – not just a baseball fan – and was a serviceable hockey player. In fact, Pesky used to upset Red Sox management by training with an NHL team during the off season. But Pesky discarded the skates and took to the spikes. Johnny was a rookie sensation in 1942 when he led the American League with 205 base hits and 22 sacrifices. Pesky hit .331 during the season and finished third in MVP voting behind winner Joe Gordon (one of the greatest examples of incompetence as far as award voting is concerned) and teammate Ted Williams (who should have won the award). The solid little hitter looked destined for stardom, but with the war raging overseas, the Red Sox lost their star rookie to Uncle Sam. He would miss the 1943 through 1945 seasons, when he was 23, 24 and 25 years of age.
The war layoff hurt a lot of players but didn’t seem to effect Pesky. Pesky returned to the Sox in 1946 and did exactly what he did as a rookie four years prior: led the league in base hits. Pesky slapped out 208 base hits, was named an All-Star, finished fourth in MVP voting and led the Red Sox to a World Series. Johnny’s .335 batting average was 78 points higher than peer Rizzuto, as Pesky finished third in the AL with 43 doubles. In the World Series – Pesky’s only Fall Classic action – hit slapped out seven hits but is best remembered for being in the middle of the play that lost the game for Boston. Enos Slaughter scored on an outfield hit by Harry Walker, scoring ahead of Pesky’s relay throw. To say that Pesky lost the series for Boston would be a gross overstatement, but the wicked Boston press buried Pesky nonetheless.
Although the media try to run Pesky into the ground, he showed thick skin in 1947 by again – for third time in his three Major League seasons – leading the AL in base hits. The Red Sox left-handed hitting shortstop hit the apple at a clip 51 points higher than Rizzuto and was the only Major League shortstop to score over 100 runs.
When the Red Sox acquired slugger Vern Stephens from the Browns in 1948, Pesky was moved to third base to accommodate the heavy hitter. For the first time in his Major League career, Pesky didn’t lead the league in base hits, but he did develop a keen batting eye. Pesky drew 99 walks in ’48 (fifth in the AL) while finishing in a tie for third in runs scored. The Red Sox had a high powered offense with Williams, Stephens, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio but didn’t have the pitching. Although the Red Sox were in a league to themselves offensively, their lack of adequate mound work kept them from capturing another pennant in Pesky’s days there.
Pesky perfected his batting eye in 1949 when he drew 100 walks while striking out just 19 times. His batting average was 31 points higher than Rizzuto’s and Johnny’s amazing batting eye allowed him to post an on-base average over .400 (Rizzuto had one year with an on-base percentage over .400 – his fluke season – while Pesky had four such campaigns).
The Red Sox offense was dynamite in 1950. They had an all-100 run scoring infield in 1950. Pesky crossed the dish 112 times while his infield mates, Bobby Doerr, Walt Dropo and Vern Stephens also scored in the excess of 100 runs. Johnny finished third in the AL with 104 walks while posting a sparkling .437 on-base percentage.
For the first time in Pesky’s career, he didn’t score 100 runs in 1951. Returning to his shortstop post because of Stephens’ ineffective play there, Pesky managed to lead all shortstops with a .313 batting average. Johnny scored more runs, had more hits, clubbed more homers, drew more walks and slugged at a higher average than Hall of Fame peer Phil Rizzuto.
During the 1952 campaign, Johnny was traded in a blockbuster deal of aging players to the Detroit Tigers. Joining Peksy in the exodus from Boston was slugger Walt Dropo while the Red Sox netted the talents of aging pitcher Dizzy Trout, Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell and veterans Hoot Evers and Johnny Lipon. Although Johnny only hit .254 for Detroit, he took his great batting eye to the Motor City, walking 41 times in 69 games.
In his last good year, Pesky hit .292 for Detroit in 1953 (21 points higher than Rizzuto) before getting traded to Washington during the ’54 season. He retired before the 1955 season but made it back to the Majors in 1963 as the Red Sox manager. As the BoSox skipper, Pesky had a winning percentage of .451 over pieces of three years. Comparing Pesky to his peer Phil Rizzuto, it is clear that Johnny was a much better offensive player, since Pesky hit 34 points higher than Rizzuto during his career and had an on-base percentage 43 points higher. Defensively however, Rizzuto has the edge, fielding his position with an average four points higher than Pesky’s, but Johnny’s fielding average was still higher than the league average.
G 1,270/R 867/H 1,455/2B 226/3B 50/HR 17/ RBI 404/BB 662/SO 218/SB 53/BA .307/SA .386