A blast from America’s past
BALTIMORE – At a Red Sox game here against the Orioles, the name Johnny Pesky was memorialized with cheers, and maybe tears, as if he had played for the local team, the beloved O’s. In fact, Pesky was a mainstay of the visiting Boston Red Sox in the period when they always seemed to be finishing just behind the Yankees.
When Pesky died the other day at 92, I had thought he had long since joined the departed. A shower of obituaries and columns reminded me of his role as a member of one of the most memorable teams in baseball history ― memorable for coming in second.
Maybe not quite always, but it seemed that way when they succumbed to the New York Yankees on the last day of the 1949 season ― a low point in the New York-Boston baseball rivalry that endures to this day.
Baseball teams come and go, and you forget the names of most players, but it’s hard to forget the infield of Pesky at third base, Vern Stephens at short, Bobby Doerr at second base and Billy Goodman at first. And the outfield was memorable too ― Ted Williams in left, Dom DiMaggio, brother of Joe of the Yankees in center, and Al Zarilla in right. Mel Parnell and Ellis Kinder were the aces of the pitching staff, and Birdie Tebbetts the catcher.
It seemed tragic when the Red Sox lost, and ``Red Sox nation” has been bemoaning its fate ever since. Okay, they partially made amends when they dominated the American League a few years ago, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series in 2004 and then the Colorado Rockies in 2007. The magic was gone last season, though, when they blew a massive lead and fell to third in the eastern division and now have to struggle to stay out of last place.
If an award were given for the best remembered runner-up team in baseball history, the 1949 Red Sox would be a strong contender ― better remembered than any number of pennant and series winners, whose moments of glory have slid into the miasma of baseball history.
But wait, was baseball the only reason the Sox of that year are so fondly, if sadly, remembered?
It was a halcyon time in American history then, four years after total victory in World War II, but tragedy lay ahead. Less than one year later, in June 1950, the North Koreans crossed the line into South Korea, and the U.S. was immersed in a war that Americans never expected, against an enemy of which no one other than a few officials and scholars had the slightest knowledge.
It was as though the good times were over, at least for a few years. Just as it’s possible to drag the play-by-play of that Red Sox-Yankees game from the depths of the subconscious, so images of the war maps on page one of the papers come to mind. How could it be, you remember thinking as a kid ― the North Koreans advancing down the map of a country no one knew anything about until they seemed to control all but one corner of the peninsula?
Of course, the ending was different. Good times lay ahead after President, formerly General, Eisenhower declared in the 1952 presidential campaign, ``I will go to Korea” ― and made good on that promise soon after his election. Then, less than a year later, the war was indeed over, and both Koreas have survived in an extremely uneasy truce ever since.
Maybe only a general of Eisenhower’s stature and fame could have persuaded those around him, military leaders, diplomats and bureaucrats that the time had come to stop the shooting even if the Korean peninsula remained divided. Perhaps a civilian, such as Eisenhower’s predecessor in the White House, Harry Truman, who had firmly committed the U.S. to the defense of South Korea, would have had to prove his guts by fighting on. Eisenhower’s foe in two presidential elections, Adlai Stevenson, former governor of Illinois, was definitely a liberal – but he too was caught up by the need of the U.S. to stand up against the communists, whether Chinese, Russians or North Koreans.
Pesky, who missed a few years of baseball while serving in the navy in World War II, is not known to have had any strong political views about the Korean War. His memory lives on, though, in ``Pesky’s corner” ― a living memorial to both legend and fact.
The legend is that Pesky once hit a game-winning home run at Fenway Park just inside the foul pole down the right-field line.
Fact is, Pesky only hit six or seven home runs during his entire career at Fenway -- and never the game winner remembered by Mel Parnell after both of them had gone on to new fields of dreams, Parnell as a sportscaster, Pesky as a manager and coach. Fact also is however, that the legend is so strong that a plaque honors ``Pesky’s corner” at the right-field foul pole, and it’s possible to buy a special ticket for the seat where that home run is supposed to have landed.
Somehow the Pesky era survives in memory as a time of optimism in U.S. history. It’s as though Americans would prefer to remember that legendary Boston team, a failure in the end but more successful if collective memory is any guide, than the forgotten war that ensued.
Columnist Donald Kirk remembered Pesky at an Orioles game with the Red Sox in Baltimore this week. His website is www.donaldkirk.com, and he’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.