EDITOR'S NOTE: Frequent BCB readers may recall that a few months ago I reviewed one of my favorite new baseball books, Chris Jensen's Baseball State By State. After reading the book I've asked Chris to join us for a 12-part series in 2013 on the best players born in Wisconsin. What follows is part two of that series. Follow this link for part one. - KL
It was tough deciding between two star players for bragging rights as Wisconsin's best February-born major leaguer. Andy Pafko and Bob Wickman rose to the top of the candidates, with Pafko nabbing one of the three outfield spots on my All-Time Wisconsin team and Wickman holding down the best relief pitcher slot. Ultimately I decided that "Handy Andy" Pafko had more impact during his 17-year career.
Pafko, a native of Boyceville, debuted with the Cubs as a September call-up in 1943 after batting .356 that season to earn MVP honors with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He became a full-time starter in center field the next season for the Cubbies. He helped the Cubs reach the World Series in 1945 (their most recent appearance) by batting .298 and driving in 110 runs, which led to a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting. The popular Pafko was named to four consecutive All-Star teams with the Cubs from 1947-50, batting over .300 in three of those seasons. His best all-around year was 1950, when he batted .304 with 36 home runs, 92 RBI and only 32 strikeouts.
After being traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1951 season, it was Pafko who stood forlornly in left field of the Polo Grounds and watched Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard ‘Round the World" sail over his head to knock the Dodgers out of the pennant. He helped the Dodgers reach the 1952 World Series by batting .287 with 19 homers and 85 RBI that year.
With the Boston Braves moving to Milwaukee for the 1953 season they needed a local star to build excitement, so they traded for Pafko. He posted two more strong seasons as a regular before closing out his career with five seasons as a part-time player for the Braves. He played a supporting role as the Braves won the 1957 World Series, giving Milwaukee its first and only championship as the Braves.
Pafko, who turns 92 on February 25, ended his career in 1959 with 1,796 hits, 213 home runs, 976 RBI and a .285 batting average. He and Lennie Merullo are the last two surviving players from the Cubs' 1945 World Series team.
Wickman was drafted out of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater in the second round of the 1990 draft by the White Sox. The Green Bay native is Wisconsin's all-time leader with 267 saves, 835 pitching appearances and 511 games finished. He pitched five seasons (1996-2000) for the Milwaukee Brewers in both the National League and American League, serving his first season as closer by posting 25 saves for the 1998 Brewers.
Wickman represented the Brewers in the 2000 All-Star Game before being traded to the Indians a few weeks later. Wickman compiled 30 saves that season and led the American League with 45 saves for the Indians in 2005, when he was named to his second All-Star team. The portly Wickman rang up 20 saves in his final season, 2007, and ended his 15-year career with a record of 63-61 and ERA of 3.57.
Two other February-born Wisconsin players should be noted: Oakland native Billy Sullivan and Cazenovia native Ryne Duren. Sullivan was considered one of the best-fielding catchers of the Deadball Era during a 16-year career. He was the catcher for the Chicago White Sox when the first game of the new American League was played in 1901, and he also gained notoriety for batting 0-for-21 as the White Sox beat the Cubs in the 1906 World Series. Sullivan's .213 lifetime average is the second-lowest among major league players with at least 3,000 at-bats. When his son, Billy Sullivan Jr., appeared in the 1940 World Series for the Tigers they became the first father-son duo to play in the World Series.
Duren made four All-Star teams (in three seasons) while scaring the daylights out of batters with a blazing fastball he had no control over. Duren, who died in 2011, battled a drinking problem and bounced around to seven different teams over his 10-year career. "Rhino" struck out 14 batters in 9-1/3 innings to help the 1958 Yankees win the World Series over the Milwaukee Braves. Duren struck out 630 batters in 589 career innings, but also averaged 6.0 BB per 9 innings. He once walked 194 batters during 198 innings in the minors in 1951.
Chris Jensen is the author of Baseball State by State: Major and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites, which was published in July 2012 by McFarland. It features a chapter on each state covering state baseball history, an all-time team, stats leaders, historic baseball places to see, future stars, player nicknames and the state's all-time best player.