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Pafko will never be forgotten in home town

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Pafko will never be forgotten in home town
Pictured is a baseball signed by Boyceville native Andy Pafko.Staff photo: Joel Becker

Andy Pafko doesn't have any trouble talking baseball.

Of course, 40 years of his life were all about playing baseball locally, in the minor leagues, for three teams in the Major Leagues, scouting and managing.

Pafko's modest roots are on a farm in rural Boyceville.

His professional baseball career took him around the country. He spent 17 years in the bigs with the Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers and Milwaukee Braves.

He played in five World Series, at least one with each team and won one championship ring. The first trip to the Series was with the Cubs in 1945.

Every Cub fan knows that was the last time Chicago's lovable losers made the elite game of baseball.

And though Pafko also starred with Brooklyn and Milwaukee, he's still a Cub.

Pafko, now 83 years old, lives in the Chicago suburb of Mt. Prospect.

Pafko's hometown isn't about to forget about its most famous athlete.

And he's not about to forget his hometown. Pafko was in Boyceville Friday at the Boyceville Middle School signing autographs for children. Most of the parents of those children probably never saw Pafko play. But the grandparents are the ones who are most familiar.

Pafko comes back to the Boyceville area at least once a year.

"It's always a great treat to come home," Pafko said. He said his family lives in Boyceville and he has brothers living in Minneapolis.

"This is still home and it's always great to come back."

Pafko remembers working on the farm. One of his memories of high school athletics (he played football, basketball and ran track) was running back the opening kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown against Woodville. He was also an excellent football player and was pretty good at track. But as a farm kid, he admitted basketball wasn't his game. He rode the bench for the Bulldogs.

What about baseball?

Boyceville didn't have a high school baseball team at the time.

Pafko did play baseball at home and in the area.

His first stop was a short one. He tried out for the Eau Claire Bears, where he was signed one day, but sent home the next after being cut. Pafko said he was told to go home and play ball around his home town.

"I figured, 'well, there goes my career.' "

So he played around home. While working on the farm with about a month left in the Bears' season, the Eau Claire manager showed up at his home after another player was injured.

So Pafko got his break.

In the winter, his contract was sold to Green Bay. From there he went to the Milwaukee Brewers (not the same club as today's Major League team). The Brewers sent him to Macon, Ga., to play Class B ball. Milwaukee sold him to Los Angeles and he played in the Pacific Coast League. He led the league in batting. When the season ended, he went to the Chicago Cubs for the last month of the Major League season.

In the big leagues, Pafko's first impression was a good one.

"In my first two trips to the plate, I got two hits and drove in four runs. So, I thought this is a piece of cake."

He said most rookies feel a lot of pressure to do well, and when it doesn't happen, things just get worse. But Pafko was lucky enough to break in quickly.

Pafko was with the Cubs for a little more than seven years. In a blockbuster trade, he was sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Following a successful career with the Dodgers, he went to the Milwaukee Braves.

Oh, the stories

Pafko could talk baseball all day.

Here are a few stories:

While playing with the Dodgers in the World Series against the New York Giants, Pafko was a silent player in what is called "the shot heard 'round the world."

Bobby Thompson of the Giants won the World Series for his team with a homer off of Ralph Branca.

"Everybody knew who threw the ball. Everybody knew who hit the ball. But who was the left fielder? I was. I saw the ball go over my head," Pafko said.

He said very few people know who saw the ball go over his head.

"Had the ball been hit in Brooklyn, I would have caught it."

But it was hit in the Polo Grounds, where the left field fence was shallow.

Pafko said that homer cost him about $10,000 when the Dodgers lost the Series.

He then became teammates and roommates with Thompson with the Milwaukee Braves. Once Pafko got to know Thompson, he said he was glad Thompson hit the home run because he was modest, likable player.

Pafko was never a big home run hitter. He tallied 270 fence-clearing hits in his career.

What he can boast is the longest home run ever hit. The record can't be beaten.

"We were playing the Boston Braves (on the road), who became the Milwaukee Braves. I was playing with the Cubs. And I hit a home run over the left field wall. And at the precise time I hit it -- there was a railroad tracks -- and an empty, slow freight train was coming by, pulling empty coal cars. And that ball landed in a coal car and went from Boston to New York --320 miles."

Pafko said the record is listed in a Ripley's Believe It or Not column.

Pafko played against and alongside Jackie Robinson, the spectacular player who broke the color barrier.

He said players should worship the ground he broke for them. "I know the abuse he got from the opposing players."

He said opposing players were always trying to spike him, to hurt him in order to get him off the field.

But there were times when Robinson just couldn't be stopped.

While playing against Robinson, he saw something he had never seen and hasn't seen since.

After Robinson walked on four pitches, Robinson stole second on the next.

"On the next pitch he stole third. He's on third base with two pitches and I'm playing third base that year," he said, adding that Bob Rush, who had a slow delivery, was pitching.

"So I called time and I walked over from third base. I said, 'Bob, you'd better hold this guy on. If you don't hold him on, he's gonna steal home.' I no sooner get back to third base and Bob goes into that slow windup and there goes Jackie Robinson. He stole home."

The great Jackie Robinson walked on four pitches and then stole second, third and home on the next three consecutive pitches.

"I never saw that in all of baseball."

Pafko also has stories to tell after his days in baseball were over.

He still goes to card shows now and then to sign autographs.

Pafko was well-known and well-liked. In 1952, his Brooklyn Dodgers card was numbered No. 1 of the series of cards.

He said an older man bought a stack of unopened cards somewhat recently not knowing that Pafko's No. 1 card was in the set. "So he kept it for about six months. Finally the curiosity got the best of him. He opened it up and there's the Andy Pafko card, No. 1."

That collector sold the card for $83,000 in Washington, D.C. The man who purchased the card is a lawyer from Colorado and met Pafko at a show in Chicago.

Pafko asked him, "So how come you bought that card?"

The man replied, "You were my idol."

The card holder said he was offered more than $100,000 for it.

But he told Pafko, "I'll never sell it. Never."

Pafko still wears the ring he earned with the 1945 Cubs for playing in the World Series. Not since then have the Cubs reached the championship game.

The Cubs have an annual convention in the winter. Former and current players are invited.

Pafko said there have been so many great players for the Cubs who never earned a World Series ring, including Mr. Cub Ernie Banks and Billy Williams.

He said at one of the conventions he said to Banks, "By the way, how many of these do you have?" as he showed Mr. Cub his ring.

"But isn't that sad, such great players -- Ron Santo, Billy Williams and all those great ball players (never played in the World Series)?"

Pafko played three years in the minors, 17 in the majors, coached three years for the Milwaukee Braves, scouted and managed in the farm system.

He actually managed current Chicago manager Dusty Baker in West Palm Beach.

At the Cubs' convention after Baker was named the new manager of the Cubs, Pafko saw Baker talking to the press. Baker saw Pafko walking toward him and excused himself from the media. "He throws his arm around me and he says 'How's my old skipper?' Boy, to me, that was my biggest thrill. He remembered me."

Pafko said Baker was a good player, but really made his name as a manager.

He said Baker is a players' manager who cares about the members of his team.

"He's a good man. I wish him the best of luck. I hope he does a good job with the Cubs because if anybody deserves a winner, it's those Cubs fans. They've been suffering long enough -- 45, oh, my gosh. It's a great town Chicago."

He said the fans deserve a winner, especially after being so close to going to the World Series last year.

At 83 years old, Pafko is still in good shape.

"Overall, I feel pretty good."

He said he used to run and dive into the walls.

"My legs are still pretty good. I think I spent more time on my belly flopping catches than I did standing up."

He said while playing for the Cubs against the St. Louis Cardinals, he caught a deep line drive early in the game. But he hit the wall and threw his right hand up to catch himself.

His arm kept getting sorer and sorer as the innings wore on. By the end of the game, he said he couldn't take his jersey off. After going to the hospital, he found out he had played the whole game with a chipped bone.

"In those days, I was afraid to tell the manager I'm hurt. If I'd be out of the lineup, I'd lose my job."

Pafko says the game of baseball is still great and it still has some great players, but it's not the same as the days when he played.

He said the players had more fun and more camaraderie, whereas now the game is about money and free agency. He also said the quality is lower.

Pafko talked with Ron Santo recently and Santo told him many players couldn't have played in their eras.

He said there are more clubs and more jobs, but the overall caliber is down.

Pafko said players are making millions. but only batting .209.

He also noted how big hitters only try for home runs.

"There's more to baseball than home runs," he said. "The name of the game is pitching and defense."

He said that every good team he was on was strong up the middle with pitching, double play makers and center fielders.

Pafko knows he was lucky to have had the career he did in a sport he loves.

Pafko's best year was 1950, when he had 36 homers, 24 doubles, eight triples, 69 walks and only 32 strikeouts in 512 at bats. He is one of 13 Major League players to hit more homers than strikeouts based on 30 or more in a season.

He said many people dream about being ball players.

"But the good Lord game me talent. And I gave it 100 percent and I was successful. I don't know what I would have done. That was my ambition. I always wanted to be a ball player."

Pafko said if he wouldn't have gotten to play baseball, he might have been a farmer. But he said he didn't want to be a farmer because it was too hard of work at a time when everything was done by hand.

"Baseball was good to me. I was very fortunate, but I was dedicated and I was very lucky."

His advice for youngsters is to get their high school and college educations before pursuing professional athletics. Once they do that, they have to be dedicated and love the game they play.

"You don't know your future in sports. You might play one year and get hurt. There you go. Your career is over."

Pafko said he was lucky to have such a long career.

"I gave 'em 100 percent," Pafko said. "I never took it easy. I did everything I could. And I loved the game. The game was good to me and I try to give something back to the game."

So he signs autographs and talks baseball.

"I enjoy it. That was my profession. And I'm glad I'm still not forgotten, especially in my hometown."

Pafko said he still gets six or seven letters of fan mail each day.

"Such beautiful letters I get."

He said fans ask for autographs and tell him stories passed down from parents and grandparents.

"So that makes you feel good. They haven't forgotten about me."

As long as there is baseball and baseball fans, Pafko probably never will be forgotten.

Especially not in his home town.

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