Baseball is about coming home

For what is baseball and indeed so much of the American experience about but looking for home? -- A. Bartlett Giamatti I'VE always loved my father's stories about Andy Pafko. Listening to tales from his boyhood and studying the pictures in his scrapbooks were a way of ``touching blood'' I thought, a way of knowing where everything had come from. Among the photographs of his home, a parsonage next to the Slovak Lutheran Church in the Delray section of Detroit, and of the basketball and baseball games he played for his seminary teams in St. Louis in the '40s, there were the pictures of Andy -- in the dugout, taking batting practice, or on a day off just standing alongside my father in all their grinning youthfulness.

Andy Pafko played outfield and later third base during a 17-year career in the National League. It wasn't a transcendent or illustrious career, but it was more than respectable, perhaps even estimable. It began with the Chicago Cubs in 1943, ended with the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, and included two years as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1951-52.

Andy was one of the few players ever selected to All-Star teams at two different positions. He committed an average of only four errors a year, and he struck out only an average of 28 times a season. He ended his baseball days with 213 home runs, 976 RBIs, a batting average of .285, and a fielding average of better than .980.

In 1943 Andy played with the Cubs for the last two weeks of the season and had a batting average of .379 to show for it. But 1944 was his first full year of play, and one evening that fall my father went up to him before the start of a game at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis.

Andy was warming up along the first base line with Lou Novikoff, ``The Mad Russian.'' But he stopped long enough to greet a fan, a Slovak Lutheran boy like himself, and to agree to meet after the game for a sandwich at the Chase Hotel.

It was a brief and unassuming first encounter. My father's surprise at his own boldness was surpassed only by the warmth of Andy's reception. Prepared to be brushed off, my father was awestruck when he was not. He sat through that game against the Cardinals with the greatest anticipation, watching only Andy and thinking, ``I know that guy. I know an athlete.'' That night, he says, ``Andy welcomed me into his life.''

Andy's parents had immigrated from Czechoslovakia to Boyceville, Wis., a farming community of other Slovak Lutherans, and I know it was something about being Slavs, something about the sense of communitas that religion and national origin often bring out in people that explains the connection he and my father made that night at Sportsman's Park. They had come from the same homeland.

Meetings before and after games were to be their pattern. With only eight teams in each league, the schedule was more predictable and limited than it is today, and there could be as many as four trips to each city in a season. My father would follow the schedule, and, knowing the hotels where Andy's team stayed, would write him there when he was on the road. They arranged to meet whenever Andy came to town.

When my father moved in 1945 to Garfield, N.J., to spend a year as a young vicar, their rendezvous shifted from St. Louis and Chicago to Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds, or to the streets of New York, where they would just go around together, eating in the automats. Trips to New York to play both the Dodgers and the Giants meant Andy stayed in town as long as a week at a time, and often he would come to Garfield after a game or on his day off.

School and work took my father back to St. Louis, to Europe, then to Ohio for the rest of the '40s. But three or four times a year he would still meet Andy at the ballpark in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, or Pittsburgh.

On Aug. 2, 1950, my father was back in Garfield to marry my mother, and Andy was to be one of the ushers. But at the last minute he had an unexpected make-up game against the Giants. He hit three home runs out of the Polo Grounds that day, to my father's delight as he and the other ushers listened to the game on the radio and dressed in black tie and white dinner jackets. My father always considered the home runs as something of a wedding present. Now when Andy hears that story retold, he remembers that it could have been four, but when he came up to the plate again he was intentionally walked.

That's what he told my father and me when we called him early this summer. It was Andy Pafko Day in Boyceville, and a reunion by phone had to substitute for the real thing. Andy and his wife, Ellen, were in Boyceville because the town he had left more than 40 years earlier to play in the major leagues had honored him that day with a bronze plaque at the high school. There was also a ceremony naming the park, where he had played football and softball, after him.

What I heard in his voice that night was how much it meant for him to be home again, how truly he felt he had been fortunate to have grown up in Boyceville, to have played baseball, and to have come home, still his anchor after so many years away.

When we recalled with him Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951 that won the pennant for the Giants, the home run that made its inexorable flight over Andy's head in left field at the Polo Grounds, he remembered the disappointment, but the mythic proportions all seemed to evaporate. ``The Giants were playing over .800 and deserved to win,'' he offered simply. More than any other memory of his own feelings of futility that day, the image he recalled was of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca sitting in front of his locker in the dressing rooms still in uniform and not moving a muscle as everyone else dressed and left.

Andy had been traded to the Dodgers only that June. He says there were no trade rumors, just Don Newcombe yelling out to him from the Dodger dugout at Wrigley Field on June 14 before the second game of a three-game series, ``You're gonna be a Dodger tomorrow.'' I think the trade must have been an even bigger disappointment for him than Bobby Thomson's home run.

By 1953 Andy was back home -- home to Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Braves, where he played until the end of his career. ``Milwaukee took us to their hearts,'' he says. If there is any hint of baseball awe in his voice, it is only when he talks about Joe DiMaggio. To Andy, DiMaggio is nothing less than the greatest athlete of all time. Ted Williams was an idol, too, he says, but it was DiMaggio whom Andy tried to pattern himself after, and he proudly tells of the 1947 All-Star game in which he and DiMaggio were the starting center fielders, and Andy got a base hit -- to center. Years later at an old-timers game they shared a dressing room, and Andy asked for a ball autographed by DiMaggio. ``He made it look so easy,'' Andy croons respectfully. ``I admired him so much. There was an aura, a charisma when he came into the room. He was like a god.''

I heard Andy say that last word, and I remembered John Updike's explanation for why Ted Williams didn't come out of the dugout after he homered his last time up at bat. ``Gods do not answer letters,'' Updike wrote.

Now, talking to Andy Pafko that Saturday night, I knew why he was so special. I understood why he is great. It's because he wasn't a god. He didn't have the statistics of a god, just those of a wonderful man -- one who played hard and brainy baseball, one who would answer letters, and one who would strike up a friendship at Sportsman's Park after what my father describes as ``an unpromisingly ordinary introduction.'' Baseball didn't distance him.

If the game of baseball is about memory and tradition and continuity, then Andy Pafko has been one of the apostles of continuity for me. Family and friends and long memories of both should be the stars we steer by in life. The stories I've heard about Andy are landmarks for me, of my father's youth as well as my own, and whenever I remember them, I remember where home is.

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