The Man Behind Pesky’s Pole

There’s much more to Johnny Pesky than the pole named after him in right field at Fenway Park. (via Richard Eriksson)

In the history of the Boston Red Sox, Johnny Pesky was Bill Buckner 40 years before a Mookie Wilson grounder darted under Buckner’s glove. In the bottom of the eighth inning of Game Seven of the 1946 World Series, Pesky held the ball as Enos Slaughter went on his mad dash toward home plate. By the time Pesky threw the ball home, it was too late. Slaughter scored, and the Cardinals upset the heavily favored Red Sox.

In the years that followed, Pesky epitomized Boston’s decades of failure. The immensely talented player who came up short in a key moment—the first of many such players and plays that led some to conclude the Red Sox were cursed. By whom? It didn’t matter. Failures of character and metaphysical forces conspired to make Boston perennial losers. It was a hell of a story, and as my father sarcastically says, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Pesky was born John David Paveskovich in Portland, Oregon, in 1919. As a teenager, Paveskovich played on several local amateur teams—sportswriters shortened his name to Pesky so it would fit in box scores—and signed with the Red Sox in 1940. He spent two seasons in the minors before joining the major league team full-time in 1942. The 23-year-old shortstop led the AL with 205 hits. He hit .331/.375/.416 with a 119 wRC+. His 6.1 fWAR ranked seventh in the majors, just ahead of his teammate Bobby Doerr. Pesky missed the next three seasons because of World War II.

In 1946, the Red Sox returned to full strength as Pesky, Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Ted Williams came home. They slashed their way through the American League to a World Series showdown with the St. Cardinals. It was then that things turned. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game Seven, St. Louis right fielder Enos Slaughter stepped to the plate against Red Sox pitcher Bob Klinger. Slaughter slapped a single into center field. Third baseman Whitey Kurowski popped out on a bunt attempt, and catcher Del Rice flew out to left.

With two out, left fielder Harry Walker came to bat. Slaughter took off from first base as Walker hit a liner into center field that fell in front of center fielder Leon Culberson. Culberson fielded the ball and relayed it to Pesky, positioned on the edge of the infield. As Pesky caught the ball, Slaughter was rounding third and heading for home. Pesky threw the ball to the plate, but Slaughter already had slid in safely. In the top of the ninth, the Red Sox had men on first and second with no one out but failed to score. The Cardinals won the game and the series.

In St. Louis, the play became known as “Slaughter’s Mad Dash.” The Cardinals later immortalized it with a statue of Slaughter sliding into home plate outside Busch Stadium. In Boston, the play earned the moniker “Pesky Held the Ball.”

Sportswriters covering the game blamed Pesky for the Red Sox loss. The headline of Leo H. Peterson’s article for United Press International blared, “Pesky Goat when Slaughter Races Home on Two-Bagger.” Peterson confidently asserted the Red Sox “lost their chance for baseball glory because one of them didn’t have it when the chips were down. Harry “The Hat” Brecheen, Harry Walker and Mike Gonzales, of the Cardinals, were the heroes, but they couldn’t have won if it hadn’t been for the Bosox’s shortstop Johnny Pesky.” In Peterson’s view, Culberson “came in fast to pick up the ball and rifle it to Pesky on the outfield grass. Pesky, not thinking that Slaughter would try to score on the hit, held the ball until he saw the Cardinal outfielder speeding for home.” As a result, Pesky “became the goat in their loss of the series.”

Jack Hand of the Associated Press wrote that “Pesky probably will wear the goat’s horns because he committed four of his team’s 10 errors, hit only .233 and cost the Sox the final game by his moment of hesitation in relaying Culberson’s peg to the plate.” Hand characterized Pesky as bewildered by Slaughter’s daring play, stating that “Pesky, apparently, not expecting that sort of daring base-running had dropped his arm half way watching Walker run towards second, before he realized Slaughter was hot-footing home with the tie-breaking run.” Another AP news story described how “Pesky dozed with the ball.”

Immediately after the game, Pesky took the blame for the Sox loss. He told reporters, “If I was alert, I’d have had him. When I finally woke up and saw him running for home, I couldn’t have gotten him with a .22.” As Glen Stout and Richard Johnson wrote in Red Sox Century, Pesky was the only player to speak up in the locker room and was left “shouldering the blame for a play he couldn’t have made and should have never been condemned for.” As Hand and Peterson’s stories appeared in newspapers across the United States alongside Pesky’s quotes, the narrative of “Pesky Held the Ball” took hold.

Remarkably, video of that famous play survives today. It may be grainy, but it is worth a look.

After watching the video, I don’t believe Pesky held the ball. The ball is in his hand for less than a second as he wheels around to throw home. And even if he did hold the ball, there is no way Pesky would have been able to get Slaughter at the plate. By the time Pesky catches Culberson’s throw, Slaughter already had rounded third.

Baseball historian John B. Holway has repeatedly challenged the notion that Pesky held the ball. In 2013, he argued “People who never saw the game — who weren’t even born yet — swear to it as the truth. But those lucky 34,000 who were at the game didn’t see Johnny hold the ball. They couldn’t have, because the official film of the game didn’t see it either. I’ve studied the film again and again in slow motion and stop action. It just didn’t happen.”

Joe Posnanski has concluded that even if Pesky had held the ball, “It would not have mattered; Pesky was not going to throw out Slaughter on that play.” Stout and Johnson argued, “As the grainy film shows, Pesky took the throw with his back to the plate, spun toward third, spotted Slaughter, took a quick half windup, and threw home. Catch to throw takes less than a second. He does not pause or freeze with the ball, although his body language exhibits surprise.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

So why were men like Peterson and Hand so quick to blame Pesky? A story from the Associated Press reveals the answer—the availability heuristic. The article noted that “observers were reminded of a similar situation in the 1940 series. Dick Bartell of the Detroit Tigers made a similar pause in relaying the ball to the plate in that series and Frank McCormick scored the run that gave the Cincinnati Reds the world championship in seven games.” In other words, a bunch of sportswriters saw a play in the 1946 World Series that reminded them of a play from a similar situation. The game stories practically wrote themselves. All Peterson, Hand, and the other writers had to do was change the names around.

The truth behind “Slaughter’s Mad Dash” belies such a simple explanation. Rather, a series of cascading events and decisions—some by the Cardinals, some by the Red Sox, and some circumstances beyond either teams’ control—led to that fateful play.

No one in the Red Sox dugout knew that Cardinal manager Eddie Dyer had given Slaughter permission to try to score if he saw an opportunity. Earlier in the series, Slaughter had complained to Dyer that third base coach Mike Gonzales held him at third base. Yielding to the demands of his cleanup hitter, Dyer told Slaughter that if he found himself in a similar situation to try to score. If he was thrown out, Dyer said, “I’ll take the heat.”

Red Sox manager Joe Cronin made a suspect pitching change for the bottom of the eighth. Bob Klinger, a 38-year-old reliever, had pitched effectively for Boston out of the bullpen, appearing in 28 games with nine saves and a 2.37 ERA. But he had not pitched in a game in almost a month after leaving the team to be with his son, who had contracted polio. Cronin had another option available, lefthander Earl Johnson. Johnson had already finished Games One and Six and picked up the win in Game One. Only after Walker’s hit did Cronin turn to Johnson to record the final out of the eighth. Relying on a pitcher who hadn’t pitched in a meaningful game situation in weeks with the World Series on the line was a mistake that lay at solely Cronin’s feet.

Then there were the things outside either team’s control. In the top of the eighth, Red Sox center fielder Dom DiMaggio tied the game with a double to deep right but strained his hamstring rounding first base. Cronin sent Culberson to pinch-run and play center field. Unlike the strong-armed DiMaggio, Culberson was not known for his defense.

The absence of DiMaggio proved critical to the outcome of the play. Slaughter later admitted he wouldn’t have tried for home if DiMaggio had been in center. “You know DiMaggio had a great arm, but Culberson didn’t have too good an arm, and he wasn’t as quick as DiMaggio. DiMaggio would have gotten rid of it a lot quicker. I don’t think I would have even tried (for home).” Pesky’s teammate Doerr agreed with Slaughter: “They say John held the ball. He didn’t. He was blind to what was happening, deaf to his teammates, and he made a normal play. Slaughter made a great play. If Dominic is out there in center, Slaughter stays on third base. Period.”

“Slaughter’s Mad Dash” wasn’t the result of one player’s failure; it was the result of a confluence of circumstances outside any one person’s control. Klinger hadn’t pitched in a game in weeks. DiMaggio hurt his hamstring. Slaughter was determined to score. Culberson had a weak arm. Pesky made a routine play. Ultimately, it turned the tide of the game and the series. The Cardinals win expectancy rose from 55 percent to 87 percent, a 32-percent swing. As Stout and Johnson concluded, “The run scored because Slaughter made a great play and a series of small miscalculations and slight misplays built exponentially, costing the Red Sox the World Series and one man his reputation.”

Pesky returned to the Red Sox in 1947 and played for Boston until 1952 when Cronin, who had become the Sox general manager, traded him to the Tigers. By 1954, Pesky’s major league career was over. From 1955-1962, Pesky managed in the minor leagues. In 1963, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and new general manager Pinky Huggins hired Pesky as the Red Sox manager. He lasted two seasons before moving on to coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates for four years. Pesky returned to Boston as a radio and TV commentator from 1969 to 1974. From 1975 through 1984, he served as a bench or hitting coach, though he missed the 1983 season because of a medical condition. From 1985 until his death in 2012, Pesky worked as a special instructor and assistant to the general manager.

Pesky never regretted taking responsibility for that World Series loss. He explained, “Well, if they had to blame somebody and wanted to blame me, well, that was fine with me. I could handle it. It didn’t bother me. I hit .324 the next year. You know if there were two outs you can do anything. He [Slaughter] made a great play. I couldn’t have gotten him.”

Pesky’s willingness to take the blame for a play over which he had little control seems baffling. David Halberstam explained that Pesky had learned as a young player that “the worst thing you could ever do in baseball was to try to shift the blame when others placed it on you. It didn’t matter if the blame was being apportioned fairly or not, if you tried to run from what people believed, then you only made it worse, and dug yourself in deeper. But if you accepted it, then you ended up a better man, and your teammates would know, and so would those few other people who needed to know.”

Over the years, Red Sox fans warmed up to Pesky. He still endured taunts from neighbors, strangers, and even a spectator at an Oregon football game about holding the ball. But his enthusiasm, his energy, and his love of baseball shone through year after year. Fans who came early to Fenway saw him hitting fungoes to generation after generation of Red Sox players. He was a constant presence at spring training. He appeared in TV ads for a local window company.

He signed thousands of autographs for fans young and old—including for me. (My mother worked with his son, who had Pesky sign a photo in the pages of Bruce Chadwick’s Red Sox Memories and Memorabilia.) New tragedies befell the Red Sox—Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, Grady Little—and the old ones fell by the wayside. Taking advantage of a wave of nostalgia for the Greatest Generation, David Halberstam wrote The Teammates about the decades-long friendship between Pesky, Doerr, DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. The four men now have a statue of their own outside Fenway.

Pesky’s rehabilitation in the eyes of Red Sox fans became abundantly clear in 1997 when general manager Dan Duquette banned Pesky from his customary spot in the Boston dugout during games. Red Sox fans, reporters, and players united in their condemnation of Duquette. First baseman Mo Vaughn said, “Johnny Pesky gave his heart and soul to the Boston Red Sox. He’s a great man, and he should be appreciated for all this time. He should be here with us, on the road with us, talking with us. Johnny Pesky, if anybody should be here, it’s him.”

Dan Shaughnessy derided it as a “cold, cowardly, corporate move” from “the rotisserie nerd/general manager who runs the Red Sox as if they are US Steel.” Shaughnessy’s support for Pesky stood out, as he had declared in Curse of the Bambino that Pesky “was a man with no need for a name. Fair or unfair, he was, is, and forever will be the man who held the ball.”

When John Henry and Tom Werner bought the Red Sox in 2002, they sought to ingratiate themselves to Red Sox fans. Enter Pesky. In 2003, they invited him back into the dugout where Pesky remained on and off until 2007 when Major League Baseball threatened the Red Sox with large fines. Manager Terry Francona said, “They warned us so many times, I think they got tired of it.” The then 87-year-old Pesky was allowed to be in uniform and on the field before games but had to leave the dugout prior to the first pitch.

In the coming years, the Red Sox continued to honor Pesky. In 2006, the Red Sox officially named Fenway Park’s right field foul pole “Pesky’s Pole.” The pole earned its name after former Red Sox pitcher and broadcaster Mel Parnell claimed Pesky had won a game for him in 1948 with a home run that wrapped just around the poll. Pesky only hit three home runs in 1948 and none while Parnell was pitching. Never wanting the truth to get in the way of a good story, the name stuck. In 2008, the Red Sox retired Pesky’s No. 6. It now hangs in right field near those of his teammates Williams and Doerr.

After Pesky died in 2012, over 100 Red Sox employees attended his funeral. Red Sox owner Henry described Pesky as “a dear and beloved friend.” Chairman Werner called him “the grandfather of the Red Sox.” President and CEO Larry Lucchino noted, “He has been as much a part of Fenway Park as his retired No. 6 that rests on the right-field façade, or the foul pole that bears his name.”

All the honors and adulation given to Pesky were a dramatic change of fortune. After Game Seven of the 1946 World Series, it would have been unimaginable for Red Sox fans to remember Pesky as anyone but the man responsible for a heartbreaking loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of his life, however, Johnny Pesky the man had overcome Johnny Pesky the myth.

References and Resources

Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst.
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Dennis Bedard
3 years ago

Fascinating stuff. Nice that you mention David Halberstam, a political/pop culture writer who never was fully appreciated as a baseball historian. I believe that the nickname “The Hat” belonged to Harry Walker and not Harry Brecheen who was known as “The Cat.” Interesting that the play was labeled “Pesky Held The Ball.” About 20 years later, John Havlicek intercepted 76er inbound pass to seal a Celtic semi final series victory. The play became known as “Havlicek Stole The Ball” in Boston lore.

tramps like us
3 years ago

I’m not sure what I’m seeing? I’ve watched the video several times and what I see is, had Pesky known prior to receiving the ball that Slaughter was running home, and had caught the ball and fired without hesitation, he’d have got him with a good throw. It almost looks like he double clutched. That’s what the video seems to show. I’m not making a conclusion that he “held the ball” but am just reporting what I see in the video.

3 years ago
Reply to  tramps like us

I agree. As best as i can make out, slightly more than a second elapsed from when pesky caught the ball to when he threw it. If he’d thrown it instantly and the throw was hard and right on target, there’s a good chance he would have gotten him, but it would have been a great play. My main reaction to the play is being impressed with slaughter’s baserunning. He didn’t hesitate for an instant and rounded 3rd at full speed.

Lunch Anglemember
3 years ago

The video may be grainy, but it looks pretty apparent to me that Pesky hesitates for a split second before he relays the ball home. Not by much, but enough that he could have made it a play at the plate with a good throw.

3 years ago

A fine article, thanks! Great picture at the top, but rest in peace Yordano Ventura.