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Friday, October 22, 2004
'Pesky held the ball' a part of BoSox lore

Associated Press

BOSTON -- Johnny Pesky is still holding on. He's holding on to a baseball career in its seventh decade and to the affection of Red Sox fans who once blamed him for Boston's loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1946 World Series.

The Red Sox are back in the Series for the first time since 1986, playing for the title against their nemesis from '67 and from '46, when Pesky's late -- some say delayed -- relay throw allowed Enos Slaughter to score the decisive run. A victory would give Boston its first title since 1918, the year before the 85-year-old Pesky was born.

For all the people that had to suffer from 1918 until now, this is for them ... especially Johnny.
Ron Jackson
Red Sox hitting coach

"I want to see us win one time, because it's been a long time coming," he said Friday at his locker in the home clubhouse at Fenway Park. "I can die happy then. ... If they win, I'm going to take all my clothes off and run through the ballpark."

The former Red Sox shortstop is still feisty and, from the looks of him, not going anywhere soon. But this might be his best chance to see the Red Sox win and be a part of it from his perch, largely honorary, as a special assignment instructor.

Even better, he has a chance to see it against the Cardinals, who helped make him the goat in the '46 Series when the announcer told listeners that he held the ball while Slaughter made his "Mad Dash" for home.

"I don't know about payback, but we deserve to win it this year," Pesky said. "Why? Because we're the last of the Mohicans. I've been praying so long for it."

Pesky was a .307 hitter in his career, a teammate of Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio. But like Bill Buckner, a former batting champion and All-Star, he is remembered in Boston for a gaffe on the grandest stage.

In Game 7 of the '46 Series, the Red Sox and Cardinals were tied 3-3 in the eighth when Harry "The Hat" Walker lofted one into left-center. Pesky went into the outfield to get the throw from Leon Culberson.

Slaughter was running from first on the pitch and just kept going; Culberson, a backup playing for the injured DiMaggio, had a weak arm and sent Pesky a lollypop of a throw. It was an afternoon game in front of a boisterous St. Louis crowd, and if anyone told Pesky where to go with the relay, he didn't hear it.

By the time Pesky picked up Slaughter, it was too late.

"I get the ball and I could hear everybody was screaming and hollering," Pesky said. "If I had a Garciaparra arm, I might have had him. I knew as soon as I got the ball I couldn't get him."

"I heard [manager Joe Cronin] say, 'I hope it doesn't break the kid's heart,' " Pesky said. "It didn't break my heart -- I had 200 hits the next year."

Slaughter defended him. Doerr and Williams defended him. So did Red Schoendienst, who played second base for the '46 Cardinals, managed them to the title in '67 and is still in uniform with the team in a role similar to Pesky's.

"Johnny didn't hold the ball. It wasn't his fault," Schoendienst said definitively Friday as St. Louis took batting practice. "It was one of those things. It looked like we were destined to win."

And, as has happened all too often, the Red Sox were destined to lose. Just like they were when they lost the Series in seven games in '67, '75 and '86.

True or not, "Pesky held the ball" became part of Red Sox lore. Just like Bucky Dent's homer and Buckner's bungle and the oft-repeated but nonexistent Curse of the Bambino.

"Somebody gets blamed in every World Series. It just happened to be him," current Red Sox reliever Alan Embree said. "I think he's just relishing the fact that we're back."

Pesky didn't want to leave his house when he returned to Oregon, and when he did go to a football game he was heckled by a drunk. He eventually moved to Boston, where he won the sometimes cruel fans over with gentle kindness over 50 years as a Red Sox player, coach, manager, and announcer to wear down any residual anger.

"It's inspirational just to have him around the club," Embree said. "He bleeds Boston Red Sox. You can't help but respect him."

Pesky thought he would get another chance, but he never played in another Series. The Red Sox didn't make it back until the "Impossible Dream" season of 1967, when Bob Gibson and the Cardinals beat Carl Yastrzemski's Red Sox in seven games.

"That's for you," Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson said, poking his head into the crowd of reporters talking to Pesky.

"For all the people that had to suffer from 1918 until now, this is for them," Jackson said, "especially Johnny."

No one wants it -- or needs it more.

Even now, 58 years later, someone will recognize Pesky and pipe up with a wisecrack. Just Friday morning, it happened in the restaurant where he was eating breakfast.

"He said, 'Think they're going to hold the ball?'" Pesky recalled.

"I said, 'If it's the third out, they'd better hold onto it.'"

That's all he's ever wanted.