I bring this up because Johnny Pesky passed away today, too young at age 92. He was born John Paveskovich and wanted to be a hockey player. In 1942 he had the best season by a rookie shortstop ever, at least according to Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract*. That year he finished third in the American League MVP voting. In 1943 he was in the Navy, and he didn't play again until 1946, when he finished 4th in the MVP race. One of baseball's all time great what-ifs** is how time lost to military service during the war (and also during Korea) affected various players' careers. In Pesky's case, the lost seasons may have cost him a shot at the Hall of Fame. He was an exceptional shortstop in the seven seasons surrounding his service. Add another three years in his prime, and he becomes the subject of some argument***.
* The NBJHBA was published in 2001, some 47 years after Pesky's last game. In the same entry, James also ranked Pesky the 20th best shortstop ever, which is odd because in the original The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, published 16 years earlier, he includes entries for 25 shortstops, none of whom is Pesky.
** Probably second only to what if black players had been allowed to play in the majors prior to 1947?, which is the ne plus ultra of such questions.
***The rub here is that Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto, who are in the Hall and are the most likely contemporary shortstops to compare to Pesky, also lost those three years, as did Arky Vaughan, by far the best shortstop of that era.
After his playing days, he remained in baseball in one job or another almost to the day he died. He was on the Red Sox payroll for more than sixty years all told, as a player, as a coach, occasionally as the manager, and always as an ambassador for the game and the team.
I had the privilege of meeting Johnny Pesky a couple of times over the years at events at PawSox games, and he was a joy to talk to. The ball he autographed for me is my second favorite after my Koufax ball. Bill James's comment in TNBJHBA mirrors my own experience:
Pesky is a gregarious, cheerful man who can tell stories about old-time baseball for hours—not the well-formed, punch line anecdotes retold a hundred times, but random, slice-of-life stories that resist efforts to move them to paper. Are athletes special people? In general, no, but occasionally, yes. Johnny Pesky at 75 was trim, youthful, optimistic, and practically exploding with energy.
Rest in peace, Johnny. There aren't many ballplayers who get parts of their home fields named after them. Even the Yankees had a moment of silence for him before their game tonight.