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Friends Forever

Former Boston Red Sox Stars Williams and Pesky Have Forged Lasting Relationship

February 25, 2001|HOWARD ULMAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The first time Johnny Pesky saw Ted Williams was at spring training in 1942 at the Sarasota Terrace Hotel.

"He says, 'If you hit .280 you'll help us,' " Pesky said, imitating Williams' commanding voice. Hitting, as usual, wasn't far from the mind of one of baseball's greatest hitters.

The last time Pesky saw Williams was a year ago at the annual dinner honoring new members at the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla.

They missed each other at the event last weekend because Williams is making a slow recovery from open heart surgery.

"It's awful," Pesky said. "I say a prayer every night for him."

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Pesky is a vigorous 81 with silver hair. He wears a Red Sox uniform and hits ground balls as a spring training instructor.

Before Thursday's workout, he sat in a gray folding chair on a sunny day, signing autographs just as he did when he and Williams were Boston teammates.

"Where you from?" Pesky asked a young woman waiting in line.

"Mansfield, Mass.," she answered.

"How long you down here for?" he responded.

On the other side of the country, Williams hasn't been able to talk because of a tracheotomy to assist his breathing. He was transferred Monday to Sharp Memorial Rehabilitation hospital in San Diego, about five miles from his boyhood home.

He's 82 now, just 13 months older than Pesky. His 9 1/2 hours of surgery to repair valves on both sides of his heart on Jan. 15 at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center followed years of health problems.

He had two strokes in the 1990s, has failing eyesight, needed help walking and had a pacemaker implanted before his latest operation. Since then, he's had infections and wasn't able to breathe on his own.

His daughter, Claudia, says doctors have been very positive.

But Williams remains weak more than a month after surgery. A long period of rehabilitation remains.

"When you see him in this condition, it breaks your heart," Pesky said. "You just don't know how amazing he was. He had a great mind."

In 1941, when Pesky was a shortstop at Triple-A Louisville and "The Kid" was almost the age of his nickname, Williams hit .406 In the next spring training, Pesky was eating at the Sarasota Terrace with Red Sox infielder Bobby Doerr when Williams walked in the dining room.

"He looked over at me," Pesky recalled. "He says, 'you're the kid from Louisville.' I said, 'yes.' He says, 'they tell me you're a pretty good hitter.' I said, 'oh, pretty good."

Pesky did lead the AL in hits in each of his first three seasons but wasn't nearly as good as Williams.

Maybe no one was.

In their first season as Red Sox teammates, Williams won his second straight AL batting championship with a .356 average. Pesky, ahead of Williams in the lineup, hit .331 with some advice from the master.

One day, the Red Sox were facing Yankees pitcher Spud Chandler, who had given Pesky trouble.

"Ted's sitting in the dugout," Pesky said. "He tells me, 'for crying out loud, you're trying to pull this guy. Your stroke is up the middle and to left field. For God's sake, I'm a foot taller and 40 pounds bigger and I can't pull him.' "

In the eighth inning, the left-handed Pesky broke a tie with a single on the ground to left field. Williams followed with a homer and returned to the dugout.

"He says, 'where's that horn-nosed little shortstop?' " Pesky said. "He said, 'Johnny, didn't I tell you how to hit Chandler?' I said, 'Ted, that pitcher was so damn mad at me for getting that dinky little single, he forgot you were the next hitter.' "

After that season, Williams and Pesky went off to World War II military training together at Amherst, Mass., and Chapel Hill N.C.. As usual, Williams excelled. Later, he was an ace pilot in the Korean War.

They were reunited with the Red Sox in 1946. Williams hit .342. Pesky had a .335 average and another funny story.

Doerr kept trying different stances to snap a slump. It was too much for Williams' scientific approach to hitting. Never one to hide his opinions, Williams approached his teammate.

"He's barking. You could hear it on the next block," Pesky said. "Ted says, 'Get a nice stance and give it a try.' Bobby says, 'Yeah, Ted, but I'm not you.' Ted throws his arms up and says, 'You want to be a lousy .280 hitter, be a lousy .280 hitter.' Then he stomps off."

Williams kept working on his hitting after he left the ballpark. Pesky remembers him swinging a heavy bat in front of a mirror in his apartment near Fenway Park.

"He gave himself a situation. 'We're in Detroit, two men out, tying run is on first base, The Kid is hitting. Pow!' You could hear it like he's announcing a game," Pesky said.

The end of Williams 19-year career, all with Boston, came when he homered at Fenway in his last at bat in 1960 to finish with a .344 average. Pesky, whose season as a Texas League manager had ended, was there.

"I went into the clubhouse afterward and shook his hand," he said.

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