Friday, August 17, 2012

Tall Tale: Origin of the Pesky Pole Feeds Red Sox Lore

[Jim Davis/The Boston Globe]
Mel Parnell, a former pitcher and
broadcaster, is believed to have
invented some Red Sox history.
By Peter May
New York Times
August 14, 2012

The truth is, no one really knows exactly how — or why — the right-field foul pole in Fenway Park came to be known as the Pesky Pole. The truth, too, is that no one was really giving the subject that much thought until Johnny Pesky died on Monday at age 92 after seven decades with the Boston Red Sox as a player, manager, coach, broadcaster and beloved baseball ambassador.
But his death created some curiosity — after all, it is not as if numerous foul poles in other major league stadiums are named after people living or dead. So why Pesky?
The answer, or what passes for one, probably has something to do with Mel Parnell, a former Red Sox pitcher and broadcaster and teammate of Pesky's who is believed to have coined the term, or at least popularized it, while doing color commentary on radio and television broadcasts for the team in the 1960s.
It is part of baseball folklore that Parnell was inspired to name the pole in Pesky's honor because the former Red Sox shortstop, a good hitter with little power, once hit a game-winning home run that curled around the pole. And that the home run — Pesky hit all of 13 in his seven-plus seasons in Boston, and just 6 at Fenway — made Parnell the winning pitcher.
"That makes for an interesting story, but it isn't true," Dick Bresciani, the Red Sox's vice president-emeritus and team historian, said Tuesday. "The real origin is unknown, but Parnell is involved. It just took on a life of its own over the years."
"We know Mel said it," Bresciani said of Parnell. "But there's a lot of mystique as to what he really meant. You can't really put a finger on it and, in a way, I suppose that makes it even more intriguing a story."
Pesky and Parnell were teammates in Boston from 1947 until Pesky was traded to Detroit in June 1952. But it was not until Parnell became a Red Sox broadcaster that the term Pesky Pole became part of the Red Sox lexicon. Parnell apparently never elaborated much on the topic — at least not for publication — and he died in March at 89.
The Red Sox officially named the pole after Pesky on Sept. 27, 2006, his 87th birthday. This was some 40-plus years after Parnell became a Boston broadcaster and talked of the Pesky Pole and more than 60 years after the Red Sox owner Thomas Yawkey reconfigured the right-field line to make it more homer-friendly for a young Ted Williams.
As a result, the distance to the foul pole was reduced to 302 feet from 325, making it an easy home run if the ball is hit down the line.
One theory is that Parnell coined the term to poke fun at Pesky, and his utter lack of power. But is it possible that Pesky actually hit a home run or two around the pole?
"It's an open question," said the Vermont-based author Glenn Stout, who wrote "Fenway 1912," an account of Boston's first season at Fenway Park.
"In the end, however, it doesn't really matter," Stout added. "If this gives us another reason to remember and appreciate Johnny Pesky, so much the better."
In doing research for his book, Stout said he did not come across another park that had named a foul pole in someone's honor. Not that it matters, either, in Stout's opinion.
"There's only one foul pole that has a name," he said. "Any other is just an homage to the original."
Parnell's first year in the broadcast booth came the year after Pesky finished the second of his two years as the manager of the Red Sox. When Parnell left the booth after the 1968 season, he was replaced by Pesky, who, as far as can be determined, never attached Parnell's name to a piece of Fenway.

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