The Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1955 World Series thanks to the MVP performance of an unheralded 23 year-old pitcher named Johnny Podres. That winter I had a chance to meet him. He was scheduled to make a weekend appearance at the Peter Pan restaurant in West Rogers Park, Chicago. I couldn’t wait.
My dad drove me there and I could see the line in the eatery, all eager young boys, some older than my nine years, some younger. And there he was, seated at a table in front of the long line, observable at a distance through the restaurant’s large pane glass window. A genuine baseball player in the flesh. A real World Series hero.
But there was only one problem.
I couldn’t get myself out of the car. I froze. I was intimidated. My dad did his best to persuade me and I certainly had enough time to muster the courage to go in. Podres wasn’t going anywhere fast. But neither was I. I was fastened to the seat at a time before seat belts.
I cannot tell you what exactly I was afraid of. I don’t remember what I was thinking. All I know was that I was terrified, all too shy, and eventually my dad drove me home.
I was reminded of this story recently when a high school friend asked me if I remembered Johnny Podres appearance at the Peter Pan. He had the courage to go in. In fact, I suspect it simply wasn’t in his nature to even to be scared of it.
Within a very few years, however, I became an eager autograph collector, brazenly approaching my heroes (probably only 10 years or so older than I was at the time) as they emerged from their locker room or outside the ball park, usually Wrigley Field. I nearly got trampled trying to get Willie Mays’s signature. He simply bulled his way through the crowd of boys who were hoping to have a less physical kind of contact. But young men like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo would sign and sign and sign until everyone had a turn and a treasured keepsake.
In the summer of 1960, when I was in eighth grade, my Jamieson School friend Joel and I went to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the Yankees. My uncle Sam had gotten us great box seat tickets and we were eager to get some autographs before the game.
We noticed several kids bunched on the stadium side of the infield wall, all getting the popular Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso to sign their scorecards. Soon, Joel and I observed that there seemed to be a man in charge — a man who had a camera hanging by a strap around his neck. We joined in the crowd milling about the pale hose star, even getting into a picture that was taken.
The adult leader didn’t take too long before persuading various other Sox players to come over to the same group of boys about our age, making autograph collecting easier than usual. Normally one had to call to a player from the stands, requesting him to take pen in hand and ink that day’s score book. From that point we did our best to blend in with the others, getting as many autographs as we could.
Curious, I asked one of the boys in the group who they were. It turned out that the kids were there on an excursion from South Bend, Indiana. All of them were newspaper boys who had won the Comiskey Park adventure for doing their deliveries and collections reliably and well. That was why, of course, the photographer/chaperone of the group had taken a picture of all of us with Minnie, for eventual publication in the very same daily paper.
Joel and I wondered how we would get a copy of the photo. “We’ll figure it out,” I said. “Just be sure you don’t say anything to that guy,” as I motioned toward the adult overseer.
We were standing a bit apart from the group, not wanting them to hear our plotting, when the same man called to us, “Hey, you two, come over here!”
At first I wondered if he’d figured out that we didn’t belong. But instead he told us he was going to try to get our photo with Mickey Mantle! We watched with heady anticipation as he talked to the Yankee great and future Hall-of-Famer. But Mantle shrugged him off. He seemed more intent on watching the other Yankees take batting practice and waiting for his own turn to hit.
Next he approached Bill “Moose” Skowron, the Yankee’s heavy-hitting first baseman. I’d always thought that “Moose,” a popular Chicago native who would eventually play for the White Sox, was called by that nickname because he was so powerfully built, unusually square-shouldered and intimidating in physique. But, it turns out that his childhood friends called him “Moose” after Benito Mussolini, who Skowron resembled a bit, especially in the 1930s when the young Skowron started to wear his hair in the crew-cut style that made him look even more like the Italian dictator.
Skowron would end his playing career with 211 regular season home runs and a .293 batting average in eight World Series appearances that led to five World Championships. He was also elected to the American League All-Star team on six occasions.
The “Moose” walked with our benefactor behind the home plate batting cage toward the place where we were standing — on the stadium side of the barrier to the field. Skowron smiled and said hello, then turned and sat himself on the flat top of the low brick partition as he faced the gigantic center field “exploding” scoreboard that Bill Veeck, the Sox owner, had installed only that year — the first of its kind.
The photographer stood with his back toward that same scoreboard and motioned us to get on either side of the ball player, as close as we could to “Moose” while remaining in the stands. Then the 29 year-old athlete leaned back a bit, put his arms around us and the photo was taken.
Skowron said goodbye and quickly returned to his pre-game routine. But we were in trouble. Joel couldn’t restrain himself and blurted out the question I had feared, “Say, how do we get to see these pictures?”
As the saying goes, if looks could kill two 13 year-olds would have expired behind home plate at Comiskey Park.
“Aren’t you… don’t you belong… you’re newspaper delivery boys, right?”
“Uh, uh, uh…”
“Oh, s**t, f***k, you little a*s h***s, you sons of b*****s.”
I think there might have been another dozen or so swear words, some of which I never heard before and haven’t heard since. By now it is kind of a blur. And so ended any hope of ever getting our hands on a picture of the two of us with Bill Skowron.
Fortunately, my dad was able to track down the South Bend newspaper and did, in fact, find the group photo with Minnie Minoso in which we can be easily recognized. Only one problem. The caption identifies Joel as Steve Carpenter and me as Claude Fitzgerald. Or something like that.
I wrote the above in May, 2011 and for some reason set it aside. But the story was on my mind, and I told it to a recent acquaintance, a neatly bearded, fine older gentleman named Abe. He’d mentioned that he was a friend of the “Moose,” who apparently continues to live in the Chicago area.
Stories are funny things. Sometimes you think a narrative is finished when in fact it isn’t. Something else happens to someone involved in the tale that adds an important twist to it, changing its meaning. So it was with this story.
To my surprise, a few months after I’d related the yarn to Abe, he said that he told the story to “Moose” and asked him if he would sign a photo of himself in his playing days, inscribed to me. With that Abe handed me the image (below) featuring the young “Moose” and a few words to me in his still steady hand. It was an act of unexpected kindness from both of these men, something that made my day.
Thus, the story did not end with my disappointment at the failed opportunity to get my hands on a photo with a baseball hero, but with me receiving a picture after all; one that, because of the way it happened, means more to me than the half-century old version possibly could have.
I guess it just goes to show that (if you are willing to wait 51 years) you can have just about anything you want in life.
I have reposted this essay as a tribute to Bill “Moose” Skowron, whose death was reported today. He was 81.
The top photo is “Moose” in his days with the Yankees. The second photo is of the scoreboard at Old Comiskey Park by Baseball Bugs sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final photo is of Bill “Moose” Skowron at old Comiskey Park in his days with the White Sox.