SABR

Andy Pafko

This article was written by Dale Voiss.

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 out of the Polo Grounds to give the Giants a victory over his Dodgers and clinch the 1951 National League pennant. He was the starting rightfielder for his home-state Milwaukee Braves in 1953 and 1954. He lost his starting job in 1955 to a young outfielder, Hank Aaron. He played in four World Series for three different teams in his 17-year career. His name was 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 both born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, as were the two oldest children. After the end of 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 he 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 would not 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 which 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 that 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 .250, but his contract was picked up by Madison(WI) 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 Green Bay Blue Sox. He finished second in the league in hitting with a .349 average. He also added  13 homers. 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 he was assigned to Macon of the South Atlantic League, where he hit an even .300, drove in 85 runs, and led the league in triples with 18.

After being called in twice for physical exams, Pafko was granted a deferment from military service due to 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.

Having returned to Boyceville for the off-season, Pafko expected to be assigned to Milwaukee the following year. But over the winter he picked up a Milwaukee paper and read that he had been sold to the Cubs’ farm team in Los Angeles. He was deeply disappointed because he wanted his parents to see him play. He 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. His appearance on the Angels roster meant he had gone from Class D ball to Class AA in two years.

Pafko replaced Barney Olsen in center field for the Angels and opened the season with a two-hit effort against Oakland and never looked back. Angel 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 stats for most of the season. In May the Angels moved Pafko to right field in part due to his strong throwing arm. He so impressed that he was named Southern California’s athlete of the month for May by the Helms Athletic Foundation.

Angel President Clarence “Pants” Rowland, a former major league umpire and manager, was quoted as saying that he would “stake his 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 and had a strong throwing arm. His only weakness was running the bases, where he became gun-shy after being picked off second base on a quick throw by the catcher in the season opener. His versatility caused a minor league manager to give him the nickname “Handy Andy”.

He wound up leading the Pacific Coast League in hitting with a .356 average, including 18 home runs and a league-leading 118 RBI. These numbers earned him the league’s MVP award in voting by writers covering the PCL. Meanwhile the Angels won the league title with a then-record .710 winning percentage. However, they lost to third-place Seattle in the playoffs.

On September 24, 1943, after the Angels’ season was over, Pafko was called up to join the Cubs. Pafko wasted little time in establishing himself as a major-league hitter. His major league debut was held in front of the smallest crowd in Wrigley Field history, as just 314 fans sat through a downpour to watch Andy go 3 for 4 and drive in three runs. He hit safely in each of his first nine games and hit .379 with 10 RBI in 13 games to finish off the 1943 season.

Andy spent the off-season working at a war plant in Los Angeles before reporting to Cubs spring training in 1944. He won the starting center-field job in the spring. In late May Cardinal manager Billy Southworth called him the best rookie in the league.

The Cubs started the season with Jimmie Wilson as their manager. After getting off to a 1-9 start Wilson was let go and replaced by Charlie Grimm. Grimm had previously served as Cub manager from 1933-38. The Cubs played better than .500 ball under Grimm, but because of the slow start they finished at 75-79, good for fourth place in the NL. Pafko contributed a .269 average in 128 games.

Pafko’s open batting stance reminded many of the great Mel Ott. 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 his cannon arm

In 1945 Pafko established himself as a major league hitter. He batted .298 and drove in 110 runs for the National League Champion Cubs. His RBI total led the Cubs and was good for a third-place tie with Brooklyn’s Luis Olmo in the NL. His performance was good enough to land him in fourth place in the NL MVP award voting that fall. The award was won by fellow Cub Phil Cavaretta. Pafko was also named to his first National League All-Star team, an honor he would receive in four of his next five seasons. 

Backed by the bats of Cavaretta and Pafko and the pitching of 22-game winner Hank Wyse, the Cubs stormed to the 1945 National League pennant with a 98-56 record, three games better than the second-place Cardinals. Pafko hit just .214 (6-28) with two RBI in the World Series as the Cubs lost in seven games to the Detroit Tigers. This was the Cubs’ last appearance in a World Series to date.

In 1945 he met Chicago native Ellen Kapusta, who attended a game at Wrigley Field with a mutual friend. Ms. Kapusta did not seem impressed by Pafko’s status as a major league player, 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 a 1947 marriage.

In the off season prior to 1946 Andy’s younger brother Eddie was signed to a contract with the Cubs’ farm team at Davenport of the Three-I League. Pafko got off to a slow start in 1946 but picked up the pace in May and was hitting .276 with 21 RBI on June 1 when he stepped on a ball in pre-game 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 an arm on August 23. He played in just 65 games, hitting .282 and driving in 39 runs. The Cubs fell to third place in the National League standings, finishing 82-71.

Having married Ms. Kapusta, and his broken arm having healed, Pafko was raring to go into the 1947 season, despite the fact that rumors of his being traded to the Giants had been printed in the off-season. He began the 1947 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 against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field. He wound up hitting .302 with 13 homers and 66 RBI. He also tied the Cardinals’ George Kurowski for the league lead by grounding into 19 double plays.

The off-season prior to 1948 saw more trade rumors. It was said that the Reds were interested in trading their shortstop, Eddie Miller, as part of a deal to land Pafko. Reds president Warren Giles contacted Cubs GM Jim Gallagher about the deal, saying he felt Pafko was “about the best centerfielder in the league,” but Gallagher said he had no interest in trading the outfielder. There was also a rumor that Dodgers president Branch Rickey proposed trading his shortstop, Billy Cox, for Pafko, but again Gallagher refused.

While they did not trade Pafko, the Cubs did make changes prior to the 1948 season. Among these was moving Pafko from the outfield to third base. He replaced Peanuts Lowrey, who lacked the power that Grimm desired at the hot corner.

The Cubs did not regret their decision to keep Pafko nor the one to move him to third, where he spent the entire 1948 season. He batted .312 with 26 home runs and 101 RBI, leading the team in all three Triple Crown categories. Despite his great season, the Cubs continued their tumble through the standings, falling from sixth in 1947 to the National League cellar in `48 with a 64-90 record.

Despite the fact that the team’s record had been on the decline in the three years since the pennant-winning season of 1945, Charlie Grimm opened the 1949 season as Cub manager for the fifth straight year. After the team got off to a 19-31 start he was replaced by Frankie Frisch. Frisch, a Hall of Fame second baseman, had been managing in the majors since being named player-manager for the Cardinals in 1933. Pafko returned to the outfield, where he played 98 games while playing third in just 49 games. Pafko hit .281 for the `49 Cubs, leading the team with 233 total bases.

Both Pafko and Frisch returned to the Cubs to start the new decade. In 1950 the Cubs posted a 64-89 record, their fourth straight losing season. Pafko could hardly be blamed for that. All he did was hit .304 with a career-high 36 home runs. The home run total was second in the National League to the Pirates’ Ralph Kiner, who had 47. Pafko also drew 69 walks to post a career-high .397 on-base percentage. This was good enough to finish twelfth in the NL MVP voting. Philly reliever Jim Konstanty won the award in a landslide over the Cardinals’ Stan Musial.

Pafko’s season was so impressive that Reds’ president Warren Giles said if he could choose any player in the National League to help improve his floundering team, he would choose Pafko. Despite his play in 1950 Pafko was once again the subject of much rumored trade talk. In November it was rumored that he would be traded to the Giants for pitcher Sheldon Jones and outfielder Whitey Lockman. While that trade never took place, Pafko was traded to the Dodgers in an eight-player deal on the June 15, 1951, which was then the trade deadline.

Pafko had become an icon in Chicago and was much admired due to his Midwestern work ethic. Wrigley Field fans reacted angrily to the deal tha tcost them their hero. The Dodgers were visiting Wrigley when the trade was made. Pafko joined the Brooklynites after the first game of a three-game series. It didn’t help the mood of the Chicago fans when Pafko, hitting in the six hole behind Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges, hit a solo homer in the seventh inning of a 6-4 Cub win in his first game in Dodger blue.

While he hit just .249 for his new team, he did contribute 18 homers and 58 RBI in 84 games. These numbers, figured on a 162-game basis, would extrapolate to 35 home runs and 112 RBI.

Brooklyn had been leading the league by 13 games on August 11, but their crosstown rival, the New York Giants, rallied to go an amazing 39-8 over the last month and a half to tie the Dodgers. This forced a three-game playoff to decide the 1951 National League pennant. After splitting the first two games, the two teams met at the Polo Grounds, the Giants home field. The Dodgers went with 20-game winner Don Newcombe to start the game while the Giants countered with 23-game winner Sal Maglie. Each would be going on their regular three days’ rest. 

The Giants entered the bottom of the ninth down 4 to 1. After they scored a run and put two men on, 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 screamed his now famous-words, “The Giants win the pennant!”

Pafko returned to the Dodgers in 1952, where he roamed the outfield with Duke Snider and Carl Furillo. Pafko hit .287 with 19 homers and 85 RBI 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 remained with the Braves through the 1959 season. His first two years in Milwaukee, 1953-4, he was the starting right fielder. In 1955 he lost his starting job to future Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Pafko got to play in two more World Series. The Braves beat the Yankees in the 1957 Series but lost to the pinstripers the following October. Pafko’s career ended when the Braves released him in October 1959.

Pafko eventually took a job as a minor-league manager in the Braves organization in 1964. His first stop was with the Class A Binghamton Triplets of the New York-Pennsylvania League, where he managed the team to a 51-78 record before being replaced by Paul Snyder. 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.

After taking the 1965 season off, Pafko managed the Braves’ Kinston affiliate in the Class A Carolina League for two years, 1966-67. The team had a combined record of 136-138. Following the 1967 season Pafko settled near Chicago in Mount Prospect, Illinois. He later took a job as a scout with the expansion Montreal Expos.

He continued to manage in the Braves system through the 1968 season, leading both the West Palm Beach Braves and the Kinston Eagles, who won the Carolina League pennant in 1967. He served as a scout in the Braves system from 1969-1973. In 1999 Pafko was named to the Chicago Cubs All-Century team. His wife died in the Chicago area in 2006. Pafko, age 90 in 2011, still lives in the area and makes occasional trips to Wrigley Field. He remains active in the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association, attending the annual meeting each summer in Milwaukee.

Postscript

Andy Pafko, 92, died October 8, 2013, at a nursing home in Stevensville, Michigan.



Sources

Baseball Digest, September 1954

The Sporting News, May 5, 1941.

The Sporting News, November 11, 1941.

The Sporting News, Juky 16, 1942.

The Sporting News, March 4, 1943.

The Sporting News, July 1, 1943.

The Sporting News, November 18, 1943.

baseball-reference.com

bleedcubbieblue.com/2007/1/21/6336/1747

www.discover-net.net/~dchs/history/expafko.html

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