It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that isn’t so.
6th grade teacher,
PS #9, Clifton NJ
PESKY – THE MYTH
Do reporters report the news?
Or invent it?
(One in a series on baseball myths)
By John B Holway
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 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.
For 30 years Johnny and I had a standing offer: If you will watch the film and still honestly believe he held the ball, we’ll buy you a steak dinner for two.
We never had to buy a dinner.
Pesky should be a cinch Hall of Famer. But that one fateful nine seconds kept him out forever. And it never happened.
Here’s what did happen.
First, in the 7th Dom DiMaggio lashed a long drive to the screen in right-center, just missing a home run that would have won the game. Instead, he tied it but pulled a muscle legging it to second and was carried off the field, to be replaced by Leon Culberson.
Second, after Enos singled, Dom hobbled to the dugout steps and hollered to Culberson to move to left against the spray-hitting Harry “The Hat” Walker. Leon didn’t move.
Walker slapped one to left-center. Pesky ran into short center for the relay, which was not very hurried. “I believe I’d have had a play on him at third,” Dom said.
“I never would have tried it with DiMaggio out there,” Enos nodded.
“Home! Home!” Ted Williams yelled, but 34,000 St Louis fans drowned him out.
Pesky took the ball with his back to the plate, whirled, and in the same motion threw home. The low October sun was in his eyes, and the plate was in dark shadow. Johnny said he didn’t see it clearly; his throw was wide, but it wasn’t late.
Marty Marion and other Cardinals agreed: Johnny got a bad rap. Drawled Slaughter laconically: “You can’t see nothin’ out of your rear end.”
Yet many newspapers of that pre-TV day told us that he did hold the ball. Why were they so positive that something that didn’t happen, did? The following should be required reading in every journalism school in America. It’s a classic example of how newsmen sometimes don’t report the news. They invent it.
Six years earlier, in the 1940 World Series, Detroit shortstop “Rowdy Dick” Bartell did hold the ball – his back was to the plate, and he never even threw it. A Cincinnati run scored in a 2-1 defeat in game 7. But nobody ever says, “Bartell held the ball.”
In ‘46 the play was fresh in many 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!”
Following is the damning report Lang sent out to almost every paper in America. It appeared in graph three:
Johnny Pesky took the relay from Leon Culberson and had plenty of time to nail the flying “Country” Slaughter, but for some inexplicable reason “froze” and held the ball just long enough to enable Slaughter to slide in under the throw.
Just 51 words that changed John’s life forever.
But when the others’ stories hit their editors’ desks, Lang’s had gotten there first, and some editors decided they better insert it. Or they called their reporters and asked why they left it out. The scribes then stuck it in.
I have looked up 18 major papers that sent writers to cover the game. Half of them didn’t say a word about Pesky holding the ball. That included the dean of American sports writers, Grantland Rice.
Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, one of the country’s most famous sports scribes, wrote that Pesky “carefully studied” the signature of league president Will Harridge on the ball. Such sardonic humor made Povich famous. But it’s worthless as journalistic reportage.
Because of such sloppy journalism, Slaughter, a .300-hitting outfielder, was voted into the Hall of Fame, and Pesky, a .313-hitting shortstop, was locked out.
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 bold Anglo-Saxon ignoring a timid Latin to seize the victory.
The truth: Gonzales was frantically waving his arms and yelling, “Go! Go!”
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 (left), a cub reporter for the St Louis Globe-Democrat screamed, “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 newsmen create the news they are supposed to be reporting. And in that pre-TV era, their readers and future historians had no way to check it.
There is an addendum to the story that you never read about.
The Red Sox didn’t choke. They 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 went out 1-2-3.
The final out was a ground ball to second baseman Red Schoendienst (.289 life-time), but the ball rolled up his arm, and he just did nip the batter at first. “If I had dropped it,” he shuddered, “I would have been the goat.”
If so, he might not be in Cooperstown today, and Johnny would.
SALUTE TO 3 VETS
When the Hall of Fame gave its living members the job of electing old-timers, it sounded like a good idea. But it had one flaw. Almost all the living Hall of Famers played in the 70s, ‘80s, and 90s, and they voted for guys from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Here are three they see over-looked.
If he had played for the Yankees instead of the Washington Senators, he’d have been elected 30 years ago. In 1933 the 20 year-old Travis got five hits in the first major league game he ever saw. In 1941, the year Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games, On the final day, while Ted was finishing with .406, Cecil and Joe were battling mano-a-mano to see who would finish second. They entered the series with Joe ahead, .3575 to .3573.
In the next three days Travis went 6-for-15 to end with .35855. Joe was 3-for-12 going into his last at bat. A hit would give him .35859. Instead he struck out – one of only 13 for the year – and finished third. (Joe’s biographers don’t tell you this.)
Travis then left for four years in the war at the age of 28 with a lifetime average of .327, two points above Honus Wagner for tops among all shortstops.
Cecil denied that he lost his toes to frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge. But when he returned, “I just couldn’t get started again” and batted .240. That pulled his average down to .314, still second-best among shortstops and 40 points above New Yorkers Rizzuto (.273) and Pee Wee Reese (.269), who made the Hall long ago.
Cecil wasn’t a home run hitter, but he played in the worst home run park in America. If he had played in Yankee Stadium, he might have skimmed seven or eight a year into the short porch there. That’s also seven or eight more hits, and each hit is worth about two points on the annual batting average.
Plus, imagine the press and radio fame he’d have enjoyed in Yankee pinstripes, compared to the anonymity of a Senators uniform.
If he hadn’t lost three seasons to the Navy, his numbers would be close the those of Richie Ashburn, who was the same generation as the electors and who just edged Dom out in the Hall of Fame voting. Dom never got another shot.
Richie couldn’t throw. Dom was the best centerfielder I ever saw, with a powerful arm, and that includes his brother, Joe.
Dom could have stolen more bases, but with Ted Williams coming up behind him, he wasn’t given the green light. When Ted broke his arm in 1950 and missed half a year, Dom led the league in steals for the only time in his life.
If he had not gone to war for three years, Pesky may very well have been the only man in history to make 200 hits in his first six years. (Wade Boggs had six straight, but they began in his sophomore year.)
John hit .307 lifetime, and .330 in the shoulder years around his war-time service. Assuming he had hit .330 in the missing seasons, it would have boosted his lifetime mark to .313. He probably would have hit higher, since the ages he lost, 23-25, were almost the same key years that Williams lost. John’s close friend, Phil Rizzuto, was emphatic that Johnny should have gone in before him.
DiMaggio and Pesky set the table for Williams. A lot of the runs Ted batted in were Dommie and Johnny.
In 1943 the Red Sox were just coming into their peak ages. I believe that in the next three years, they could have won two, maybe three, pennants, which they did do as soon as the war was over in ‘46. World War II was the real Curse of the Bambino.
In 1948 Johnny volunteered to shift to third base when the Sox acquired shortstop Vern Stephens, though his batting average 43 points.
In 1950, when Williams came back from his broken arm, John volunteered to sit on the bench so Billy Goodman could qualify for the batting crown.
From 1946-49 Boston was the best team in baseball. But Cooperstown voters don’t know it.
|Wins||Hall of Famers|
|Boston||379||2 (Williams, Doerr)|
|New York||375||4 (DiMaggio, Berra, Rizzuto, Ruffing)|
|Brooklyn||360||5* (Robinson, Campanella, Reese, Snider, Vaughan)|
|Detroit||358||3 (Newhouser, Kell, Greenberg)|
|St Louis||346||3 (Musial, Slaughter, Schoendienst)|
|Cleveland||334||6 (Feller, Boudreau, Wynn, Lemon, Doby, Paige)|
|*Brooklyn fans want to add Gil Hodges.|
Pesky started as a club-house boy for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, where he met many men he would later face in the Majors. One was the Yankees’ Spud Chandler, whole quickly threw a fastball under the rookie’s chin. Johnny hollered, “You don’t scare me – I used to pick up your jock straps.”
Next: The Ghosts of Baseball
Really enjoyed this, John!!
(Paul Haas, the go-to-guy for anything about the Giants, points out that there was one out when Thomson hit his shot – Monte Irvin had fouled out. Monte said he was trying too hard for a homer, but even if he had hit one, the Dodgers would probably have brought in a new pitcher, and everything might have changed – no Branca, no Thomson, no homer, no pennant, no story. Ironically, Monte had led the Giants to the flag with 37 GWABS – Games Won At Bat – just one below the record. And he could have been a Dodger if Branch Rickey hadn’t tried to steal him from the Newark Eagles without paying them. But that’s the subject for another post. JBH
See a Good Movie
Beasts of No Nation. In a nameless African country, a 12-year old boy is captured by rebels and slowly grows from a scared kid to a pitiless killer. Countless children are recruited into real wars there every day. This is a grimly true story, and its young star, Abraham Attah, should get special recognition on Academy Award night. The film itself deserves a nomination.