Author hits home run with new bio about Cubs’ great Andy Pafko

If you’re looking for dirt in a baseball bio, Joe Niese’s Handy Andy: The Andy Pafko Story will disappoint. Niese is upfront about the lack of scandal or controversy, writing in the preface, “There are no tawdry or lurid details of Pafko’s life of clean living.”

But for pure nostalgic pleasure, Niese’s tale of an overlooked star hits a home run.
Niese, a librarian and member of the Society for American Baseball Research whose first book, Burleigh Grimes: Baseball’s Last Legal Spitballer, was published in spring 2013 by McFarland Press, lifts the reader back to the golden age of baseball.

As the author chronicles in his exhaustively researched bio of the former Cubs star about the only dirt the hard-nosed center fielder and third baseman collected was on his jersey.
Niese traces Pafko’s journey from the small town of Boyceville, Wisconsin, to the big leagues. In a 17-season career, Pafko was a five-time All-Star, a .285 hitter with 213 home runs and 976 RBI in 1852 games. From 1943 through 1959, Pafko played for the Chicago Cubs (1943–51), Brooklyn Dodgers (1951–52) and Milwaukee Braves (1953–59).

As a Cub, he played in the team’s last World Series in 1945 and quickly became a fan favorite. “Cubs fans always seem to have a soft spot for certain players,” Pafko said years after his playing days in Chicago. “I was lucky enough to be one of them.”
After the Cubs traded him, Pafko returned to the World Series three more times, as a Dodger in 1952 and as a Brave in 1957 and 1958, playing alongside some of the all-time greats including Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Eddie Mathews. He received his one World Series ring on the third try, with the Braves in 1957.

Niese’s book serves up a treasure trove of Cubs and baseball trivia, such as:

• Pafko’s role in a change to the ground rules at Wrigley Field. When an opposing player hit an inside-the-park home run because the ball got lost in the ivy, Pafko raised a stink with the groundskeeper after the game. Soon thereafter the ground rules were changed so that any ball lost in the vines was a ground rule double.

• Pafko received mention in Ripley’s Believe it or Not for hitting a ball 200 miles. 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,” Niese writes.

• Pafko is immortalized in Roger Kahn’s 1972 classic, The Boys of Summer, with a chapter all his own, titled: “The Sandwich Man.”

• Pafko is known for being card #1 in the classic 1952 Topps baseball card set. This card in near mint or better condition is often worth thousands of dollars because most collectors back in 1952 simply put the cards in numerical order and rubber-banded the stack, writes Niese. This causes the top card (Pafko) to receive the most wear and tear and thus top grade copies are very rare and valuable. One of Pafko’s 1952 cards sold for $84,000 in 1998.

• Pafko was in left field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but unable to catch the “shot heard round the world,” Bobby Thomson’s game-winning 3-run homer in the famous play-off game between the Giants and Dodgers in 1951. Don DeLillo’s short story about the game is thus titled “Pafko at the Wall.”

Niese concludes the book with a look at Pafko’s post-baseball life in Chicago, where he lived until the mid-1970’s, at which time he and wife, Ellen, moved to the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect, Illinois.

On August 10, 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series appearance, the team named Pafko to the Chicago Cubs Walk of Fame. In 1999 he was named to the Cubs’ All-Century Team.

“Though he held strong feelings for all three teams he played for,” Niese writes, “Pafko felt most strongly about his time with the Cubs.”
Niese’s Handy Andy is a fitting tribute to a baseball player who played the game the way it was meant to be played.

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Interview with Joe Niese, author of Handy Andy: The Andy Pafko Story
Author Joe Niese’s biography about former Chicago Cubs great Andy Pafko is due for release by Chippewa River Press on February 25, 2015, the five-time All-Star’s 94th birthday. Wrigleyville Nation’s Randy Richardson caught up with Niese to discuss the story behind the book and the legacy of the player nicknamed “Handy Andy”. To purchase the book and to see where Niese will be appearing, visit JoeNiese.com.

WN: In the Preface to Handy Andy, you note that you never saw Andy Pafko play. Did you ever meet him, and, if so, what were the circumstances and what were your impressions of him?

Joe: I never met Mr. Pafko. I almost did in 2010 when he was inducted into the Eau Claire Baseball Hall of Fame. He was going to be the keynote speaker, but he had a bad fall at home close to the event and unfortunately, that was sort of the beginning of the end. His brother Lud filled in and spoke eloquently. Of course, at that time I had no idea that I would be writing a book about him.

WN: Since you never saw him play, what inspired you to write about him? Why did you think Pafko had a story worth telling?

Joe: After I wrote my first book (about Burleigh Grimes), I was encouraged by Charles Clark, a close friend of Grimes and an acquaintance of Pafko to read up on Andy’s story. After I did a little bit of research, I thought there might be something there. It was solidified when I was doing book talks about my Grimes work and I’d say that I was working on a Pafko manuscript. People would just light up.

WN: The book is exhaustively researched. How long did it take you to write it? What were the biggest challenges or obstacles to researching Pafko’s life? Was there any point where you thought it might not come together?

Joe: It took about two years to write and research. Being my second book, I somewhat have my research strategy mapped out. That made the process a lot easier. I am also meticulous in the filing of my research (about the only aspect of my life that is fully in order).
The largest challenge was bringing something fresh to the story for the narrative around Pafko’s tale. He played in the most written about era of baseball, so I didn’t want to just regurgitate what others have written.
Yes, I’ve gone through periods where I just hit the wall and feel what I’m writing is really not all that interesting. In both of my books I’ve had periods where I just put it down for a few weeks and come back refreshed.

WN: In the Preface, you write: “There are no tawdry or lurid details of Pafko’s life of clean living.” This goes against the book for most bios today that seem to do nothing but dish out the dirt. Was Pafko really that clean? Did you not even hear tale or rumor of anything negative about him?

Joe: It does. Believe I did dig. I tried not to be too saccharine in telling Pafko’s life, but as
far as I could tell, he really was that clean. Not one rumor. Although at a book reading a man told me a story about someone he knew who was hounding Pafko for an autograph during a game. Pafko wasn’t playing, but was spending the game in the bullpen. Pafko kept saying ‘after the game, after the game.” Well, the Braves blew a big lead and ended up losing. As the players were leaving the bullpen area the man called to Pafko for the autograph. Pafko responded by whipping him the bird. About as close as I got to dirt.

WN: You allude to one instance in Pafko’s baseball career involving Jackie Robinson that he probably regrets. The two ended up being teammates. How would you describe their relationship?

Joe: Yes, there was that one incident that Pafko recounts in Roger Kahn’s masterpiece, The Boys of Summer. Robinson was one of the first players to greet Pafko when he joined the Dodgers. They quickly put the incident behind them.

WN: Pafko played on the 1945 Cubs, the last Cubs team to play in the World Series. The Cubs of course lost that series to the Detroit Tigers after William Sianis placed his infamous “Billy Goat Curse” on the team. Did Pafko ever speak of this supposed curse, and, if so, did he believe in it?

Joe: Pafko was interviewed often about the 1945 Series. I don’t recall a time where he spoke about the curse. He was always gracious in defeat, including when rumors of the Giants stealing signs that aided Bobby Thomson in his “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

WN: Pafko played for the Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers and Milwaukee Braves. At the end of the book you note that although he held strong feelings for all three teams, he probably felt the strongest connection to the Cubs. Why do you think that is?

Joe: I feel several factors contributed to this. The Cubs gave him his break. He played his best ball in a Chicago uniform, met his wife, Ellen there and lived in the city for several decades.

WN: What would you consider to be Pafko’s greatest legacy?

Joe: I think Pafko’s greatest legacy on the field was the way he approached each game. Even when he became a part time player he continued to prepare as if he were in the starting lineup. It wasn’t easy for him, which he vocalized. Also, I think the fact that he remained unchanged despite his “celebrity” says something about the man he was.

WN: Do you think Pafko belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame? Why or why not?

Joe: I don’t. The Hall of Very Good, yes. He played in an era that had so many great players and he held his own.

WN: If Pafko were still alive, what one question would you ask of him? What do you think he would have to say about your book about him?

Joe: I would like to ask him what he thought was the turning point in the minor leagues where things really took off for him with the bat. Was it just getting “man strength” or was it the batting adjustment that manger Bill Sweeney suggested?
I’ve gotten good feedback from those that knew him. They said that he would be so proud to have a book written about him. I’m sure he would be gracious.

WN: What do you hope readers will take away from Pafko’s story?

Joe: I get a lot of satisfaction of being able to bring out the full story of someone’s life. Pafko led a pretty remarkable one. He overcame some pretty steep odds and circumstances to have lasting legacy in many people’s minds.