Baseball lost one of its finest ambassadors when Bill Skowron died on April 27 in North Arlington, Illinois. He was 81.
The cause was congestive heart failure, but he had battled cancer for over a year.
For a generation of baseball fans, he was, simply, “Moose.” Not because of his visage, though he did have a memorable mug.
“When I was about eight years old living in Chicago,” Moose told John Tullius for the oral history, “I’d Rather Be a Yankee,” “my grandfather gave all the haircuts to his grandchildren. He shaved off all my hair. I was completely bald. When I got outside, all the older fellows around the neighborhood started calling me Mussolini. At the time, he was the dictator of Italy. So, after that, in grammar school, high school, and college, everybody called me Moose.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Moose attended Purdue on a football scholarship. He quickly became a triple threat as a halfback, punter, and placekicker. In the spring, he played shortstop and pitched for the Boilermakers. The Yankees signed him after he led the Big Ten in hitting in 1950.
That signing came after a tryout with a hometown team. “Billy Jurges was scouting for the Cubs, and I was at a workout at Wrigley Field,” Moose told Bob Vorwald of WGN-TV. “It was raining. He wouldn’t let me hit, because he had to put the tarpaulin on the field.
“Well, I made the big leagues, and Jurges was with the Washington Senators. He said, ‘Moose, you talk to everybody at first base, but you don’t talk to me.’ I said, ‘I hate you. I don’t like you!’ He was around here a few years ago and said ‘Moose, are you still mad at me?’ I said, ‘You bet your fanny I am!’ That guy wouldn’t let me hit!
“Thank God, I guess, because I would have never won anything if I signed with them!”
Moose did plenty of winning with the Yankees, including four World Series. He made the team in 1954, platooning at first with Joe Collins. By 1956, Moose was getting most of the playing time, and he remained a fixture at first through the 1962 season.
A strong right-handed hitter, Moose also hit for average. But the old Yankee Stadium cost him plenty of homeruns. When he attended the first Old Timers Day at the new stadium in 2009, he told Newsday, “This is a bandbox. They should have built the park like the one I played in, 461 feet. I lost a lot of home runs in that park. We couldn’t wait to go on a road trip. But Casey Stengel told me, ‘Moose, if you don’t like it here, we can put you someplace else!’ I never forgot that.”
It was also Stengel, his loving manager, who remarked to Steve Jacobs when Moose was embroiled in a terrible slump, “The way he’s going, I’d be better off if he was hurt.”
But Moose didn’t slump often. Even in the Yankees’ stacked lineup, Moose carried a bat to be feared.
“Moose Skowron wasn’t someone you wanted to face too often,” Tigers pitcher Frank Lary told Richard Lally in “Bombers: An oral history of the New York Yankees.” “He wasn’t just a big slugger trying to hit the long ball all the time. Smart hitter, went with the pitch, thought along with the pitcher, and could hit the ball the other way as hard as anyone. And Moose was underrated at first. He had real soft hands and could dig tough chances out of the dirt.”
Moose could also play the enforcer when necessary. “Ike Delock from the Boston Red Sox hit me after I hit a home run off him,” he told Vorwald. “I went to first base, and I said ‘God, please let my roommate Bob Cerv hit a grounder to shortstop and they hand it to second so I can go in there and break up that double play.’ Gene Mauch was playing second base, and I broke his leg. He never played another game in the major leagues. I didn’t do it on purpose, but we were taught to break up double plays.”
In 14 seasons, Moose hit .282, with 211 homers and 888 RBI. His best year was 1960, when he hit .309 with 26 homers and 91 RBI. But when the World Series rolled around, he became one of the best clutch hitters in history. In 39 Series games, he hit .293 with eight homers (tied for seventh best all-time) and 29 RBI (sixth best).
Here’s an eye-opener: consider the top four in plate appearances per rbis in Series games: Lou Gehrig, 4.0; Moose Skowron, 4.9; Babe Ruth, 5.0; Mickey Mantle, 6.8. Moose shares another Series record with Yogi Berra: most career homers in Game Sevens, three.
Moose even rose to the occasion in the ’63 Series. “I had a bad year after being traded from the Yankees to the Dodgers,” he told Vorwald. “I stunk. What can I say? I think being in the National League for the first time I was trying too hard. I got hot at the end, though, and we won the Series.”
Moose led the Dodgers to a sweep of the Yankees, hitting .385 with a homer and three RBI. This after compiling season stats of .203, four and 19.
“Twelve years I was with New York,” he told Lally, “three in the minors and nine in the majors. I loved those guys, and it killed me to beat them. My uniform might have said Los Angeles, but in my heart I was always a Yankee.”
Moose finally made it back to Chicago in July, 1964, and he spent three years as the only legitimate bat in the White Sox lineup. “In 1967, Gary Peters, Joel Horlen, and the other pitchers cornered me and said, ‘Moose, we want you to play first base.’” He told Vorwald. “I knew it was going to be my last year, and Tom McCraw was at first hitting about .210.
“I led the club in a lot of departments the three previous years and I told Eddie [manager Stanky] I wanted to play. He said, ‘Moose, it’s my prerogative who plays.’ I said, ‘Eddie, I don’t even know what that word means!’ I got traded to the California Angels the next day.”