He is a permanent part of baseball lore. He played for the Chicago Cubs in the 1945 World Series, their last appearance in the fall classic. He stood with his back against the left-field wall as Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” flew over his head and into the Polo Grounds grandstand to give the New York Giants a victory over his Brooklyn Dodgers and clinch the 1951 National League pennant. He was the starting right fielder for his home-state Milwaukee Braves in 1953 and 1954. He lost his starting job in 1955 to a young outfielder named Hank Aaron. He played in four World Series for three different teams in his 17-year career. His name is Andy Pafko.
He was born Andrew Pafko on February 25, 1921, in Boyceville, a rural community in northwest Wisconsin between Eau Claire and Minneapolis. His parents were born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, as were the two oldest children. After World War I they moved to the United States and settled in Boyceville. Andy, the third oldest child and first born in America, was raised on a 200-acre dairy farm. The Pafkos later added three sons to the fold, bringing the total to six children.
As a major-league rookie Pafko recalled the days spent milking the 16 cows on the farm. He remembered himself and his brothers trying to find an excuse to go to the pasture and play baseball. Often they wouldn’t finish their chores until after dark and wouldn’t get to play at all. But he credited milking cows with helping him develop the strong grip that made him a major-league hitter.
Because Boyceville’s high school had no baseball team, Pafko’s first experience was with the Connersville team of the amateur Dunn County League in 1939. He hit about .500 that summer and this gave him his first inkling that he might have professional potential. In the spring of 1940, now 19 years old, he decided to try out with the Eau Claire entry in the Northern League.
Ivy Griffin, the team’s manager, signed him the day he tried out but had to cut him the same day because he realized he had too many players on the roster. Later that season Griffin had an emergency and needed an outfielder, so he drove to the Pafko farm, picked up Andy, and drove him back to Eau Claire for the season’s final two weeks. Pafko hit just .209 but his contract was picked up by Madison of the Three-I League that winter. Madison immediately sold his contract to Green Bay of the Wisconsin State League.
Pafko spent the 1941 season playing for the Class D Green Bay Blue Sox. He finished second in the league in hitting with a .349 average. He hit 12 home runs. In November 1941 his contract was purchased by Bill Veeck, then owner of the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers, for $1,000. After reporting to spring training in Ocala, Florida, in 1942 Pafko was assigned to the Macon Peaches of the South Atlantic League, where he hit .300, drove in 85 runs, and led the league in triples with 18.
Summoned twice by his draft board for physicals, Pafko was granted a deferment from military service in World War II because of chronic high blood pressure. Pafko was disappointed because he wanted to serve his country. He later said that if he had not been told he would never have known he had high blood pressure, because it did not affect his daily life.
After his season at Macon, Pafko expected to be assigned to Milwaukee in 1943. But over the winter he picked up a Milwaukee paper and read that he had been sold to the Cubs’ Los Angeles farm team in in Pacific Coast League. He was deeply disappointed because he wanted his parents to see him play. Pafko was so distraught about having to play so far from home that he considered quitting the game and going back to farming. His older brother John talked him into reporting to the Angels. (Pafko’s appearance on the Angels roster meant he had gone from Class D to Double-A in two years.)
At Los Angeles Pafko replaced center fielder Barney Olsen, who had left for the Navy. He opened the season with a two-hit effort against Oakland and never looked back. Angels manager Bill Sweeney adjusted Pakfo’s batting stance so he could get out in front of the ball, increasing his power. As a result he led the Pacific Coast League in all three Triple Crown categories for most of the season. In May the Angels moved Pafko to right field, in part due to his strong throwing arm. He was named Southern California’s athlete of the month for May by the Helms Athletic Foundation.
Angels president Clarence “Pants” Rowland, a former major-league umpire and manager, was quoted as saying that he would “stake (my) reputation on Pafko,” predicting he would become a good big-league hitter eventually. In addition to his ability to hit and hit with power, Pafko was fleet afield. His only weakness was running the bases; he had become gunshy after being picked off second base by the catcher in the season opener. His versatility caused a minor-league manager to give him the nickname Handy Andy.
The PCL’s sportswriters voted Pafko the Most Valuable Player after he led the league in batting with a .356 average and runs batted in (118), and hit 18 home runs. The Angels won the league title with a then-record .710 winning percentage, but lost to third-place Seattle in the postseason playoffs.
On September 24, 1943, after the Angels’ season was over, Pafko was called up to join the Cubs. He wasted little time in establishing himself as a major-league hitter. He made his major-league debut in front of the smallest crowd in Wrigley Field history; just 314 fans sat through a downpour to watch Pafko go 2-for-3 and drive in four runs in a rain-shortened five-inning victory over Philadelphia. The next day he had three more hits in a victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pafko hit safely in his first nine games and hit .379 with 10 RBIs in 13 games as the season wound down.
Pafko spent the offseason working at a war plant in Los Angeles before reporting to 1944 spring training in French Lick, Indiana, where he won the starting center-field job. In late May St. Louis Cardinals manager Billy Southworth called Pafko the best rookie in the National League. For the fourth-place Cubs, Pafko batted.269 in 128 games with 62 RBIs.
Pafko’s open batting stance reminded many of Mel Ott, then still the player-manager of the New York Giants. While Pafko’s power was mainly to left field he also had some power to the opposite field. But people seemed most impressed by his ability to make diving catches in the outfield and a cannon arm that netted him 24 assists in 1944.
In 1945 Pafko established himself as a major-league hitter. He batted .298 and drove in 110 runs for the pennant-winning Cubs. His performance was good enough to land him in fourth place in the National League MVP voting. (The award was won by fellow Cub Phil Cavaretta.) Pafko was named to the NL All-Star team, though no game was played because of wartime travel restrictions. He made the All-Star team in four of his next five seasons.
Backed by the bats of Cavaretta and Pafko and the pitching of Hank Wyse (22 victories), the Cubs won the pennant with a 98-56 record, three games better than the second-place Cardinals. Pafko hit just .214 (6-for-28) with two RBIs in the World Series as the Cubs lost in seven games to the Detroit Tigers.
In 1945 Pafko met Chicago native Ellen Kapusta, who had attended a game at Wrigley Field with a mutual friend. She did not seem impressed by Pafko’s status as a major leaguer, but that changed when Pafko was able to land her a couple of tickets to the World Series. The two then began a romance that led to marriage on February 1, 1947.
Pafko got off to a slow start in 1946 but picked up the pace in May and was hitting .276 with 21 RBIs on June 1 when he stepped on a ball in pregame practice and suffered an ankle injury that kept him out of action until mid-July. A little more than a month after returning, he was knocked out for the remainder of the season when he fractured his right arm on August 27. He played in just 65 games, hitting .282 and driving in 39 runs as the Cubs fell to third place.
Newly married and with his arm healed, Pafko was raring to go into the 1947 season. He began the season strong, batting .304 through the Cubs’ first 32 games. On May 27 Pafko was flown from St. Louis, where the Cubs were playing, to Chicago after developing a kidney infection. He did not return to the lineup until June 18, and wound up batting.302 in 125 games with 13 homers and 66 RBIs. He tied the Cardinals’ Whitey Kurowski for the league lead by grounding into 19 double plays.
During the offseason Cubs general manager Jim Gallagher was reported to have rejected two trades involving Pafko, with the Cincinnati Reds and the Dodgers. While they did not trade Andy, the Cubs did make changes for the 1948 season. Among them was moving Pafko from the outfield to third base. He replaced Peanuts Lowrey, who was switched to the outfield and lacked the power that manager Charlie Grimm desired at the hot corner.
On the offensive side, the Cubs did not regret their decision to keep Pafko. He batted .312 with 26 home runs and 101 RBIs, leading the team in all three categories. But Pafko made 29 errors at third base, and seldom played anywhere but the outfield for the rest of his career. The Cubs continued their tumble through the standings, falling from sixth in 1947 to the NL cellar in 1948 with a 64-90 record
On April 30, 1949, Pafko made an embarrassing defensive gaffe at Wrigley Field in front of over 30,000 fans. The Cardinals, losing 3-2, had the tying run on first base with two outs in the ninth inning. Rocky Nelson hit a sinking line drive to center field that Pafko, with a lunge, appeared to have caught for the final out. But umpire Al Barlick ruled no catch. While Pafko argued vehemently that he had caught the ball, the two St. Louis runners scampered around the bases since time had not been called. Pafko finally realized that the ball was still in play and threw home but his throw hit Nelson as he slid safely home with a media-labeled “inside-the-glove” home run. The Cardinals hung on to their 4-3 lead and won the game.
After the Cubs got off to a 19-31 start, Grimm was fired and was replaced by Frankie Frisch. Pafko played third base in 49 games, that season, then returned to the outfield for good. He hit .281 for the season, leading the team with 233 total bases.
In 1950 the Cubs posted a 64-89 record, their fourth straight losing season. But Pafko could hardly be blamed; he hit .304 with a career-high 36 home runs, second in the National League to the Pirates’ Ralph Kiner, who had 47. Pafko drew 69 walks to post a career-high .397 on-base percentage. His season was good enough to impress Reds president Giles, who said that if he could choose any player in the NL to help improve his floundering team, he would choose Pafko.
On June 15, 1951, after being the subject of trade rumors practically every season, Pafko was sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers in an four-for-four deal involving some front-line players. He had become an icon in Chicago, and Wrigley Field fans reacted angrily. The Dodgers were playing in Chicago when the trade was made. Pafko changed clubhouses after the first game of a three-game series. It didn’t help the mood of the Chicago fans when Pafko hit a solo homer in the seventh inning of a 6-4 Cubs win in his first game in Dodger blue. He hit just .249 for the Dodgers the rest of the season, but contributed 18 home runs and 58 RBIs in 84 games as the Dodgers fought for first place.
Brooklyn had been leading the league by 13 games on August 11, but their crosstown rival, the Giants, rallied to go an amazing 37-7 over the last month and a half to tie the Dodgers. This forced a best-of-three playoff to decide the pennant. After splitting the first two games, the teams met at the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ home field. The Dodgers went with 20-game winner Don Newcombe to start the decisive game while the Giants countered with 23-game winner Sal Maglie. The Giants entered the bottom of the ninth down 4-1. After New York scored a run and put runners on second and third with one out, Ralph Branca replaced Newcombe to face Giant third baseman Bobby Thomson. After taking a strike from Branca, Thomson hit a sinking line drive toward Pafko in left field. Pafko went back thinking it might bounce off the wall. Instead the ball cleared the fence for a three-run homer and radio announcer Russ Hodges repeatedly screamed, “The Giants win the pennant!”
In 1952 Pafko roamed the Dodgers outfield with Duke Snider and Carl Furillo. He hit .287 with 19 home runs and 85 RBIs as the Dodgers won their third pennant in six years before losing to the Yankees in the World Series.
In January 1953 the Dodgers traded Pafko to the Braves, who were moving from Boston to Milwaukee and wanted a Wisconsin product on the roster to help draw fans in the early days. Pafko was the starting right fielder in 1953 and 1954, hitting .297 and .286 with home-run power, but in 1955 he lost his starting job to future Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, and was a part-timer for the next five seasons. He did get to play in two more World Series. The Braves beat the Yankees in the 1957 Series but lost to New York in 1958. Pafko started three games in each Series, batting .214 in 1957 and .333 in 1958.
After the two World Series, Pafko played one more season for the Braves before being released as a player in October 1959. He was a coach from 1960 through 1962, and in 1964 he became a minor-league manager in the Braves organization, starting with the Binghamton Triplets of the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. Among the players on that team was future World Series champion manager Cito Gaston. Pafko, then 43, actually got an at-bat with the Triplets in which he tripled.
In 1965 Pafko managed the West Palm Beach Braves of the Florida State League, and in 1966 and 1967 he led Kinston in the Class A Carolina League. In 1968 Pafko returned for another season to manage at West Palm Beach. He later took a job as a part-time scout with the expansion Montreal Expos. Pafko was a scout for the Atlanta Braves from 1969 to 1973.
After retiring, Pafko and his wife settled in the Chicago area. In 1999 he was named to the Cubs All-Century team. His wife died in 2006. Into his 90s Pafko continued to make occasional trips to Wrigley Field and remained active in the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association, attending the annual meeting each summer in Milwaukee. At the age of 92, he died on October 8, 2013, in a nursing home in Stevensville, Michigan.
This biography is included in the book "Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves" (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
Baseball Digest, September 1954.
The Sporting News, May 5, 1941; November 11, 1941; July 16, 1942; March 4, 1943; July 1, 1943; November 18, 1943.