John Holway / History
SLAUGHTER, PESKY, AND THE POWER OF MYTH
John B Holway
The death of Enos Slaughter inevitably reminds us of his famous dash in the seventh game of the 1946 World Series. It won the Series, put Enos in the Hall of Fame and kept another great little player, Johnny Pesky, out.
In that one dramatic nine seconds, a myth was born, and still survives after 57 years, that Johnny held the ball, while Enos streaked home.
In 1980 I talked to all the surviving principals in the play. I also studied the official game film -- endlessly, in slow motion and stop action. It shows Pesky dashing from shortstop out to short center, taking the throw, whirling, and throwing home. Not a nano-second of hesitation. If Johnny held the ball, the camera didnt see it.
Yet that awful moment has hung like an albatross around Peskys neck, blotting out an illustrious career that should have been crowned by a plaque in Cooperstown.
The key to the play came half an inning earlier. The Red Sox were losing 3-1, when little Dom DiMaggio, the best outfielder in the game then, with the best throwing arm yes, better than brother Joes slammed a two-out double to score two runs and tie the game. But Dom pulled a muscle sliding into second and had to be helped as he limped off the field.
In the bottom of the eighth, reserve outfielder Leon Culberson trotted out to center. Slaughter, the first man up, singled off right-handed reliever Bob Klinger. Klinger got the next two men out, with left-handed Harry Walker up next. Harry the Hat was hot he was already 6-for-16 in the Series. Boston manager Joe Cronin might have called on a left-hander to replace Klinger, but he made no move.
Walker was a spray hitter, and DiMaggio says he hobbled to the top of the dugout steps, frantically calling to Culberson to move over to his right, but in the roar of the St Louis crowd, Leon didnt hear him.
Slaughter sprinted off before the pitch and was almost to second when Walker slashed a line drive to Culbersons left. Enos never stopped. He tore toward third as Culberson made a weak throw to the infield, and kept riht on streaking toward home.
Myth says third base coach Mike Gonzales frantically waved his arms and shouted, No! No! Actually, Mike insists, he was waving Enos on and shouting, Go! Go!
Enos went. At top speed.
But I never would have tried it if DiMaggio had been out there, he admitted freely in later years.
In fact, Dom told me, I thought I might have had a play at him at third.
The film, a black-and-white long shot taken from the stands behind home, is not as clear as modern color TV replays with zoom lenses. But it does illustrate one important fact: The outfield was bathed in bright autumn sunlight; the infield and home plate were in deep shadow. Peskys back was to the plate, and he didnt see Slaughters dash behind him. Nor did he hear his teammates yelling, Home! Home!
When he turned to throw, Johnny says, he couldnt focus immediately on where Slaughter was, and the throw was wide, but Enos had it beat anyway.
Walker maintained that he stretched his hit on purpose to decoy Pesky to turn to his right for a play at second, thus allowing Slaughter to score. Johnny denies that he turned, and the camera backs him up. John whirled to his left and threw home. Since Walker would have been the third out, nullifying the run, his claim is unlikely anyway.
Walker was given a double. Slaughter thus scored from first on a two-base hit, a not uncommon play. (It was later changed to a single to make Slaughter's dash more dramatic, but now is officially recorded as a double again.)
I have studied almost all the major newspapers accounts the following day. About half didnt say a word about Pesky holding the ball, and of those who did, many buried it low in their stories or use ambiguous language, such as "The Red Sox stood around watching." (That's safe, 30,000 people were also standing and watching.).
What I think happened was this:
Up in the press box, someone probably Jack Lang of the Associated Press -- may have shouted, Did you see that? Did you see that? Pesky held the ball! Pesky held the ball. Langs account was the most emphatic report. The other writers hadnt seen it they couldnt have. Nor could they have been watching Slaughter with one eye and Pesky with the other. On the other hand, they couldn't admit that they may have missed the biggest play of the game. But when editors back home saw Langs story, they sent a rocket to their men in St Louis, asking why they didnt have it in their dispatches, and the reporters either sheepishly added it to their stories, or someone on the copy desk inserted it for them.
A similar play had occurred five years earlier in the 1941 World Series, when Detroit shortstop Dick Bartell did hold the ball, allowing a Cincinnati runner to score in a 2-0 Detroit defeat. That play was still fresh in many minds, including Langs.
But St Louis shortstop Marty Marion and other Cardinals I talked to agreed that Pesky got a bum rap.
Nevertheless, a cruel myth was born. Peskys name was forever linked with those of Fred Merkle, Mickey Owens, and other famous goats of baseball history. For almost 60 years people who never saw the play and never viewed the film still believe the myth and repeat it as fact.
I have written frequently about the play and offered my readers a bet: If you can view the film and still feel in your heart that Pesky held the ball, Johnny and I will buy you a steak dinner for two. If you cant, you buy us dinner. No one ever took us up on it.
Without that play, Pesky would today be smiling down from a much-deserved plaque on the walls of Cooperstown.
John batted .335 that season, his second in the majors and his first after three years in the Navy Air Corps. He made over 200 hits in each of his first three seasons. Assuming he could have made 200 in the missing wartime years, that would give him a record 200 hits in each of his first six years.
Even without the three missing war years, John ended with a .307 lifetime average, which would have been higher if those prime war seasons had been included. Very few shortstops in Cooperstown hit over .307. The two most recent, Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto, batted .269 and .273, respectively.
For almost six decades Pesky, 82, has lived with this myth. He hasnt alibied. He hasnt complained. But he says quietly, In my heart, I know I didnt hold the ball.
The camera knows it too.