September 25, 2008

The Truth About Pesky's Pole

Johnny Pesky will be honored by the Boston Red Sox tonight and his #6 will be officially retired. The ceremony will come on the eve of his 89th birthday -- and I'm thrilled that the Red Sox are doing this while Pesky is still around.

Two years ago, the Red Sox formally named the right field foul pole "Pesky's Pole". If you listen to a national broadcast or an out-of-town announcing team from Fenway, chances are that sometime during the night, they will mention the history behind the pole. If you are lucky, they'll offer a benign explanation. The worst offenders, however, are the ones who call it "the Pesky Pole" and then never explain why, leaving casual viewers in the dark -- or thinking perhaps that the pole itself is pesky, like maybe it moves sometimes.

In June 2002, Pesky told the Globe that Mel Parnell
was broadcasting a game with Ken Coleman and Ned Martin one night [between 1965 and 1968]. Someone hit a home run down the line and right around the pole, and Mel started talking about a game I hit one right around the pole to win it. The game was around '49 or '50, and I hit one late that won it for us. It might have even hit the pole. ... Mel came up with the name "Pesky Pole" in that broadcast ... and it stuck.
I have often wondered whether these stories are true. Were most of Pesky's home runs hit down the right field line -- listed as 302 feet from home plate though probably more like 295? Did most of them barely sneak into the stands?

Pesky, a left-handed batter, hit 17 home runs in his 10-year major league career. He hit 13 of them with the Red Sox -- and six were hit at Fenway Park.

Rob Neyer, in "Feeding The Green Monster" (his account of attending every game at Fenway in 2000), states that he had read* how Pesky's home runs had "often" hit the pole. Neyer was naturally suspicious, so he got the dates of Pesky's Fenway home runs and went off to look at microfilm of the Globe and Herald.

(*: Looking through my own books, I cannot find any reference to Pesky actually hitting the pole with a home run. Almost all of what I see online states that Pesky hit his home runs "just beyond" or "around the pole". And oddly, "Red Sox Century" does not mention the pole at all.)

Neyer lists the six home runs and quotes from the two newspapers on page 70 of his book:

August 18, 1942
Globe: "nearness to the foul line"
Herald: "barely penetrated the stands"
April 20, 1946
Globe: "into the second or third row"
Herald: "a few feet ... fair"
August 8, 1946
Globe: "three feet inside the foul pole"
Herald: "into the right field ... grandstand"
June 11, 1950
Globe: "into the right field pavilion"
Herald: (no specifics)
June 18, 1951
Globe: "a good way beyond the foul pole"
Herald: "into the right field grandstand"
August 2, 1951
Globe: "into the right field grandstand"
Herald: "into the right field stands"
It's clear that Pesky never hit the right field pole with a batted ball, though it appears that perhaps three of his home runs -- hit over the course of two seasons (five years) -- landed near the pole. I don't know how much of a pull hitter Pesky was, but he never hit a home run in Boston over the Wall or to center field.

In that Globe interview, Pesky mentions winning a game for Parnell with a shot "around the pole" late in a game. (Some accounts say it was a walk-off home run.) However, this never happened. Only one of Pesky's six Fenway home runs came in a game pitched by Parnell. That was on June 11, 1950 and Pesky's two-run shot came in the first inning. In addition, Boston lost that game (in 14 innings) -- the Tigers swept a doubleheader that day -- and Parnell got a no-decision.

Pesky also told the Globe:
The one I remember most was Opening Day 1946 when I hit a two-run homer in the eighth right around the pole to win it for us.
This may be correct. Pesky did hit a home run on Opening Day in 1946(April 20) -- and Boston won the game 2-1. I do not have a box score to confirm the inning.

From the evidence above, the legend of Pesky and his pole may be partially accurate and partially a myth. Maybe Pesky hit many foul balls down the right field line that were almost home runs -- and that added to the legend in the mind of people like Parnell? Perhaps, but in my recollection, no one has ever mentioned his propensity to hit foul balls down the line. It is always home runs -- and home runs only.

But none of this should detract from what Pesky has done for the Red Sox organization over the last six decades. I'm glad the club is willing to bend its strict (and quite possibly outdated) rules regarding retired numbers, because if anyone deserves the honor, it's John Michael Paveskovich.

21 comments:

Jere said...

The '46 opening day HR was in the eighth, according to articles I'm seeing on line. One article says "Pesky's four-master went into the left field stands near the foul pole." I have to believe they meant right field, as there were no Monster Seats back then--the only fair stands near a pole were in RF.

In the '46 WS, one article about Game 5 at Fenway says "Johnny Pesky sent the next one 'zooming down the right field foul line only to see it curve outside f, at the foul pole." Interesting that this foul ball was mentioned in an article--maybe it was memorable enough to help the legend along. (Don't know why that "f" is there--must be words missing.)

I also found out his first hit of that WS was down the third base line.

And Ken Coleman wasn't there till '66. So that incident would've been '66-'68. Then again, Pesky replaced Parnell in the booth in '69--why would all four have been in the booth together? Maybe at the end of '68, they were introducing Pesky for next year/saying farewell to Parnell?

FenFan said...

Nice work, redsock!... and you tie it up well by saying that, regardless of the truth, Johnny Pesky has been a dedicated employee of the Red Sox for nearly sixty years and it's a fitting tribute beyond what has already been done.

mugro said...

Redsock, this wonderful article is but one example of why you win awards for this blog and why I can't wait to read it every day.

Great job, and fascinating stuff!!

Also, congratulations to Johnny Pesky for his lifetime of service to the Boston Red Sox!

James said...

Fantastic work!

I remember reading somewhere that it was at first kind of a lighthearted jab at Pesky, i.e., "the only way he'll ever hit a homerun is to wrap it around that pole."

But I have no idea where I read that.

Amy said...

Great post, Allan. I had always wondered about the facts behind the pole stories.

So what are the Red Sox official rules for retiring numbers?

redsock said...

Herald: "According to the team source, the Red Sox have long debated changing the standards a player must reach in order to have his number retired. The current policy, put in place by the previous ownership, holds that a player must be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, have played at least 10 years with the Red Sox, and have finished his career with the club."

redsock said...

Pesky never said he was in the booth, just that Parnell said it while he (Parnell) was in the booth.

I remember reading somewhere that it was at first kind of a lighthearted jab at Pesky, i.e., "the only way he'll ever hit a homerun is to wrap it around that pole."

It certainly could have started that way.

I knew I had read that stuff about the microfilm awhile ago, but could not remember where. It was quite a long search until I found out it was in that Neyer book.

redsock said...

Speaking of Neyer, his latest book (Big Book of Baseball Legends) is full of this sort of thing. Recounts an oft-told story and then checks out the details of it.

Neyer used to do that in some of the old Bill James Abstracts (they were called "tracers" back then, when Neyer was James's assistant). I loved them then -- and can't wait to read the new book.

White said...

I remember my mother complaining about Pesky hitting foul ball after foul ball. Not being a patient women, she wasn't his biggest fan. But that could be part of why the pole is named after him.

L-girl said...

peaking of Neyer, his latest book (Big Book of Baseball Legends) is full of this sort of thing. Recounts an oft-told story and then checks out the details of it.

I hope he includes how he investigated - that's a really interesting part of the story to anyone who has done research of their own.

Nice to see Pesky's full name, too. Not being a long-time fan, I had never seen it before.

Jere said...

"Pesky never said he was in the booth, just that Parnell said it while he (Parnell) was in the booth."

I know, but in the 60s, it's not like it got archived on the internet. So either he happened to be listening, or heard about it. But it seems like the type of story you tell only if you heard it. And since the four people involved include the three announcers, plus the guy who replaced # 3, I feel like Pesky must've been there, and Parnell told the story because he was there. I could be wrong.

Jere said...

And Amy--after reading Allan's answer about team policy, you're saying, "but Fisk didn't finish his career in Boston, and his number's retired." They changed the rules for him, too. Clearly these rules need to be officially changed. I'd change 'em to: "whoever we want to be in is in, but we promise not to let just anybody in...."

redsock said...

They gave Fisk some "job" to make it seem like he was now employed by the Red Sox. fromw hat i have seen on NESN, his job is to wear hideously ugly shirts while standing in the luxury boxes.

I think I read on SoSH that he lives in Chicago and apparently still does stuff for the White Sox too.

phil said...

I'm of mixed opinion on having Pesky's number retired. On the one hand, he was a pretty crappy baseball player. On the other hand, he's put in six decades with the Sox. If there were a way to honor him with a big plaque (or name a prominent part of Fenway after him, possibly a pole of some sort) rather than retire his number, that might be preferable. On the other hand, it'd be weird if anyone did wear his number, and no one's about to give out his number, so there'd at least be a de-facto number retirement that we might as well make official.

Jere said...

I didn't even realize that he's currently working for the White Sox.

Also, "His primary hobby is in cultivating orchids, of which he has maintained a collection of 300."

nixon33 said...

cool info! thanks

L-girl said...

On the other hand, he's put in six decades with the Sox.

I think this should have equal weight, maybe more weight, for a retired number than contributions as a player. It's not the Baseball HoF.

It's a way of honouring a lifetime with a team, and in baseball the highest honour a team can give you is the retired number.

It would seem stingy, almost mean, not to. And he's old. Gotta do it now, or it will be a missed opportunity and a big regret.

L-girl said...

Clearly these rules need to be officially changed.

Definitely. Finishing a career with a team can't be a criteria any more.

phil said...

I think this should have equal weight, maybe more weight, for a retired number than contributions as a player. It's not the Baseball HoF.

Just seems like his number was what he wore as a player, whereas the post-'67ish he's done has been out of uniform. If Theo leads this team to another dozen championships and retires, they'd have to retire something other than his number. I'm just not sure what.

I can be happy for the guy, though. Really they should get the MLB to revise its asinine anti-nonagenarian policies and let the guy hang out in the dugout as something other than an official coach. But they should do that anyway.

L-girl said...

They can retire Theo's cell phone.

James said...

On the one hand, he was a pretty crappy baseball player.

That's just not true. Please find me a list of great defensive shortstop(/thirdbasemen, I guess) who routinely onbased around .400 during the late 40's early 50's.

He's not a hall-of-famer, obviously, but he was incredibly valuable for a good portion of his career.