Memoirs of a Moose

Anyone who followed baseball in the ’50s and ’60s couldn’t miss Bill “Moose” Skowron, for nine years the husky, often-injured first baseman of the great Yankee teams that included Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. A workingman’s slugger with a flattop haircut and a body like an oak, Moose hit .300 or better five times and pounded 211 home runs for the Yankees and other teams before he retired in 1967 with a .282 lifetime batting average. But the game didn’t make Skowron rich; the best salary he ever made was $37,000 a year. Still sought after for old-timers’ games and benefit golf tournaments, the blunt-spoken Moose, 56, now lives outside Chicago with his wife, Cookie, and works as a sales representative for a check-writing firm. He spoke with correspondent Bill Shaw.

Money is the name of the game today. I’m all for these modern-day players, they deserve the money they get. But I think it makes them a little complacent. I hit .300 four years in a row for the Yankees and never got a raise. I had to compete for my job every year, and if I didn’t produce the numbers I didn’t stay. If you had a bad year, you took a 20 percent pay cut. With the Yankees, the most I ever made was $37,000, but then material things didn’t mean that much to me. A Cadillac didn’t matter; a Chevy got me to work just as well. And I’d buy $25 suits. But you take some of these kids today with the big salaries—I don’t understand how they go broke.

I can’t blame them, though. They got their agents and they get good deals. When I was with the Yankees, I’d try to argue with my agent, but he’d say, “Moose, you don’t want to play, stay home.” But I got bills, I got children, so I’d take what they give me. You took it or you went home. I added it up once, what I made in my whole career, 17 years in baseball, and it came to half a million. That’s counting the eight World Series I played in. But it was my job. During the winter I worked selling bowling alley signs. Hank Bauer, the outfielder who played on seven world championship teams, was a pipe fitter. We all had to work.

Guys today love the game okay but they’ve got more material things to distract them. I’ve heard players have their wives call in sick for them. We played sick. Once Yogi Berra calls in sick and [manager] Casey Stengel calls right back and tells him to get his ass to the ballpark. So Yogi gets there about the fourth inning and hits a pinch-hit home run. You can get aspirin at the ballpark, so why not play? If a guy’s wife had a baby, he heard about it on the radio. They didn’t give time off for anything.

It was a different time. We used to get hit with pitches a lot more then but we didn’t go out to the mound and fight about it. It was just part of the game. I mean, you take guys like Mantle or Maris. They’d hit a home run, then I’d step in and get knocked down. I saw Jim Bunning knock Mickey down once, threw at his head. Mickey started to charge the mound and Bunning [now a Republican congressman from Kentucky] turned white. He didn’t know what to do ’cause Mickey would’ve killed him. Mickey stopped, though.

The pitcher’s got a right to throw at somebody—it’s his bread and butter. I got hit in the head three times and I never went after a pitcher. When they hit me, I’d never rub the spot. Just trot to first base. That made the pitcher even madder. Early Wynn threw at me all the time. Early would knock his mother down, that’s why he was so great. I liked to hit the ball up the middle and pitchers don’t like that, so they figure, we’ll straighten out Moose. We’ll pitch him high and tight or hit him in the ribs. Some batters can’t take that. It causes ’em to freeze up. Didn’t bother me.

I got hit between the eyes once and it broke my helmet. Casey comes over and says, “Moose, can you read the scoreboard?” So I read the scoreboard and he says, “Well, you’re okay.” So I walk to first and the next batter hits a grounder to the shortstop and I figure I’ll make up for getting hit. The ball gets flipped to Gene Mauch, the second baseman [now manager of the California Angels], and I come in sliding. I just wanted to knock him on his ass, but I broke his leg. Now, whenever I see Mauch, he says, “Moose, thanks for making me a major league manager.”

We were never cocky, never popped off. Casey always told us to be the same, win or lose. Don’t pop off, nobody show up the pitchers. Not like today. A guy hits a home run, he stops and watches the ball go. If I did that in the old days, next time up I’d get hit right in the head. Those pitchers wouldn’t go for that. Hit the ball and run around the bases. Why stand there and watch it?

I probably would have loafed if I had a multiyear contract. That’s why these guys don’t want the ball thrown at their heads. They might lose a lot of money if they got hurt. I always had to play injured because I was afraid of losing my job. I once played with 35 stitches in my hand. Got spiked at home plate and two days later I ripped it open again.

I always loved playing. I used to play with a corset on ’cause I had a protruded slipped disk. Wally Pipp told me, “Moose, don’t never get a headache. Play when you’re hurt.” He told me this ’cause once he was out late one night and in the morning he asked for the day off. Fine, but when he came back, Lou Gehrig had taken his place and Wally Pipp never started at first base for the Yankees again.

I feel sorry for today’s coaches and managers getting yelled at by their players. If anyone ever threatened Casey, that player was gone. With the multiyear contracts now, you can’t do that. One time in Yankee Stadium Casey took me out in the first inning for a pinch-hitter, in front of 57,000 fans, with the bases loaded. I came back to the dugout and threw the bat. I was mad and left the ballpark. The next day, he calls me in and says, “Moose, don’t ever do that again. Don’t show me up. I’m out to win a ballgame and I don’t give a damn how you feel.” I never challenged him again.

I hear guys today are under pressure, so they take drugs. Pressure? I got it every day when I go to work. So I don’t talk to my wife for three days. I talk to her on the fourth, but I don’t take drugs. Our guys drank. That wasn’t no better. You had 25 guys on the Yankees and maybe three drank heavy. I roomed with Ryne Duren one day and got rid of him the next ’cause he was drunk and sleeping with lit cigarettes in his hand. I see Ryne now at golf tournaments and he’s doing good. Quit drinking and he’s okay.

I never exercised like these big kids do now. So I ripped a lot of leg muscles. I was muscular built but I never lifted weights. That’s why I respect Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield. I see ’em on the floor stretching and exercising. Guys like them and others like Pete Rose, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, they’re hard-nosed, they give 100 percent. What I hate to see are guys making big money and not hustling. That’s what I get a little hot about. A guy hits a fly ball, he doesn’t even run to first base. That’s when I walk out of the ballpark.

The day I quit, I quit. I was 38, told my wife this was my last year, and she says fine. I was being platooned and didn’t want to be a hang-on player. No regrets, I had my career, met a lot of nice people. Went to dinner with Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe once. I’ll never forget that. I shaved four times before we went out. I also met Frank Sinatra, Buddy Hackett, Joey Bishop, all the great ones. I put three kids through college, got a nice home, and I still get asked for autographs. I sign everything. I get about 20 letters a week, go to bubble-gum card conventions, old-timers’ games, fantasy camps with Whitey Ford and Mickey. Hey, I’m happy as hell.

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