Classic Yankees: Moose Skowron

moose-skowronLong before Mike Mussina, the Yankees had another “Moose.” To this day, his familiar mug and distinctive crew cut makes him one of the most recognizable Yankees.

William “Moose” Skowron played from 1954-1967, and was with the Yankees from 1954-1962. A righty hitter, his stats were severely diminished by the Old Yankee Stadium. We’ll get to that at the end of this profile. Skowron got his nickname from his grandpa, who thought Skowron looked like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini after the young Skowron got a haircut.

The Moose came up to the Yankees in 1954 at the age of 23. Relegated to Casey Stengel’s platoon system, Skowron got into just 87 games in 1954, but made some impression, hitting .340 with 7 HR and 41 RBI, with an OPS+ 167. While mostly a first baseman throughout his career, he did get a few games in at 3B and 2B (13 and 4 respectively).

In 1955, Skowron played in 108 games, and his at bats increased from 215 to 288. He hit .319 with 12 HR and 61 RBI. OPS+ 140. He went 4 for 12 in the World Series, with a HR and 3 RBI.

In 1956, the Moose became a full-time player, something he would stay (with the exception of an injury-plagued 1959) throughout his Yankee tenure. He hit .308 with 23 HR and 90 RBI, 142 OPS+. It’s amazing he received no consideration for the MVP award, but he was overshadowed by Mantle’s Triple Crown season and also by Yogi Berra (Mantle was the unanimous winner, and Yogi, who had won in 1951, 1954 and 1955, finished 2nd).

After losing Game 6 of the 1956 World Series, 2B Billy Martin went to Casey Stengel. Billy was quite teed off. He suggested something a bit radical. In a way, it was a foreshadowing of the controversial benching of Reggie Jackson for Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS that Martin would do when Martin managed the Yankees.

Martin suggested benching Enos Slaughter (whose misplayed ball in LF in Game 6 helped to lose the game for the Yankees) and Joe Collins. He wanted Casey to play Elston Howard in LF and Moose at 1B. In other words, bench two lefty hitters in Slaughter and Collins for two righty batters in Howard and Skowron. This was to be against Don Newcombe, the Dodgers’ righty ace who had won 27 games that year and who would win the MVP and CYA.

Howard hadn’t played up to that point in the Series. Skowron was only 0 for 5. Martin felt that Casey was playing favorites and didn’t care about the platooning or matchups. He wanted what he felt was his best lineup out there, righty/righty be damned. Casey listened.

Martin’s hunch paid off. Yogi Berra hit a 2-run home run off Newcombe in the 1st, then another one off him in the 3rd. In the 4th, leadoff hitter Elston Howard drove Newcombe from the game with a solo shot that made the score 5-0, Yankees.

Then in the 7th, the Moose hit the capper. A grand slam that ensured that the Yankees would win the 1956 World Series and that Brooklyn’s only World Series title would be that one in 1955. It was Skowron’s only hit in a 1 for 10 World Series.

This move also was duplicated by Joe Torre in the 1996 World Series, when lefty hitters Wade Boggs and Tino Martinez were benched against righty pitcher John Smoltz (who, like Newcombe, would win the CYA) for righty hitters Charlie Hayes and Cecil Fielder. It was Hayes and Fielder who would team up to score and drive in the only run of Game 5.

In 1957, Skowron was named to his first of what would be six All-Star teams. He finished 22nd in the MVP vote with a season of .304-17-88, OPS+ 123. He only got into two World Series games, going 0 for 4 and grounding out to end the Series.

1958 saw .273-14-73, OPS+ 106. A bit down, but Skowron made up for it, and the 1957 World Series, with the decisive blow in Game 7 to give the Yankees the World Series title. In Game 6, he knocked in what turned out to be the decisive run in the top of the 10th. In game 7, in the top of the 8th, the Yankees had just taken a 3-2 lead on a single by Howard. Skowron’s 3-run HR two batters later broke the Braves’ back. He went 7 for 27, 2 HR, 7 RBI in the 1958 World Series.

1959 and injury. Just 74 games, .298-15-59, OPS+ 145. Many elements combined in an off-year to knock the Yanks down to 3rd place. Losing the “Moose” was one of them.

Skowron rebounded with his only top-10 MVP year in 1960. He finished 9th in the voting (Maris and Mantle were 1-2) by hitting .309-26-91, OPS+ 142. In a series where the Yankees outscored Pittsburgh 55-27 but still lost, Skowron had 12 hits, 2 HR and drove in 6 runs.

Moose hit 28 HR in 1961, a career high, but you can guess the publicity that got in the year of Maris and Mantle. His average was just .267, but he did drive in 89 runs. OPS+ 113. He and Howard (that twosome again) hit HRs in Game 1 of the World Series to back Whitey Ford’s 2-0 shutout. Moose was 6 for 17 in that Series with that one HR and 5 RBI.

Moose’s last year with the Yanks was in 1962 as the Yanks were grooming Joe Pepitone to take over. Skowron was just 31 and still productive, hitting .270-23-80, OPS+ 115. He was 4 for 18 in the World Series with 1 RBI. After the 1962 season, he was traded to the Dodgers for P Stan Williams.

While a Yankee, Skowron averaged 121 games a year, .294-18-75, OPS+ 129. He was overshadowed by Mantle, Yogi and Maris, and hurt by the ballpark. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Moose missed the Yanks, and had an awful 1963 season with the Dodgers. In 89 games, he hit just .203 with 4 HR and 19 RBI. OPS+ a miserable 60. But lo and behold, who did the Dodgers meet in the World Series but the Yankees. Moose haunted his old team, hitting 5 for 13 with 1 HR (Game 2) and 3 RBI. When asked later if it was his “revenge,” Moose stated that he took no personal pleasure in it and that he still considered himself a Yankee. Even though for many years Skowron, a Chicago native, has worked with the White Sox in Community Relations, one of his quotes is, “I am first and foremost a Yankee.”

Skowron is one of not too many players to hit World Series home runs while a representative of both leagues. Others include Slaughter, Maris, Reggie Smith, Kirk Gibson, Frank Robinson and Matt Williams.

Moose went back to the AL when the Senators bought him from the Dodgers. Back in the AL, he was back to the old Moose, hitting .282-17-79, OPS+ 108 for the Senators and White Sox. The White Sox picked up the Moose midway through the season, and Moose nearly made it to another World Series.

All in all, Skowron played on five World Series champions and 8 pennant winners. In World Series play, Moose hit .293 with 8 HR and 29 RBI in 39 games.

1965 would turn out to be Moose’s last good year. It was his final All-Star appearance as he hit .274-18-78, OPS+ 116. In December, he turned 35 and his career went down from there.

1966 saw .249-6-29, OPS+ 98 and 1967 would turn out to be his final year. After 8 games with the 1967 White Sox, Skowron was dealt to the Angels. He finished his career by hitting a combined .206-1-11, OPS+ 55 for those two teams.

For his career, Skowron hit .282 with 211 HR. His 162 g. average was .282-21-87, OPS+ 120. Pretty good.

But those of us who remember the old Yankee Stadium remember Death Valley. 402 to straightaway left (the LF side of the bullpen), 415 to the other side of the bullpen. 457 to LCF. 461 to CF. 407 to RCF. Yes, there was the short porch, but a good half the field had extremely difficult dimensions to conquer. Probably a good 40% had almost IMPOSSIBLE dimensions to conquer.

I do believe (I don’t know the exact number) that Skowron hit 3 or 4 balls into the LCF bleachers. What shots they had to be.

But the Stadium hurt Skowron’s power numbers tremendously. I have a book, Baseball Dynasties, by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. Now that book was written in 2000, so some of the stats may now be off a bit. In that book, however, Skowron had the 4th-lowest home HR percentage of anyone with 200 or more career HR—40.8%. That’s for his career. As a Yankee, only 60 of Skowron’s 165 Yankee HR came at home—36.4%. By contrast, lefty hitting Bill Dickey took advantage of the porch; 344 to RF and 296 down the RF line, hitting 135 of his 202 (67%) of his HR at home. Dickey’s percentage, at the time of this book’s writing, was the HIGHEST home HR percentage of any player with 200 or more career HR through the 1998 season. From 1935-1939, Dickey hit 88 of his 116 HR at home. As for Joe DiMaggio, his home HR percentage at the time of the book’s writing was 41.0%—almost the same as Skowron’s, and the sixth-lowest HR percentage at that time. (With parks now more symmetrical, I would hedge a guess that the rankings haven’t changed much).

Skowron had to learn to hit the ball the other way. “I don’t always swing at strikes,” Moose said. “I swing at the ball when it looks big.”

For years, Skowron and his fellow crew-cut buddy, Hank Bauer, would “hold court” at Yankee Old-Timer’s Day games. Although Bauer is gone, the 80 year old Skowron still is a commanding presence at those events. Skowron and Bauer were two of Mantle’s closest friends and two of his pallbearers.

From 1955-1962, the Moose wore #14. He wore #53 as a rookie in 1954.

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2 Responses to Classic Yankees: Moose Skowron

  1. Mike S. says:

    An update on Moose. It was announced today (5/23/11) that the 80 year old Skowron is battling lung cancer. Thoughts and prayers go out to him.

  2. Mike Sommer says:

    Another update on Bill "Moose" Skowron. The New York Daily News reports Skowron died last night (April 26, 2012) in Chicago from congestive heart failure after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 81.