Andy Pafko, a small-town boy from up in Dunn County – Boyceville, to be specific - went to his eternal reward earlier this week – but in my imagination, Andy will always be alive, it will always be the summer of 1957, he will always wear uniform number 48 for the Milwaukee Braves, and he will always be one of my idols. Andy was 92 years old, one of the last links to an era of baseball that’s long gone and vastly different from today’s game. He played with Jackie Robinson, for heaven’s sake! Andy Pafko is as alive in my memories today as he was when I saw him play at County Stadium decades ago, at the end of his career.
When I heard of Andy’s death, the floodgates of memory opened wide. I love baseball, and have ever since I can remember.
The young slugger with the unusual stance pictured above is me – back in 1957, all of 8 years old – ready to launch an imaginary pitch from my grandpa (the cameraman) over Roebeck’s hedge - the Roebecks lived next door to my grandparents in Oshkosh - and run the bases to the cheers of the imaginary crowd. Years later, legendary baseball coach Russ Tiedemann would take care of that stance when he coached me at Hortonville High, and would teach me to become a “singles machine”. I can still hear his words echoing across the years – “stop tryin’ to kill the ball, big fella – shoulders square, level swing, just meet the ball”. I was always big for my age, and thought every at-bat called for a home run. When I’d learned the fundamentals, Coach Tiedemann taught me how to swing for power. And he taught me another baseball fundamental which is in short supply today: how to bunt.
Years later, Tiedemann would go on to coach at UW-Oshkosh and establish a dynasty there, and send a whole bunch of his young ballplayers – Jim Gantner and Gary Varsho are probably the most famous – off to the pros. I would go on to become a broadcaster and do play-by-play of baseball games, and play a lot of bar league ball. And win a bunch of trophies for power-hitting. I was never a fast runner, so I compensated by whacking the crap out of the ball and hoofing it as best I could. One year, I lead my bar league in doubles. For anybody else, those doubles would probably have been triples or inside-the-park homers.
Baseball was my passion growing up, shared with my dad and my grandpa. I was a Braves fan from birth. Here’s a shot of me with my sister Lynn – I’m 7 and she’s 3 – and if you strain, you can see that under that stylish sweater is an official Milwaukee Braves t-shirt. I was glued to the radio whenever Earl Gillespie came on to announce the Braves games over WTMJ radio. In 1959 I saved my lawn-mowing money and bought a Raytheon 8-transistor radio so I could listen to the games no matter what I was doing. I looked it up – the Raytheon 8TR-1 radio – one of the earliest models – cost $80 in ’59 – and that would translate to about $700 today. That’s a lot of lawns at roughly a buck apiece – and a lot of birthday money, because mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and all my aunts and uncles knew I was saving up for a transistor radio.
I knew the ’57 Braves lineup as well as I knew the names of my friends and family members: Pafko was in right field, with Hank Aaron in center and Wes Covington in left. Frank Torre played first base and so did Joe Adcock; Red Schoendienst was on second; Eddie Matthews played third, and Johnny Logan was the shortstop. The catcher was Del Crandall and the pitchers were guys like Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Bob Buhl, Juan Pizarro, Dave Jolly, Joey Jay, and Ernie Johnson. Topps Baseball Cards were the coin of our realm, and we jealously guarded our favorites, and traded them amongst ourselves to get the ones we coveted. I can still taste the slab of gum that came packaged with the cards.
The guys I hung out with knew the Braves’ batting averages and ERA’s; we pored over the sports section of the Appleton Post-Crescent, studying the tiny print for all those fascinating statistics and box scores. We imagined what it would be like to be at a game at County Stadium in Milwaukee. We imagined it to be huge, the stands reaching to the sky, the scoreboard in center field had to be at least as big as a house! We had an idea of what it looked like from the pictures in the sports section, but to go there – well, for an 8 year old kid in Hortonville whose dad worked all day and quite a few nights “establishing his business” as mom said, going to see a Braves game was, well, just not something that was going to happen.
But then it did.
As pennant fever turned into an actual World Series berth for the Braves in ’57 (and it was SO hard to have to miss those Braves afternoon games when we had to go back to school in September), news came that my dad’s younger brother – Uncle Jack – actually had TICKETS to World Series game #4, at County Stadium! FOUR glorious tickets! Third base line, halfway up the lower grandstand! And who was going? Grandpa, my dad, Uncle Jack, AND ME!!!!! My very first trip to see a pro ball game was going to be a WORLD SERIES GAME!
Uncle Jack was a spy during the cold war (it was called OSS – Office of Strategic Services back then, before it became known as the Central Intelligence Agency); he came back home, finished his college degree, and then took his first job as a route salesman for the Liggett and Meyers Tobacco Company, selling L+M Cigarettes to stores and bars. And because he was such a good salesman, he won four World Series tickets in some L+M contest, and we were GOING TO THE WORLD SERIES on Sunday, October 10th, 1957 in Uncle Jack’s brand new “company car” – a big, black Buick Roadmaster.
I think we found out about the tickets on Wednesday and I don’t think I slept until very late Sunday night after we got back from the game. We left from Oshkosh early that morning so we could watch batting practice and drink in all the atmosphere of the game. I was so excited I don’t even remember what it was like seeing the actual diamond at County Stadium for the first time…I was sort of in a trance. We sat down during the Yankees’ batting practice. Oh my God, there was Mickey Mantle. Yogi Berra was playing catch with Tony Kubek, warming up his arm. These were the guys I knew so well from baseball cards, the box scores in the paper, and hearing their names on the radio….and I was now seeing them in person!
Then my guys came out to warm up. Spahnnie was pitching the game. As it turned out, it was a ten-inning complete game win for Spahn. Relief pitcher? You kiddin’ me? Spahnnie went ten full innings, giving up a run to the Yankees in the first, and then 3 more in the 9th, including a homer from Yankees first baseman Elston Howard with Berra and Gil McDougald on base. My Braves had scored 4 runs in the 4th on the strength of homers from Hank Aaron and Joe Torre. So the Yankees had tied it up in the 9th and the Braves couldn’t get a run across in the bottom half of the inning. The Braves went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 9th, Adcock pinch-hitting for Frank Torre and grounding out; Pafko grounding out, and then Del Crandall flied out to deep center. Spahnnie held the Yanks in the tenth. I’ll never forget how much my grandpa enjoyed seeing Spahnnie “shake off” signs from Del Crandall in the tenth – grandpa kept saying “Spahnnie knows what to do here”. Grandpa also had me watch Augie Donatelli, the home plate ump, saying “he’s just as famous as some of those ball-players. (I had to look it up to see if I remembered right, and sure enough, I did….and I also noted that Jocko Conlon was umping third base for that game.)
Kubek scored on a Hank Bauer triple in the top of the tenth and Mantle flew out to end the half-inning with the Yankees up 5-4. In the Braves’ tenth, Schoendienst bunted Felix Mantilla to second, and then Johnny Logan smashed a double to left field to score Mantilla – tied at 5! Eddie Mathews came up with Logan on second base and clobbered a fly ball to right field – OVER THE FENCE – and the Braves won, 7-5! What a game – my first ever, never to be forgotten!
It really was a different era, and, someday when my kids stumble onto my blog and read it – probably long after I’ve played my final inning – the names will probably mean nothing to them. They grew up watching games in hi-def and to them, going to Miller Park is something that happens regularly.
But to me – the ’57 Braves are just as vivid in my mind’s eye as the ’13 Brewers. Those ancient Topps baseball cards are as clear to me as hi-def TV, and Pafko, Spahnnie, Aaron, Schoendienst, Covington, Crandall, and all those guys are still very much alive in my head.
Rest in peace, Andy. Too bad your wish - for the Cubs to win a World Series before you died - didn't come true.
Maybe next year.