One of the last links between the Chicago Cubs and the World Series is gone. Andy Pafko, the star center fielder for the last Cubs team to play in a World Series, died Tuesday night in a Michigan nursing home at age 92.
Older suburbanites remember Pafko as a star player who was named the starting center fielder on the Cubs All-Century Team. Others know him as the humble starter at the Mount Prospect Golf Club course, where he greeted thousands of golfers, and as a local celebrity who always made time to participate in charity events and sign autographs for fans. From serving as honorary chairman for golf outings for Special Olympics to emceeing the Funfair at the Westbrook School for Young Learners, Pafko lent his celebrity to good causes.
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Pafko service set Monday in Norridge churchServices Monday: After a private service today for Andy Pafko's family members in Michigan, the body of the former baseball player will be brought to the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, 8600 W. Lawrence Ave., Norridge, where he will lie in state from 10 a.m. Monday until a public service starting at noon. Internment will be at St. Luke's Cemetery, at Pulaski Road and Foster Avenue.
"He was a great, great person," says Emil Esposito, who became head pro at the Mount Prospect Golf Club in 1976 and hired Pafko soon after as the golf course starter on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "He was so respectful, it was ridiculous. He was great. We'd sit down and talk about how the old-timers played and the money they made."
Pafko, whose highest reported salary as a ballplayer was about $35,000, telephoned Daily Herald columnist Jack Mabley in 1998 just to marvel at the news a collector had paid $83,870 for a Pafko baseball card that gained extra value as the first one printed in the 1952 Topps baseball card set.
"He was a quiet celebrity," remembers Steve Durlacher, a former park district supervisor. "People were aware of who he was, but he never made a big deal out of it."
Making his Major League debut with the Cubs on Sept. 24, 1943, before a record-low attendance of only 314 fans at Wrigley Field, the muscular Wisconsin farm boy smacked 2 hits in 3 at-bats and drove in 4 runs in a 7-4 Cubs win. Pafko enjoyed his breakout season two years later when he led the Cubs to the 1945 World Series, batting .298 while driving in 110 runs. The Cubs lost that World Series in seven games to the Detroit Tigers.
A five-time All Star who crushed 36 home runs for the Cubs in 1950, Pafko was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 and played in the 1952 World Series. After a trade to the Milwaukee Braves, Pafko was on a winning World Series team in 1957, and also played in the 1958 World Series but lost his starting position on the Braves to a young Hank Aaron.
Pafko ended his 17-year career with a .285 lifetime batting average, 213 home runs and 976 RBI. Because he played all three outfield positions and third base, Pafko earned the nickname "Handy Andy."
Immortalized in an iconic photograph and Don DeLillo short story in Harper's Magazine titled "Pafko at the Wall," Pafko was the Dodgers left fielder who watched Bobby Thomson's "shot heard around the world" sail over his head to win the pennant for the rival New York Giants in 1951.
"When the ball came off Thomson's bat, I thought I had a chance to catch it," Pafko said years later. "But it was a line drive, and that left-field wall in the Polo Grounds was just 315 feet from the plate. When we both played in Milwaukee a few years later, Bobby was my roommate and one of my best friends."
A frequent celebrity at Cubs events, Pafko always felt at home with the Cubs.
"People still remember me as a Cub,'' Pafko once told the Daily Herald. "I spent my first 7½ years with the Cubs. When I get fan mail, I get it from the second or third generation: 'My dad talks about you. My grandfather talks about you being a Cub.' So I think people recognize me as being with the Cubs. … I feel at home. I still feel like I'm a Cub."
In his hometown of Boyceville, Wis., where the local ballfield in the town of 1,100 is named in his honor, the metal image of Pafko swinging a bat depicts him in a Cub uniform, says longtime friend and Boyceville resident Dave Laberee, 81. The dairy farm where Laberee grew up was on the school bus route with the Pafko farm.
"We met when Andy was a senior in high school and I was a first-grader," Laberee says. Pafko was a star athlete in football, basketball and track, but the two-story brick school didn't have a baseball team.
"On Sunday afternoons, Andy would play in the Dunn County League," Laberee says, noting that Pafko was a standout on the Connersville team in the amateur league. Baseball legend Bill Veeck, who owned a minor league team then, signed Pafko to a contract and later sold him to the Cubs.
"He was a big, strong guy. When he left the farm, they were still working with horses and milking the cows twice a day by hand," says Laberee, adding that Pafko credited his hand strength to his milking days.
"He had the biggest hands. When he'd shake your hand, it would just about break it," remembers Tim Schaap, a former Mount Prospect Park District commissioner who says the smiling Pafko always treated fans well. "People would bring baseballs out to have him sign, and he'd never turn them down."
Living in a house just off the golf course's third hole, Pafko "was a good little golfer who'd shoot in the 80s," Esposito says. Whether he was on the golf course, on the ballfield, with his wife, Ellen, or helping with a charity, Pafko was a "great teammate," Esposito says. "He was really an asset to have on my team and really for Mount Prospect."
Pafko made friends and fans wherever he went.
"Oh, gee, he always was very much the gentleman, very cooperative about signing autographs or getting pictures taken," remembers Laberee, who kept a scrapbook of Pafko's career. "He'd come back for a visit every year. He always came to our house first thing and he'd always want to see my scrapbook. It's as thick as a Sears catalog. I thought that much of him."
As the best player on Cubs teams that always came up short, Pafko knew the pain of all Cubs fans.
"I just wanted the Cubs to win so bad," Pafko told the Daily Herald in 1999. "Win, lose or draw, rain or shine, the fans in Chicago are the most loyal ever. It is too bad they can't be rewarded for their loyalty."