A piece of this kid’s childhood and a link to the glorious Yankee teams of the 50s and early 60s died today with the passing of former first baseman Bill “Moose” Skowron.
More than 50 years ago, my father took me to my first baseball game at Yankee Stadium. Although the White Sox won the game, the Moose homered for the only Yankee run. Instantly, I became a Bill Skowron fan.
Soon I began imitating Skowron’s batting stance. I got a Bill Skowron first baseman’s mitt for my birthday. My uncle, the late Allan Melvin of Sam the Butcher fame, started called me the Moose Skowron of White Plains.
Skowron joined the Yankees in 1954 and hit .300 in each of his first four seasons. Moose won four championships with the Yankees, and hit a huge three-run homer in the seventh game of the 1958 World Series to cinch a win over the Milwaukee Braves.
Following the 1962 season, the Yankees sent Skowron to the Dodgers for pitcher Stan Williams. It was a devastating trade, not only for the Moose but also for an 11-year-old kid living in the New York suburbs.
Skowron’s Dodgers defeated the Yankees in the 1963 World Series, when Moose slugged a home run and batted .385. Always a clutch batter, he hit. .293 in eight World Series with eight home runs, seventh all time. Skowron and Yogi Berra are the only players to hit three Game 7 home runs in the World Series.
Moose played out his 14-year career with the Senators, White Sox and Angels. He had a .282 lifetime batting average with 211 home runs.
Skowron was plagued by injuries throughout his career, which was ironic considering a conversation he once had (and Bill Madden of the New York Daily News recounted) with another Yankee first baseman, Wally Pipp.
“I met Pipp at an Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium,” Skowron recalled, “and he told me: ‘Don’t ever get a headache or catch a cold. I got a headache once and took a day off and never played again. A guy named Lou Gehrig took my place.’ I made sure from that day on to do everything I could to remain healthy.”
“There weren’t many better guys than Moose,” Berra told the Associated Press. “He was a dear friend and a great team man. A darn good ballplayer, too.”
The greatest home run race of all time featured the M&M boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 and Mantle belted 54.
Growing up a Yankee fan in New York, every day was Christmas day in 1961. Home runs were stocking stuffers, wins were gift-wrapped presents under the tree.
Ten years old, a kid in White Plains, collector of baseball cards, I marveled at the exploits of this great team.
I watched the games on WPIX-TV Channel 11 on a small, black and white Philco, or listened on the radio. Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto and Red Barber provided the play-by-play.
On the nights when the games ran past my bedtime, my father kept score and would leave out the score sheet for me in the morning. IThey did lose now and then, but it seemed as if the Yanks won every night.
Now, nearly 50 years later, the 1961 Yankees remain the best baseball team I have ever seen.
Maris and Mantle
It was the year of Maris and Mantle and the greatest home run race of all time.
Every day, or so it seemed, the Yankees were hitting balls out of the park. And if it wasn’t Rajah or The Mick, it was Moose Skowron or Elston Howard or Yogi Berra or Johnny Blanchard, the reserve catcher and pinch-hitter deluxe.
Maris hit 61 HRs that year, Mantle a career-high 54, Skowron 28, Berra 22, and Howard and Blanchard 21 apiece. The Yankees set the major league record with 240 home runs; Maris and Mantle hit 115 between them, still the highest number ever for two teammates.
The Yanks had Kubek to Richardson to Skowron, one of the great double play combinations. And Clete Boyer, the vacuum cleaner at third.
The Chairman of the Board, Whitey Ford, shown below, was 25-4 that season, a career year in a lifetime of career years. Ralph Terry was 16-3, Bill Stafford won 14 games and rookie Rollie Sheldon 11. Left-handed screwballer Luis Arroyo went 15-5 with 29 saves.
On September 1, 1961, the Detroit Tigers came into Yankee Stadium trailing the Bombers by just 1 1/2 games. The Yankees swept the three-game series, won 13 straight overall to bury the Tigers, and eased to 109 wins and the American League pennant..
Despite an injury to Mantle, they wiped out the Cincinnati Reds in five games to win the World Series.
I never did get to a Yankee game during that magical season. My Dad was going to take me to a game against Cleveland in early September, but I got sick the night before. I tried to hide a 102-degree fever, but was discovered and banished to the sick bed.
Had to watch the game on TV that Saturday afternoon when Maris hit homer #56 on the way to the American League record of 61 home runs in a single season. (Many would argue that Maris is still the single-season home run leader, and that the asterisk now belongs to people like Bonds, McGwire and Sosa.)
That year, Maris won his second consecutive American League MVP, and Ford was the Cy Young Award winner.
The 1961 Yankees — still the greatest team I’ve ever seen.
Sam The Butcher and Moose The Yankee
My uncle, Allan Melvin, recently passed away from cancer at the age of 84. To generations of TV viewers, he was known as Sam the Butcher, Barney on Archie Bunker’s Place, Corporal Henshaw on the Phil Silvers Show, and the voice of Magilla Gorilla. He also appeared in some of the Andy Griffith episodes, in Gomer Pyle, USMC, and starred in Liquid Plumber commercials. He appeared in one movie, “With Six You Get Eggroll” starring Doris Day.
To me he was Uncle Allan, a good man and a funny guy. I have fond memories of vacations on the Jersey Shore with Uncle Allan and his wife of 64 years, Aunt Amalia. It was fun growing up having a celebrity uncle. Later the Melvins moved to southern California, but every summer my parents and aunt would visit them in Michigan.
Cleaning out my desk earlier this week, I came across an old postcard with a black and white photo of Allan Melvin as Cpl, Henshaw from the 1950s. It is signed simply: “To Rickey, Moose Skowron of White Plains. Best Wishes, Uncle Allan.”
Bill “Moose Skowron” was my favorite Yankee growing up. I saw the Moose hit a home run for the only Yankee run in the first major league baseball game I ever attended, a 7-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox in 1958 at the original Yankee Stadium. A first baseman, Moose won four World Series rings with the Yankees. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1963, where he won another ring, this one against the Yankees. Showing his true colors, Moose got rid of the Dodger ring. He still holds the record — with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle — for most home runs by three teammates, 143, in a single season, 1961.