Passing of ‘Handy Andy’ stirs Wisconsin baseball memories

Many who read this probably don’t know the name Andy Pafko or associate him with some of the most memorable moments in baseball history.

After all, Pafko, a slick outfielder who once hit 36 home runs in a season, hadn’t appeared in a Major League Baseball game in more than 50 years at the time of his death Tuesday, was never elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and never won an MVP award. Pafko did, however, have a knack for being in the middle of the action and, for what it’s worth, will always hold a special place in this baseball fan’s heart.

Though I was born in Minnesota, I grew up in western Wisconsin, moving there when I was a 3-year-old. Not long after that move, I fell in love with the game of baseball and pretty much everything associated with it — the smell of a newly-oiled glove, pitching to my father in the yard and collecting baseball cards, just to name a few. Now, I was born more than two decades after Pafko played that last pro game, but you can imagine the excitement I had when my best friend’s mother told me that a former major leaguer named Andy Pafko was born in Boyceville, Wis., which was where my best friend lived.

Much like North Dakota (well, before the Bakken oil boom, anyway), the power in Wisconsin has always been on the more populated eastern side of the state in places like Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay. With all due respect to a fine area with some really good people, there’s not a lot going on in the western part of the state. That is, western Wisconsin isn’t the type of area you’d expect to be a breeding ground for pro athletes (or famous people in general). But “Handy Andy,” as Pafko was known, was from Boyceville and, therefore, he was automatically less than a god, but more than a man to me.

Typically, a kid born so long after the playing days of a non-Hall of Fame slugging outfielder wouldn’t have as much of an effect on said kid as Pafko’s interesting baseball career had on me. Generally remembered best as Chicago Cub, Pafko had his best years on Chicago’s north side. Pafko spent his first several years in the big leagues with the Cubs and was an All-Star four times in the Windy City. In 1945, he batted .298 and drove in 110 runs for the last Cubs team to play in the World Series (of course, they lost).

In 1957, Pafko played on the only Wisconsin team to ever win a World Series title when he appeared in 83 games that year for the Milwaukee Braves as he entered the twilight of his career.

Pafko was also the forgotten left fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 during Bobby Thompson’s famous “shot heard round the world” home run that sailed over Pafko’s head at the Polo Grounds and sent the New York Giants into the playoffs. As if all that — and 213 career big league home runs himself over the course of 17 seasons — wasn’t enough, Pafko became famous all over again long after his playing days ended when his 1952 Topps baseball card became a hot item for serious card collectors. That was because Pafko’s card that year was card #1 in the Topps set, which meant that it was often damaged by youngsters who took to binding sets together with rubber bands. Because Pafko’s card was so often damaged, mint versions of the card became hard to find and much more valuable than they would have otherwise been (the card once sold at auction for more than $80,000).

In the hit 1993 baseball movie “The Sandlot,” the ghost of Babe Ruth appeared in a dream to one of the movie’s main characters, famously proclaiming that “heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” I suppose that’s kind of how I feel about Pafko. Though I never met the man, and don’t really know much about how he lived his life, I certainly will always remember him. Unlike any other sport, baseball seems to have a way of cultivating its legends through the generations. Ask any 10-year-old playing baseball who Lou Gehrig is and I bet 99 percent of them know the name. Do the same for any young football fan, instead using the name Otto Graham, and not so much.

Any true baseball fan knows and respect the game’s history and I was always aware of and respected Pafko’s career and accomplishments. During my first trip inside Wrigley Field in 2005, I was sure to get a picture of myself standing next to a large Pafko banner hanging in the concourse. When I was young, I wanted to be a major league ballplayer, just like Pafko, and though those aspirations never did get off the ground, I was able to procure an appearance in a Little League all-star game one summer in the 1990s, a game that was played at a field in Boyceville named in Pafko’s honor.

On October 8, my birthday, Pafko died in Michigan at the ripe old age of 92 and I think I can take the liberty of offering this: Andy Pafko will always be remembered by Wisconsin baseball fans.