The pitch: In Roger Kahn’s 1972 classic “The Boys of Summer,” Dodgers short-time left fielder Andy Pafko merited his own chapter entitled “The Sandwich Man,” a brief interlude between pages 262 and 270.
Kahn writes: “Across seventeen major league seasons, Andy Pafko batted .285, hit 213 home runs and fired every throw and ran out each pop fly with the full measure of his strength. Certain athletes who grew up in the Great Depressions played that way, the mongrels of poverty tearing at their calves.”
Pafko debated with Kahn about meriting inclusion in such an important story about a beloved franchise, one that included him as a member for just the second half of the 1951 season and then entire NL champion ’52 campaign before he was sold to the Braves.
“Put me in,” he eventually told Kahn, who chronicled this discussion in the chapter, “but don’t make it a big thing. I never felt I was a Dodger star … Nobody remembers I was a Dodger.”
Maybe that’s because he started with 8 1/2 seasons as a Chicago Cub – where he was a four-time NL All-Star and played on their last World Series team in 1945 – and ended his career with seven more seasons for the Milwaukee Braves, who made “The Kid from Boyceville” virtually a home-town hero. Pafko may have played in four World Series, but it’s the one he won with the Braves in 1957 that capped his run, even if much of it was spent as a mentor to a young outfielder named Henry Aaron.
As the Dodgers and Giants end their three-game series in whatever they call the ballpark in San Fran-
cisco these days, we bring back a Dodger- Giant moment from 1951: That heart-breaking photo of a helpless Pafko, standing next to the giant left-field corner wall at the Polo Grounds watching Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” sail over his head.
It may be the one Pafko moment that Dodgers fans remember most about him, and it gave Don DeLillo a novella title in “Pafko at the Wall.”
But after discovering all that really made up the injury-prone but well- regarded player in this book by Niese, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and a Chippewa Falls, Wisc., resident (and not the New York Mets pitcher, whose name is Jon), that photo from the third game of the 1951 National League playoff needs a longer caption.
It’s almost as if Andy Pafko was more Andy Griffith, a modest man of faith who just happened to be an important person to his small town. The only thing missing was that he wasn’t a WWII hero — his 4-F status because of high blood pressure changed that possibility.
Old-time L.A. baseball fans would remember Pafko as an outfielder for the Angels, then the Cubs’ AA-minor league franchise, as he led the 1943 Pacific Coast League with a .356 batting average and 118 RBIs while piling up 215 hits in 157 games. That led to his call-up to the Cubs, who also returned for spring training at Catalina Island as well as at the old Wrigley Field in L.A.
Then, his trade to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the middle of the ‘51 was somewhat jarring to Pafko, who considered that franchise to be “his most-hated rivals,” Niese writes. Baseball fans and even some Dodgers execs at that time declared the eight-player trade that included Pafko would be one that should seal the pennant for the Dodgers, who now had a heralded outfield of Pafko, Duke Snider and Carl Furrilo.
That was before Thomson had the final swing.
Pafko’s departure from the Dodgers after the ’52 World Series seemed even more odd, as he was sent to the Boston Braves (just before their fortuitous move to Milwaukee) for infielder Roy Hartsfield (who eventually became a longtime L.A. Dodgers coach) and $50,000.
“The Dodgers said it was part youth movement, part monetary gain to make up for a drop in attendance from 1951 to 1952,” Niece writes. “But giving up Pafko, still regarded as one of the game’s top outfielders, was a surprise to many, including Pafko. … Walter O’Malley sent him a note lamenting having to trade him and promising to one day explain why he moved him. That explanation was never given.”
What we can admire about Niese’s effort here is that he stepped up to the plate because of some inherent need to have Pafko’s life documented. Niese acknowledges that the majority of the funding for the book was from family and friends as well as a Kickstarter campaign that solicited nearly 100 people of $25 or more. Included in that was the Czech & Slovak American Genealogy Society, which took pride in claiming Pafko as their own.
So here’s the result of that effort, the kind of book that while easy to overlook could now inspire one to take a side trip if they happened to be going through western Wisconsin, just to find Boyceville. Then they could look up Andy Pafko Athletic Park, where they’d find a bronze plaque that includes a quote from Pafko, who died in 2013: “When I played in the majors, it was the greatest experience in the world. I was a kid off the farm and would have played for nothing.”
More to know:
== Among the interesting sidelights to Pafko’s career that Niese brings up: When Topps came out with its first set of baseball cards in 1952, Pafko was Card No. 1 in the 470-player set for some reason. That made finding one in mint condition even more scarce since kids would often put the cards in order and tie them together with a rubber band.
== Pafko made it into “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” for hitting the longest home run ever recorded. With a huge asterisk. While playing for the Cubs, he hit a home run over the left field fence at Boston Braves Field. The ball landed on passing coal car and didn’t stop until it got to New York, meaning it traveled more than 200 miles, Niese notes.
== A Q-and-A with Niese from Wrigleyvillenation.com.
== Niese, in giving us a heads-up about his Pafko book, was also nice enough to send us a copy of a biography he did in 2013 called “Burleigh Grimes: Baseball’s Last Legal Spitballer,” which had a forward from historian Donald Honig. Grimes preceeded Pafko in the big leagues by about 20 years, but his ties to the same region of the country are noted in the Pafko tale as a reason why “the idea that a boy from a western Wisconsin farm could make it professional baseball wasn’t a far-fetched idea.” Just spit-balling here, of course.