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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #62 Bill Skowron

“Moose” brought an all-around hitting approach to championship seasons defined by others’ gaudy home run totals.

Bill Skowron

Name: William Joseph Skowron
Position: First baseman
Born: December 18, 1930 (Chicago, IL)
Died: April 27, 2012 (Arlington Heights, IL)
Yankee Years: 1954-62
Primary number: 14
Yankee statistics: 1,087 G, .294/.346/.496, 165 HR, 672 RBI, 118 wRC+, 23.7 rWAR, 25.3 fWAR

Biography

Bill “Moose” Skowron began his life unsurprisingly as a standout athlete. After working his way to New York after being signed from Illinois, he played a steady first base in pinstripes on some of the best teams in Yankees history from 1954-62, including four different World Series champions. On teams led by all-time greats, Skowron was a vital complementary piece holding down the middle of the order with a jack-of-all-trades approach. He played before the term “glue guy” existed, but it describes him well.

“Moose” Ascends

Bill ‘Moose’ Skowron Photo by Photo File/Getty Images

The hulking kid from the Midwest was signed right off the gridiron as a multi-sport athlete at Purdue University. He was already known by his moniker Moose then — it originated when he got a haircut as a child that resembled that of Benito Mussolini. After his second minor league season, he was the owner of a Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year Award.

Skowron’s bat was ready for MLB competition, but the Yankees had a position conundrum in the outfield. He played corner outfield in the minor leagues but ultimately that didn’t stick. However, he had one of baseball’s best talent evaluators in his own corner. Manager Casey Stengel saw the player Moose would become and proposed a move to first base, where his poor throwing arm would be negated.

Seeing the opportunity in front of him, Skowron worked tirelessly to master the position. He even took dance classes to refine his footwork. After that initial season, he’d play in over a thousand games in pinstripes.

Getting over the hump

Joe Collins, also competing for an outfield job, welcomed Moose and they enjoyed a complementary platoon split of first base. The result was a rousing success. In a part-time role covering 87 games and 237 plate appearances, the rookie accrued 2.1 fWAR for a solid Yankees team, albeit one that would fall short in late September. They finished 103-51 in 1954, the high-water mark for Stengel’s teams at that point, and yet Cleveland had an even better season with a then-AL record 111 victories.

The Bombers had a shot at the pennant, trailing closely behind Cleveland for most of the season and in a three-game deficit on August 20th. The Yankees then went into Boston that week and lost three in a row. Cleveland kept winning, and when they swept a September 12th doubleheader against Stengel and company, they ultimately secured the pennant. The pre-Wild Card era of one winner for each league was unforgiving.

Coming off an absurd five straight World Series victories, finishing a distant second must have stung. As a rookie Moose saw one of the best one-two punches in baseball history: in one of their best overlapping years, Mickey Mantle put up 6.7 fWAR in 1954 while Yogi Berra supplied 5.9. Skowron was even the second-best rookie on his own team — pitcher Bob Grim won Rookie of the Year honors, but Moose made an indelible impression.

The Yankees played well into the summer of 1955 and got their revenge on Cleveland by winning a closely contested pennant race. On Labor Day, four teams were within three games of the AL lead, and it came down to the last week of the season. The Yankees rattled off seven straight wins from September 13th-21st to clinch narrowly over the defending AL champs. After the anomaly of 1954, they once again had a date with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. Interestingly, the hated Yankees led the league in hit-by-pitches at 46, a franchise record that would stand until 1998.

Yankees sluggers
Skowron, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, Eddie Robinson
Photo by Tom Watson/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Eventual Hall-of-Famers were everywhere in the 1955 World Series: Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider for the Dodgers, and Berra, Ford, Mantle, and Phil Rizzuto for the Yankees. An epic seven-game series ensued, one that included one of the most famous plays in the history of the sport with Jackie Robinson stealing home (though Berra would argue otherwise).

Skowron was on the bench taking in the action with a righty on the mound for wins in Game 1 and 2, but he made an impression when Stengel called his number in Game 3. He notched two hits including a double off the Dodgers’ Johnny Podres, eventual World Series MVP, but Yankees starter Bob Turley got knocked around and Brooklyn got back in the series with their first win.

Moose had a pinch-hit at-bat each in Game 4 and 5, but the Yankees lost those to fall behind 3-2 in the series. Stengel slotted Skowron sixth in his Game 6 lineup facing elimination. All of 24 years old, the strapping lad from Illinois rewarded his manager with a huge three-run home run to set the tone in the first inning. The Yankees went on to win 5-1, and on October 3, 1955, headed to a winner-take-all Game 7. Stengel rode the hot hand and gave Skowron the start against the lefty Podres, but he went 1-for-4 in an unceremonious loss in front of the Bronx faithful. The Dodgers had a year of destiny in 1955, but they wouldn’t be long for Brooklyn.

Champs finally reign

Skowron’s tireless work learning a new position paid off in his sophomore season; he and second baseman Gil McDougald formed a lockdown pairing on the right side of the Yankees infield. In the spring of 1956, Skowron began a seven-year tenure as the starting first baseman. The team obtained first place on May 16th and never relinquished it on the way to the AL pennant. 1956 was Mantle’s best work to date and his first full year as the consensus best player in the MLB. He put up 52 home runs and 130 RBIs, batting .353 on the way to a ring.

Skowron once again was an all-around valuable player in ‘56, posting a 141 wRC+ and 4.0 fWAR. The team finished with 97 wins, Brooklyn won the NL pennant, and the World Series rematch was on. Another seven-game classic followed, but this time the Yankees won the decisive seventh game to wrest control of the World Series trophy from across town (with a huge assist from Don Larsen). Skowron only played in three games of the series but delivered the biggest single blow of the series, a seventh-inning grand slam to put the Yankees firmly ahead in Game 7.

In 1957, the juggernaut offense continued to hum and the pitching staff came into its own with new names like Bobby Shantz and familiar ones like Larsen shouldering the load. The gentle but hulking Moose played peacekeeper in an all-out brawl against the White Sox — fighting broke out when Skowron tried unsuccessfully to restrain Larry Doby from punching Art Ditmar. When Doby landed the punch, Skowron got caught in the crossfire and it took Chicago police to untangle the two teams. The Yankees, like their star Mantle, were fiery, young, and confident. The infamous Copacabana incident occurred that season, sending teammate Billy Martin away from the team and casting a pall on Mantle’s party-boy lifestyle. The MVP eventually had to testify in a court of law about the infamous fight; he started his statement dubiously by bluntly saying “I was so drunk I don’t know who threw the first punch.” Moose had the good sense to stay far, far away from this debacle and its fallout.

Although it was shrouded in controversy often, the team was rock-solid defensively, and led the league in double plays with Skowron’s smooth glove on the back end. Mantle again won MVP and Skowron got an All-Star nod*, his first of seven with the Yankees, and finished with 3.2 fWAR that season.

*Two All-Star games were played each year in 1959 through 1962.

The ‘57 World Series featured two all-time greats: Mantle’s Bombers against the Milwaukee Braves and Hank Aaron. The durability downsides of Skowron’s bulky frame started to bug him late in the season, and he only had four at-bats in the series. The Yankees lost in seven games, but their defeat wasn’t the focus of the New York sports world. The Dodgers and Giants both announced their intent to move west to California, shaking up the balance of power in both leagues.

“Moose could flat-out hit ... for average, and he had real power. People used to look at our lineup and concentrate on the guys in the middle of the order. Moose might have been batting sixth or seventh, but he made our lineup deep and more dangerous. You didn’t want to give him too much around the plate. He was like Yogi Berra, he could hit bad pitches out and beat you.” -Mickey Mantle

The suddenly-all-alone Yankees ran it back with the Braves in the 1958 World Series, this time with Moose playing a significant role and his team coming out on top. The regular season didn’t treat the first baseman too well and came with some nagging injuries, but he recorded seven hits and two home runs in 27 World Series at-bats en route to his second ring.

1959, however, went wrong for both the team and for Skowron. He was effective when on the field, but broke his wrist in July, ending his season. The team won just 79 games, but that would prove to be a temporary derailment. The next year, a healthy Moose played one of his finest seasons in pinstripes. In 146 games, he accrued 4.7 fWAR, hit 26 home runs, and drove in 93. Once again the Yankees lost the World Series in seven games, this time to Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Ownership then installed a new regime and Stengel was sent packing after a decade-plus of mostly dominance.

Moose spent 1961-62 in the same role as starting first baseman, but at age 30 with injuries taking their toll, his defense began to lag. His bat still fared well, though, and he mashed 28 home runs in 1961. The team won 109 games, Mantle and Roger Maris competed for Babe Ruth’s home run record, and the AL champs easily dispatched the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. 1962 was a rinse-and-repeat World Series year, and Moose put up his usual consistent line of 23 home runs and 80 RBIs.

Moving out west

After the 1962 championship, a talented youngster named Joe Pepitone merited the spot at first base, and so the organization decided to move on from Skowron. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending his long tenure with the Yankees. He struggled in ‘63 in Los Angeles, but winning seemed to follow Moose everywhere he went. The Dodgers swept his old Yankees friends in that year’s World Series. In a bit of revenge by Moose, he had five hits including a home run in 13 at-bats in the series.

Skowron then bounced around from Washington to the White Sox, where he received one final All-Star nod in 1965. He retired after spending the 1967 season with the Angels having played 14 seasons and winning five World Series trophies.

USA TODAY Sports-Historical USA TODAY Sports

Skowron stayed around the game for the remainder of his life, holding a community outreach position for his hometown White Sox and frequently participating in Yankees Old-Timers’ Days, even late in life.

On April 27, 2012, Skowron passed away from a combination of congestive heart failure and the effects of battling lung cancer. He was 81. Skowron was survived by his second wife, Lorraine “Cookie” Skowron, their daughter Lynnette, sons Greg and Steve from his first marriage, and four grandchildren — not to mention the countless figures throughout the game who mourned his passing.

“There weren’t many better guys than Moose. He was a dear friend and a great team man. A darn good ballplayer, too. I’m going to miss him.” - Yogi Berra

Moose was an indispensable contributor to four World Series championships, and was the third “M&M Boy” right after stars Mantle and Maris. Consistency was the name of his game, and he managed well-above-average offense in every one of his Yankee years.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Staff rank: 62
Community rank: 52
Stats rank: 54
2013 rank: 47

References

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

The New York Times

The New York Yankees of the 1950s

Wancho, Joseph. SABR bio

The Yankee Encyclopedia

Previously on the Top 100

63. Masahiro Tanaka
Full list to date