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Remembering Moose Skowron
Moose was the reason I never missed the Yankees’ Old Timer’s Day on TV. A Yankee (not Yankees’) fan, since the 50s, it was hard for me to watch the Old Timers, and by Old Timers I don’t mean the Yankee stars of the 70s or 90s. Those guys are kids, my age or younger. No. I’m talking about the 50s and early 60s guys. There’s your real Old Timers and I always want to watch them and don’t want to watch them. I don’t need to be reminded they’re old and so am I, but I always watch, and it always annoys me, the polite crowd reaction when Moose is introduced. Polite? How about getting out of your seats and giving him the old moose call? I guess those corporate-seat folks and the rest of the new age ball fans don’t get it.
The Yankees dominated baseball through the 50s and into the 60s and no 1 epitomized those old Yankee teams better than the Moose. He was my generation’s Ol’ Reliable. Beset by injuries and frustrated by the left field dimensions of the old stadium, he was always dangerous and always productive, especially when it mattered the most. He was a man comfortable in the shadow of his Hall of Fame teammates, proud to play alongside them and alongside some other fellows who aren’t Hall of Famers and maybe should be – the Rajah and the "little second sacker," as Dizzy Dean would have it, although our second baseman was only an inch or 2 shorter than our magnificent center fielder, who out-homered him, 536 to 34.
I suppose Bobby Richardson seemed small, playing what today is called small-ball and back then was called, well, ball. Richardson batted first or second in the Yankee lineup and oh! Could he handle a bat. Hit and run? Bunt? Nobody better. He was a magnificent defensive ballplayer, maybe the best ever at his position. All the great Yankee teams have been known for their power but the championships were built on pitching and defense and defense meant strength up the middle and Richardson and his teammate-roomie were as good as any around second.
But back to Moose. They didn’t call him Moose because of his build, 5’11’ ( not much taller than the little second sacker,) 195 pounds. No. They called him Moose because his granddad had used to give all his little grandchildren (and yes, Moose was little once,) haircuts. The grand kids would come away nearly bald, (and Moose would have pretty much the same haircut as a ballplayer and as an Old Timer, too.) When Moose would come out from his haircut, they said he looked like Mussolini and the name was shortened, like the hair, and that’s how he got to be Moose.
How great was it, being a kid at Yankee Stadium and with the Moose coming up to bat and all the kids (and grownups,) calling “Mooo-se!” and sure it sounded like boos to the uninitiated and sometimes you’d get funny looks, like how come you don’t love this guy? Isn’t he a Yankee? You bet he was, and a darn good 1, a perennial All Star, 5 time Series champion, (more about his final championship later,) and talk about Mr. October – 3 career Game 7 homers, 8 series homers total, with 29 rbi; 39 hits in 39 World Series ball games. (The number of series games he played speaks loudly, doesn’t it?) Base hits, World Series or otherwise, were tougher to come by in Moose’s time than today. Baseball hadn’t evolved yet into what it is now, more a twenty-first than a nineteenth century game. In Moose’s time, there weren’t any 5+ E.R.A. guys in the rotations.
The Moose had his moments, none bigger than the homer in 58, that put the lid on Milwaukee. I’ll never forget the explosion of cheers in my dad’s bar and grill as the Moose’s eighth inning drive sailed into the left-field bleachers, although, honestly, with our grainy, snowy, black and white, we needed for Mel Allen to verify it really was going-going-gone.
But I have another favorite Moose moment.
Flash forward to 1961, that magic season with the M and M boys chasing the single season home run record. That can never happen again, teammates both chasing the record. Hell, nobody can chase it anymore with the way those doped-up ballplayers put it out of mortal reach.
It was September 1, the Friday night of Labor Day weekend and we were in a tight pennant race with Detroit and here came those 61 Tigers, 1 of the best ever second place ball clubs, with Kaline and Colavito and Cash, Frank Lary and Bill Bruton and all the rest of those scary guys. The opener, the Friday night matchup, was Whitey Ford vs. Don Mossi and you know, we didn’t get all the ballgames on TV, we only got the World Series and the All Star Game and the Saturday Afternoon Game of the Week (which might well be a National League game,) and living way up in the mountains, we got the games on the radio but only in some certain places. We couldn’t get the reception in our house or in my grandfather’s house either, but on the hill behind Gramp’s place and with the wire and the metal rod he had me scoot up a locust tree and that my grandmother said would kill us all 1 day, we got the ball games plus static.
It was a cold night and I remember we had a fire and there were about a dozen of us, the men had beer, the kids played whiffle ball until it got too dark to play. The radio game was scoreless with 2 down in the bottom of the ninth and Elston Howard was on second and the Moose got a base hit to drive in the winning run. I recall it wasn’t much of a hit but it was enough. We whooped and hooted and would’ve hooted even louder had we known what was to follow – a weekend sweep of the Tigers, a 13 game win streak that would bury Detroit and put us into the series and on the last day of the season, homer number 61 for Roger. We’d take the series in 5 games against a very good Cincy ballclub and we’d do it without the Mick, whose injuries would limit him to half a dozen at-bats.
And Moose? Only hit .350 for the series and would have led the team in ribbys except Hector Lopez, (‘that son-of-a-gun,’ Gramps called him,) filling in for the Mick, drove home 7.
After Moose got his base hit on that Friday night, I remember Gramps, a Yankee fan when Babe Ruth was still a Bosox, folding up his lawnchair and speaking more to himself than to us, and saying it all about Moose:
“That’s Moose for ya.”
Not too long after, the Yanks traded Moose to open up a slot for Joe Pep (try selling that move to guys like Gramps.) Moose, in his last few years and like a lot of ballplayers, became a baseball vagabond, Los Angeles, the Senators, Chisox, Angels. He had a terrible year with the Dodgers in 63, his first year away from the Yankees. National League pitching confounded him, but didn’t he come back in the series against his old team, hitting .385 and with a big home run. That kind of soured us on the Moose, it seemed like he was a Brutus, but you couldn’t not love the guy, couldn’t hold it against him, and I love what he said, years later, about the 63 series and about the Yankees:
“I loved those guys and it killed me to beat them. In my heart I was always a Yankee.”
That’s Moose for ya.
I forgave you, Moose, and so long. You won’t be at Old Timers this year and neither will I.