Pesky: The Man, the Myth, the Truth

Johnny Pesky

Johnny Pesky

Another offering from old pal John B Holway, especially relevant as we near the third game of the fourth World Series matchup of the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.

Do reporters report the news? Or invent it?

Hark back 65 years to the first Red Sox-Cardinal World Series in 1946. You’ve heard the story: Johnny Pesky held the ball while Enos Slaughter streaked home on Harry Walker’s hit to lose the final game. People who never saw the game–who weren’t even born yet–swear to it as the truth.

But those lucky 34,000 who were at the game didn’t see Johnny hold the ball. They couldn’t have, because the official film of the game didn’t see it either. I’ve studied the film again and again in slow motion and stop action.

It just didn’t happen.

Marty Marion and other Cardinals agreed: Johnny got a bad rap.

For 30 years Johnny and I have had a standing offer: If you will watch the film and you still honestly believe he held the ball, we’ll buy you a steak dinner for two.

We’ve never had to buy a dinner yet.

Yet most of the newspapers of that pre-TV day told us that he really did hold the ball. Why were they so positive that something that didn’t happen, did?

The following should be required reading in every freshman journalism class in America. It’s a classic example of how newsmen sometimes don’t report the news. They invent it.

My theory: Six years earlier, in the 1940 World Series, Detroit shortstop Dick Bartell did hold the ball, allowing a Cincinnati run to score in a 2-0 defeat. Six years later the play was fresh in some scribes’ minds. I believe that Jack Lang of the AP yelled, “Did you see that?  Did you see that?  Pesky held the ball!  Pesky held the ball!”

There was no instant replay then.  But Lang was so positive that it did happen, the others were too embarrassed to admit that they missed it. Some may have sheepishly inserted it in their stories.

As for the others, when their stories arrived on their editors’ desks, Lang’s  AP story had gotten there ahead of them, and the editors decided they better insert it.

I have looked up 18 major major papers that sent writers to cover the game. Half of them didn’t say a word about Pesky holding the ball. The other half mentioned it briefly, half-way down in their stories.

Enos Salughter

Enos Slaughter

Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, one of the country’s two most famous sportswriters, wrote that Pesky “carefully studied” the signature of league president Will Harridge on the ball while Slaughter raced home.

Vicious sardonic humor, the kind that made Povich famous.

But worthless as journalistic reportage.

Because of such mendacious journalism, Slaughter, a .300-hitting outfielder, was voted into the  Hall of Fame, and Pesky, a .313-hitting shortstop, was locked out.

Meantime two other examples of journalistic manipulation were going on.

First, some reports said Slaughter ran through a ”stop” sign by third base coach Mike Gonzales, who was holding up his arms and yelling, “No! No!” This gave us the picture of the daring Anglo-Saxon ignoring a timid Latin to bring victory to his team.

The truth: Gonzales was frantically waving his arms and yelling, “Go! Go!” But that’s not the story the sportswriters wanted to write and their readers wanted to read.

Second, the official scorer ruled Walker’s drive a two-base hit. It’s not unusual to score from first on a double, so Bob Broeg, a cub reporter for the St Louis Globe-Democratic, ran screaming to him: “You’re ruining a great story!”  He pleaded with the scorer to change it to a single. It was reported as a double the next morning but was changed to a single the following day. About two weeks later it became a double again, which it remains to this day.

Thus do sportswriters–and other newsmen–create the news they are supposed to be reporting. And their readers and future historians never realize what has been done to them.

There is an addendum to the story that you never read about.

The Red Sox still had three outs in the ninth. Bobby Doerr spanked a single. Rudy York lined  another single, sending the tying run to third with no out. But the bottom of the batting order was up, and they went out 1-2-3. The final out was a ground ball. Second baseman Red Schondienst (.289 lifetime) gloved it, but the ball rolled up his arm, and he just did nip the batter at first.

“If I had dropped it,” Red shuddered, “I would have been the goat.” If so, he might not be in Cooperstown today, and Johnny, now shorn of his goathood, would.

15 Comments

This is a fabulous article about a tale that all of us old folks have accepted as true for years. I am so grateful to Mr. Thorn and Holway for this timely article. Frankly I always wondered why Slaughter mad the HOF.

Wonderful article John. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Harold

After looking at the video, it does look like he had trouble getting the ball out of the glove. Regardless, the outfielder’s throw was weak( a sub for DiMaggio) and that more than Pesky led to the run. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7IgTE593oA

Why blame Johnny Pesky, an excellent player and wonderful person? Enos Slaughter made a daring dash. Give him credit.

A wonderful report on reporting and the human frailities that sometimes color a story for the sake of furthering a reporter’s currency among his journalist peers, not to mention his editors and the guys who write the pay checks. Well done and required reading for all reporters young and old.

It’s often said that you can’t “unring” a bell and nowhere in our culture is this aphorism more accurate than in the collective memory of American sports. Images of players become permanently fixed in our imaginations and no matter what new light, positive or negative, is cast upon the subjects, the view remains essentially the same. One can only hope that through the efforts of gentlemen like John Thorn, John Holway, Bill James, and others clamoring for facts over fiction, the din of that bell that cannot be unrung can at least be drowned out.
As to Mr. Pesky and the Hall of Fame, it seems to me that for him, the biggest roadblock to Cooperstown was World War II. Had the war not happened, Johnny’s career would have been extended beyond a barely qualifying ten seasons to a more substantial thirteen. More to the point, those seasons would have occurred during his athletic peak: Johnny Pesky led the American League in hits in 1942 (205), 1946 (208), and 1947 (207)–imagine the numbers he might have posted in the years 1943 through 1945 batting in front of Ted Williams in his prime. A conservative estimate would have Pesky finishing his career with a batting average somewhere midway between .310 and .315 instead of .307–comparable to the batting marks of Hall of Fame shortstops Joe Sewell (.312), Hughie Jennings (.311), and Luke Appling (.310), and bettered significantly only by Arky Vaughn’s .318 and Honus Wagner’s .327.
Would those hypothetical three years be enough to punch Johnny’s Cooperstown ticket? Maybe, maybe not. But they would certainly make the discussion more interesting, the 1946 controversy notwithstanding.

You have written an eloquent brief for his entry into the Hall oF Fame. Nicely done.

Thank you, thehman999. I appreciate the kind words.
As a “Big Hall” advocate, I certainly wouldn’t object to Johnny Pesky’s enshrinement at Cooperstown. However, my one caveat in this case would be that we should not give the hypothetical the same weight as the actual. I believe it’s likely that Pesky would have added another 600 or so hits to his career total, but it’s also conceivable that while playing in the years between 1943 and 1945, he might suffered a career-ending injury. Those lost seasons do provide food for thought, though….
Anyway, even if Johnny Pesky never makes it to the Hall of Fame as a ballplayer, he was most certainly a Hall of Fame human being as anyone who knew him or knew of him would tell you.

This is the first article by Mr. Thorn that I have read and it won’t be the last. I certainly was those who believed Pesky “held the ball” and now know otherwise. Given the pull that these writers had to report news as they wanted. Funny that I always liked Mr. Broeg’ s writing for The Sporting News, but now wonder what was news. Also a thought here…since it is these same writers who elect players to the Hall Of Fame, could they have elected Slaughter because he was a part of one the stories they “created”???

I hear you David. Harold

Wonderful article. A very good player and an even better person, Johnny didn’t deserve to wear goat horns but he suffered the indignity with charm and grace.

How about for inventive memories of the nonexistent:

1. The photo of Pee Wee with his arms around Jackie in Cincy or Boston or wherever?

2. The Willard Mullin cartoon of the Gashouse Gang as described by Durocher and others?

3. The Tad Dorgan “hot dog” cartoon?

Good ones all, in the Baseball Apocrypha line.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

Seems to me it’s a story pretty similar to – but less famous than – the Babe Ruth “called shot” myth from the 1932 World Series against the Cubs.

Not really similar to Babe Ruth because the Babe tale establishes a legend while Pesky’s tarnishes a very good career.

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