Hard as it is to fathom, a full half-century has passed since the Yankees put together their storied season of 1961. Throughout 2011, I’ll pay tribute to the ‘61 Yankees by spotlighting some of their best and most interesting players on “Card Corner.” Today, we’ll begin at first base.
For me, Bill “Moose” Skowron has always been about mistaken assumptions. Perhaps that’s because I never saw Skowron play. I first learned about him while watching him make appearances at Old-Timers games during the 1970s. For some reason, I had always assumed that he was a left-handed hitter, if only because Yankee Stadium has always favored left-handed sluggers. So if Skowron was a slugger, then he must have been a lefty. (It’s funny how the mind of a seven-year-old works.) Not so, Skowron was right-handed all the way.
I also assumed that Skowron’s nickname had something to do with his power, his size, and his physical strength. The name Moose makes sense in that way, right? Little did I realize that the nickname was actually a shortening of the name “Mussolini.” When Skowron was a boy, his grandfather gave him an impromptu haircut, which made the youngster look too much like the Italian dictator. Skowron’s friends called him Mussolini; rather than take offense, the family responded by shortening the name to Moose. The new nickname would stick with Skowron throughout his career, even though Topps would refer to him as Bill on his baseball cards.
Impressing scouts with his power, Skowron signed with the Yankees in 1950. Originally an outfielder and third baseman, he then began a slow but fruitful climb up the organizational ladder, landing in the Bronx in 1954. By now a first baseman, he initially platooned with veteran Joe Collins, before becoming an everyday player by the late 1950s. Fitting in somewhere between Chris Chambliss and Lou Gehrig on the totem pole of Yankee first basemen, the free-swinging Skowron became a model of solid steadiness.
Skowron made five consecutive All-Star teams from 1957 to 1961, while averaging 20 home runs a year. He twice slugged better than .500, and twice earned American League MVP votes. With much of his power running from right to right-center field, he found the opposite-field power alley to his liking at Yankee Stadium. He didn’t walk much, but he gave the lefty-leaning Yankees some balance to their batting order. If there was a caveat in his game, it was his inability to avoid nagging and repeated injuries. Skowron had a physique wrapped in muscles, which he tended to pull and strain with annoying regularity. That’s why he usually played 120 to 130 games, instead of the requisite 140 to 150.
After putting up OPS marks in the .880 range in 1958 and ‘59, Skowron’s percentages fell off during the glory year of 1961. But he did manage to hit a personal-best 28 home runs while playing in a career-high 150 games (out of 162). Batting out of the sixth and seventh holes–behind Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and usually either Elston Howard or Yogi Berra–Moose gave a tough Yankee lineup some depth and balance.
Yet, it was in the 1961 World Series that Skowron played his best. In five games against the upstart Reds, Skowron slugged .529 with one home run and five RBIs, reached base 45 per cent of the time, and hit a robust .353. Then again, Moose was almost always good in the Series. In 133 at-bats stretched over eight World Series appearances, Skowron hit eight home runs and slugged .519. Yeah, I guess you could say he was clutch.
Skowron followed up 1961 by putting up nearly identical offensive numbers in 1962. His doubles, home runs, and RBIs dipped slightly, but his OPS actually rose by eight percentage points. But he was now on the wrong side of 30, 31 to be exact. Concerned about his potential decline, and knowing that they had Joe Pepitone in the pipeline, the Yankees decided to trade Skowron that winter. They sent him to the Dodgers in exchange for Stan Williams, a useful and intimidating right-hander with a reputation for piling up strikeouts and hit batsmen.
Skowron’s fortunes began to sink after the trade. He now had to play in a hitting bone yard, the newly built Dodger Stadium, while facing National League pitchers with whom he had little familiarity. He also found himself returned to a platoon role, this time with the lefty-swinging Ron Fairly. Skowron did not take well to the new role–or environment. Limited to 89 games and 256 plate appearances, Moose hit a miserable .203 and totaled only three home runs.
If there was a highlight to 1963, it was Skowron’s guest appearance on an episode of the popular TV show, “Mr. Ed.” Skowron and Dodger teammates John Roseboro, Willie Davis, and Sandy Koufax played themselves in an episode titled “Leo Durocher meets Mr. Ed.” In the main plotline, everyone’s favorite talking horse gave batting tips to Durocher, who was billed as the Dodgers’ manager even though he was actually a coach under Walter Alston. (I wonder how Mr. Alston felt about that.) The episode, a typically funny installment of a delightful situation comedy, made a strong impression on both baseball fans and regular followers of the show.
With his Hollywood profile soaring but his baseball value at a career low, the Dodgers sold Skowron to the expansion Washington Senators for a small sum of cash. Far more comfortable in the American League, Skowron enjoyed a half-season renaissance in the Capital City. He hit solidly for the Senators, but with the club predictably out of the pennant race by July, he found himself on the move in mid-summer. Clearing waivers after the trading deadline, Skowron went to the White Sox as part of a four-player deal.
Moose hit for average, but without much power in the Windy City, as the White Sox finished in second place, seven games behind the Twins. Skowron returned to Chicago in 1965 and put up one final productive season before the realities of age finally bit him for good. Splitting his last two seasons between the White Sox and Angels, Skowron called it quits at the age of 36.
During his playing career, Skowron became close friends with Hank Bauer, a rough-and tumble character who missed out on the ‘61 festivities while wrapping up his career with the Kansas City Athletics. They seemingly always made publicly appearances together, including numerous visits to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend signings. I met Skowron and Bauer back in the late 1980s; they were signing at a table outside one of the card shops on Main Street. To say that I was intimidated is understating my emotional state at the time. Between Bauer’s raspy voice and Skowron’s rugged appearance (which is in full view on his ‘61 Topps card), I felt like a rookie reporter working the Yankee clubhouse in 1961. With a forehead like Frankenstein and a lantern-like jaw, Skowron looks like something out of “Moon Mullins” or the Bowery Boys. It’s not that Skowron is unattractive; he just looks like someone who could put his fist through your heart if you asked him the wrong question.
Well, once again I was guilty of a mistaken assumption. I only talked to Skowron briefly that day, mostly because of my own timidity, but I’m told that he is actually a good guy, quiet and gruff on the exterior but soft where it counts. So it really shouldn’t be any surprise that Moose works as a goodwill ambassador for the White Sox’ organization, still doing community relations work at the age of 80.
Bauer is gone now–he passed away in 2007–but Skowron still visits Cooperstown on occasion to do autograph shows. I hope I get to have a longer conversation with Moose the next time he comes to town.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.