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.