It’s time for the fourth segment of our all-time team of complementary greats. Our corner outfield is already set with Tommy Henrich and Bob Meusel, behind the plate there is Elston Howard providing that pop. Now, we select the team’s first baseman straight from the 1950’s. The fourth member of our squad is the late Bill Skowron.
Career NYY stats: 1,087 G, .294/.346/.496, 165 HR, 672 RBI, 129 OPS+
The Yankees have had some terrific hitters at first, like Lou Gehrig, Don Mattingly, Jason Giambi, and Mark Teixeira (to name a few). However, we’re looking for that second tier with this selection and Skowron fits the bill perfectly.
Born December 18, 1930 in Chicago, Skowron earned the nickname “Moose” because some of his father’s buddies from his semi-professional baseball team thought that he looked like Mussolini due to the haircut his grandfather gave him. Skowron was a sturdy kid and a fine athlete. He gained 80 pounds in high school and only started to play baseball regularly at the Purdue University.
In college, Skowron played basketball, baseball and football, initially coached by the legendary Hank Stram. Skowron stood out in the latter two, but his collegiate career would be cut short after he impressed the Yankees enough to receive a $22,000 bonus offer, along with the promise by manager Casey Stengel to reach the big leagues in three years time.
The Skowron family didn’t have much money growing up, and that probably played a role in his decision. Nonetheless, he would later go on the record saying that even after the incredible success of his big league career, he wished he’d finished his college degree. Skowron moved around defensively in the minors trying to find his best spot, but his hitting prowess carried him forward.
After struggling at the hot corner and then in the outfield, Stengel decided to try him out at first base, and to overcome the lack of quick feet, Skowron even took dance lessons. He managed to fulfill the promise he received by reaching the majors in 1954.
Although ‘54 was the only one of Skowron’s first five seasons in which the Yankees didn’t reach the World Series, it wasn’t because of the first baseman’s struggles. By OPS+ (167), Moose had what to this day is the best rookie season by an infielder with a minimum of 225 plate appearance in the history of the Yankees. In 87 games, he hit .340/.392/.577 with 12 doubles, 9 triples, and 7 homers, entrenching himself on the talented ballclub.
Interestingly enough, it was another Yankee who won the Rookie of the Year award. Bob Grim was outstanding with 20 wins and a 3.26 ERA, and Skowron quite simply didn’t play enough with only 237 plate appearances. (Side note: Only Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge to this day have surpassed his 167 mark.)
Skowron raked with 35 homers and a 141 OPS+ over his next two seasons, winning his first World Series ring in ‘56. However, he was at his most heroic during the 1958 campaign. The Yankees were down 3-1 in the Fall Classic to the Milwaukee Braves, who were on the verge of trouncing the Yankees for the second year in a row. New York won Game 5 and Moose played a huge role in the final two contests with decisive hits. Skowron drove in the fourth run in a 4-3 in Game 6 and also hit a three-run bomb to put the Yanks up 6-2 in the decisive Game 7.
Skowron had a magnificent career with the Yankees, cracking the All-Star roster for five consecutive seasons from 1957 through 1961 and belting 54 homers between the 1960-61 campaigns. After winning his fourth World Series in 1962, he suddenly found himself out of a job. Excited by the youngster Joe Pepitone and in need of pitching, the ballclub flipped him to the Dodgers for Stan Williams. Moose, who struggled with injuries throughout the career, still won a fifth World Series with the Dodgers in 1963 (sweeping his old friends in pinstripes), but was never the same player.
To this day, Bill Skowron is the number three player in Yankee history in OPS+ for first basemen, behind only Lou Gehrig and Jason Giambi. As a Yankee, he’s even ahead of Don Mattingly in that category (129 to 127) — not too shabby.