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Johnny Pesky, beloved by Red Sox fans, dies at 92

Johnny Pesky Fenway Red Sox.jpg

Sept. 28, 2008: Boston Red Sox great Johnny Pesky, center, is flanked by team president Larry Lucchino, left, and owner John Henry as they look past Pesky's Pole where Pesky's No. 6 adorns the upper deck during a ceremony to retire his number. (AP)

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

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

Pesky died at the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers, according to Solimine, Landergan and Richardson funeral home in Lynn. The funeral home did not have a cause of death.

For many in the legion of Red Sox fans, their last image of Pesky will be from the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park on April 20, when the man who became the team's unofficial goodwill ambassador was moved to tears at a pregame ceremony. By then he was in a wheelchair positioned at second base, surrounded by dozens of admiring former players and a cheering crowd.

"I've had a good life with the ballclub," Pesky told The Associated Press in 2004. "I just try to help out. I understand the game, I've been around the ballpark my whole life."

Long-time Red Sox fans recall the days when Pesky was a talented shortstop and manager for the team. Younger ones saw him as avuncular presence at the Red Sox spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla.,

A lifetime .307 hitter who was a teammate to Ted Williams, Pesky would hit grounders to Red Sox infielders with his ever-present fungo bat. He stopped doing that as he aged but still spent time sitting in a folding chair, his bat by his side, signing autographs and chatting with fans of all ages.

His No. 6 was retired by the Red Sox at a ceremony in 2008. Pesky stood under an umbrella at home plate that day, wearing the team's white home uniform.

"All of Red Sox Nation mourns the loss of 'Mr. Red Sox,' Johnny Pesky," Boston mayor Thomas Menino said. "He loved the game and he loved the fans — and we loved him. His dedication to the sport and his passion to improve the game through the mentorship of young players will be sorely missed. Our hearts go out to the Red Sox organization and all of Johnny's family and many friends."

Even though Pesky was a fan favorite, Pesky still had his own place of notoriety in the Red Sox' drought of 86 years without a World Series title. It's a place that many now think is undeserved.

Pesky was often blamed for holding the ball for a split second as Enos Slaughter made his famous "Mad Dash" from first base to score the winning run for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series.

With the score tied 3-3, Slaughter opened the bottom of the eighth inning with a single. With two outs, Harry Walker hit the ball to center field. Pesky, playing shortstop, took the cutoff throw from outfielder Leon Culberson, and according to some newspaper accounts, hesitated before throwing home. Slaughter, who ran through the stop sign at third base, was safe at the plate, and the best-of-seven series went to the Cardinals.

Pesky always denied any indecision, and analysis of the film appeared to back him up, but the myth persisted.

"In my heart, I know I didn't hold the ball," Pesky once said.

Born John Michael Paveskovich in Portland, Ore., Pesky first signed with the Red Sox organization in 1939 at the urging of his mother. A Red Sox scout had wooed her with flowers and his father with fine bourbon. His parents, immigrants from what is now Croatia, didn't understand baseball, but they did understand that the Red Sox were the best fit for their son even though other teams offered more money.

He played two years in the Red Sox minor league system before making his major league debut in 1942.

That season he set the team record for hits by a rookie with 205, a mark that stood until 1997 when fellow Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, with whom he became very close, had 209. He also hit .331 his rookie year, second in the American League only to Williams, who hit .356.

Pesky spent the next three years in the Navy during World War II, although he did not see combat. He was back with the Red Sox through 1952, playing with the likes of Williams, who died in 2002, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio, before being traded to the Detroit Tigers. (In 2003, author David Halberstam told the story of Pesky, Williams, Doerr and DiMaggio in his book "The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship.")

Pesky spent two years with the Tigers and Washington 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 after the club fired Don Zimmer.

The right field foul pole at Fenway Park, just 302 feet from home plate, is named the Pesky Pole in his honor even though Pesky hit just 17 homers in his career, six at Fenway Park. The term was coined by former Red Sox pitcher Mel Parnell, who during a broadcast in the 1950s, recalled Pesky winning a game for him with a home run around the pole.

That tale, much like the Pesky "held the ball" story, appears to be a myth because team records show that Pesky never hit a home run at Fenway in which Parnell was the winning pitcher.

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