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Johnny Pesky’s terrific big-league start

Aug 13, 2012, 6:00 PM EDT

Johnny Pesky - 1949 Bowman

Johnny Pesky didn’t finish his major league career with anything close to Hall of Fame numbers, but who knows what might have happened if he didn’t miss his age 23, 24 and 25 seasons to serve in World War II?

I’ll admit that I didn’t realize just how good Pesky was early on before checking out his stats today. The Needle led the American League in hits each of his first three seasons.  As a 22-year-old rookie in 1942, he managed to pull off the rare double of leading his league in both hits (205) and sacrifice bunts (22) on his way to a third-place finish in the MVP balloting. Back from the war in 1946, he had 208 hits and finished fourth in the MVP vote.  In 1947, he had 207 hits.

Here’s the all-time top 10 for hits in a player’s first three seasons:

678 – Lloyd Waner
662 – Ichiro Suzuki
640 – Paul Waner
635 – Al Simmons
620 – Johnny Pesky
615 – Joe Dimaggio
591 – Albert Pujols
588 – Earl Averill
587 – Kirby Puckett
583 – Pinky Whitney

Every player in the top nine besides Pesky is or will be a Hall of Famer. Not only that, but they were all outfielders (even Pujols was an outfielder then). Pesky was a shortstop and a pretty good one, though he did move to third base to make room for Vern Stephens in 1947.

Of course, Pesky was a singles-hitter helped out by batting high in some very good Red Sox lineups, aiding his raw hit totals. He did bat .330 over the three-year span, though. His overall .330/.390/.411 line matches up pretty well with Ichiro’s .328/.374/.440 line and rates a lot better than Puckett’s .304/.340/.424 line.

Pesky remained a fine regular for four more years after 1947. He never led the league in anything, but he had some remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratios (in 1949, he had 19 strikeouts and 100 walks in 712 plate appearances). In 1951, at age 31, he hit .313/.416/.398 in 131 games. And that was pretty much it for him. He fell all of the way off to .225/.372/.262 in 1952, had a modest rebound in 103 games with the Tigers in 1953 and then struggled through one final year in 1954.

It’s what happened after Pesky’s playing career that will cause him to be remembered so fondly by Red Sox Nation, but make no mistake: he was an excellent player, one of the AL’s best at his peak. He ended up with six .300 seasons, four seasons with at least a .400 OBP (plus two more over .390) and six seasons with at least 100 runs scored.

  1. GoneYickitty - Aug 13, 2012 at 6:07 PM

    I have so much respect for the guys who went and fought for free world.

    Rest In Peace Mr. Pesky

    • istillbelieveinblue - Aug 14, 2012 at 7:50 AM

      So many great players voluntarily gave up their primes years to serve. Ted Williams makes a real run at Babe Ruth’s 714 if he doesn’t miss 3 years to serve during WWII, plus most of 2 seasons to serve in Korea. He hit .406 with 37HR in 1941, and .356 with 36HR in 1942. According to Baseball Reference, his career 162 game average for homeruns was 37. He finished his career with 521 homers. Add in those three years, and he finishes with 632. However, he only played 6 games in 1952 and only 37 games 1953 due to military service in Korea. Add in another 50 HR, and he finishes at 682. That puts him second to Ruth, and would currently sit 4th (3rd if you remove Bonds, but that is a discussion for another time). Those years would have also put him well over 2000 career RBI, as well.

      Ted was just one of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans that left their day jobs to defend our country during perhaps the most pivotal event of the 20th century. We all owe Mr. Williams, Mr. Pesky and all veterans a debt of gratitude. The Greatest Generation is quickly disappearing, so if you see a veteran of WWII, or any foreign conflict, go up and shake his hand and thank him (or her).

  2. SmackSaw - Aug 13, 2012 at 6:09 PM

    Teddy Ballgame loved him. I had no idea he was such a great hitter in his first three seasons. There’s a book called ‘The Teammates’ about the lifelong relationship between Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky. It’s a good read.

    • badintent - Aug 14, 2012 at 2:27 AM

      Great Book, read it instead of some of the bloggers on other baseball sites.

  3. Glenn - Aug 13, 2012 at 6:29 PM

    Johnny Pesky is one of the more under-rated players, as you have done such a great job of illustrating. The moving to third base to make room for an inferior fielding Vern Stephens made no sense.

    Pesky was one of my first autographs when he was coaching in the early seventies. He was mechanically signing and I said to him that he was the best Red Sox shortstop and lead-off hitter Red Sock ever. He stopped, looked me right in the eye, and politely said thank you very much. He probably figured a little kid had no idea who he was. My neighbor growing up lived in Boston when he was young and saw Babe Ruth, Smokey Joe Woods, etc. He said Pesky, Tris Speaker, and Fred Lynn were his favorite players to watch. Before internet and blogs, we had to sit under trees and listen to old guys.

    • stlouis1baseball - Aug 14, 2012 at 9:34 AM

      “Before internet and blogs, we had to sit under trees and listen to old guys.”
      Glenn: Our Country would be a lot better off if we still be spent time sitting under trees listening to old guys. This is something that gets lost on a lot of people.
      You learn a great deal listening to old guys.
      Hell…you learn a great deal by listening.

  4. jjdstl01 - Aug 13, 2012 at 7:01 PM

    To All Red Sox Fans,

    Sorry for your loss, he was a Red Sox and a WWll hero.

    It’s a loss that all real baseball fans feel.

    RIP Johnny P.

    StL Cardinal Fan

  5. tfbuckfutter - Aug 13, 2012 at 7:02 PM

    Heh…..so beloved in Boston but really….imagine how today’s media there would have treated him…..Especially in the 1952 season (and even his 1948 season when he wasn’t very good).

    • bigleagues - Aug 14, 2012 at 3:57 AM

      I disagree with a lot of what you say, but to be honest I’m not sure why so many have thumbed you down. There’s a lot of truth to what you said.

      However, guys who hustled and honored and played the game right, like Pesky, will always rise above media opportunism and shallowness.

      In many ways, Pesky was our Jeter.

    • 18thstreet - Aug 14, 2012 at 10:11 AM

      Don’t underestimate how tough the 1952 media was. Ted Williams was reviled in his time.

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