Boyhood Heroes and Autograph Stories: Remembering Bill “Moose” Skowron

Moose Skowron

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’ 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.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Comiskey_Park_860817.jpg/240px-Comiskey_Park_860817.jpg

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.

Boyhood Heroes and Autograph Stories: Remembering Bill “Moose” Skowron

Moose Skowron

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.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Comiskey_Park_860817.jpg/240px-Comiskey_Park_860817.jpg

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.

The Cleverest Cubs Fan Ever

One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball, and the American Dream

As I watch still another Chicago baseball loss, probably numbering well over four figures in my career as a fan, I am reminded of three different people: Warren Brown, a one-armed man, and the only Cubs fan I ever met who displayed good judgment.

Brown was a legendary sports writer for the Chicago Tribune and other papers. He witnessed both the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and every baseball World Series for 50 years beginning in 1920. Additionally, he wrote a memorable history of the Cubs.

Naturally, Brown covered the 1945 World Series, the last time the Cubs appeared in such an event. Atypically, it featured less than the best American baseball players. The reason? Most of the able-bodied men were serving in the army, navy, air force, or the marines. The Second World War had only just ended earlier in the year. The rosters of the Detroit Tigers and the Cubs therefore featured players who were either too old or too infirm to be considered prime cannon-fodder: the left-over athletes who could still play baseball passably well, if not to the pre-war standard.

Indeed, to give you a sense of how dramatic was the war’s effect on the quality of Major League play at that time, you need to hear a little bit about Pete Gray, who you can see in action here: Pete Gray

Gray played for the St. Louis Browns in the American League that year. The Browns eventually moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. But as the war ended, they were so desperate for athletic talent that they required the services of Mr. Gray, who had the distinction of being a one-armed man. He had lost his right arm in a farming accident at age 12.

Gray swung the bat from the left side, but had trouble stopping the motion of the wooden club once he’d started it, making him pretty easy pickings for the opposing pitcher. Nonetheless, in 77 games during the regular season, Gray batted .218 and had a .958 fielding percentage. Unfortunately, enemy base-runners also discovered that Gray’s routine in the field — catch the ball, flip the ball into the air, remove the glove, grab the ball coming down, and ready himself to throw — allowed them time to take an extra-base. Once the war heroes returned in 1946, Gray was expendable.

It was in an atmosphere such as this that Warren Brown was asked a simple question: which of the two teams in the 1945 World Series, the Tigers and the Cubs, did he think would become the World Champion?

Brown thought for a moment and then uttered the unforgettable line:

“I don’t see how either team can possibly win it.”

That brings me to a man I met who was a Cubs fan in that same year, 1945. He got angry at the team because it confirmed the half of Warren Brown’s prediction that was in its control: the Cubs lost the World Series.

As a result, this fellow decided he would never root for the Cubs again, never ever.

And, as I said, the Cubs have not been in the World Series since he made that vow.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight years old.

How Watching the Cubs can Kill You–Literally

“Chicago Cubs fans are ninety percent scar tissue.” So said George Will. But could it be even worse than that? Could it be that the Cubs can kill you?

Case in point. Let me take you back to the year 1984, now 25 years in the past. It was the Cubs first appearance in the post-season since 1945. And maybe, just maybe, we thought, the long-awaited World Championship was at hand, the laurel we’d last won in 1908.

If your name was Theresa Boucek, 1908 wasn’t just something you’d read about. Indeed, Boucek, who had been born on October 7, 1882, could even recall the 1906 World Series between the Cubs and the White Sox. She’d been a famously attractive young woman back then, and was still comely enough to win a beauty contest at age 99! Of course, I’m not sure that she had much competition, but still, being the Arkansas Tri-County Nursing Home Queen must count for something.

That aside, lovely Theresa’s life was unremarkable. Daughter of a tailor, Boucek lived on Chicago’s West Side, and worked as a department store clerk and later, as a store detective. After marrying in 1906, she continued to work outside the home. Before moving to Arkansas in 1972 with her son Fred, she’d resided in Berwyn and Glenview. And all the while, Theresa Boucek was a life-long Cubs fan, suffering the “slings and arrows of outrageous (Cubs) fortune” known to many of us.

Fast forward to the 1984 playoffs: the Cubs vs. the San Diego Padres. Our boys won the first two games at Wrigley Field and needed only one victory in three possible tries in Southern California. But we lost the first two games in San Diego and were left with one final chance to make it to the World Series. And Theresa Boucek watched it all on her TV, watched in hope and watched in frustration, watched with her grandson Michael by her side, watched and prayed, as all Cubs fans do, for a final trip to the promised land and World Series glory.

Those of you with long memories will recall that the Cubs were actually leading in Game #5, and had their ace, Rick Sutcliffe on the mound. But Rick started to fade late in the game, and, as Michael Boucek recalled for the Chicago Sun Times, “as a matter of fact, (my grandmother) died during the game when Sutcliffe started to go downhill.”

It was her 102nd birthday. A fitting payoff for a lifetime of devotion to her favorite team.

Is there a moral to this story? I guess my thoughts go to the legendary Steve Bartman, the man who (some think) cost the Cubs a trip to the World Series in 2003 by allegedly interfering with Moises Alou’s attempt to catch a foul ball. I’ve always thought that this young man got a raw deal, that it was not Bartman but the men on the field who failed themselves and us.

But then, I guess the punishment suffered by Cubs fans is relative. The lifetime of shame suffered by Bartman might not be so bad after all.

Bartman, at least, unlike Therese Boucek, wasn’t killed by the Cubs.

Cubs and Sox Fans: Be Careful What You Wish For

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c1/Chicago_White_Sox.svg/128px-Chicago_White_Sox.svg.png

Certain years ring bells for Cubs and Sox fans. For the South Siders, it’s 2005 and before that, 1959.

Make a note of the year: 1959. I’ll get back to it shortly.

For the Cubbie faithful, the remembered years cause pain: the twin failures of the last two, 2003, 1998, 1989, 1984 and too many others to mention. Years when the balloon of faith and hope got punctured in the playoffs by grim reality; years that brought tears and anger and much gnashing of teeth.

As Chicagoans know, but outsiders might not, you are not supposed to be able to be both a Cubs and a Sox fan. It is essential to make a choice, usually early in life; this is done by some combination of parental persuasion, family example, and geography. Most locals don’t want to break faith with family tradition and root for a different team than their neighbors root for.

And so, not surprisingly, I was a Cubs fan. So was my dad, so was his dad, etc. And for most of the aforementioned lives, I and my recent ancestors have been living on the North Side of the city or in the northern suburbs. You’ve heard the story before, how you get imprinted on the team when your dad first takes you to see them in a tender moment of your youth. After that, no amount of pain inflicted by the ball club’s failures can separate you from the attachment. Like certain wild animals, you have mated for life.

Thus it was in 1959, the year of the first White Sox pennant in 40 summers, that I discovered the meaning of the phrase “Be careful what you wish for.”

I was a little boy, of course, but not so little that I didn’t want the White Sox to fail. Like nearly all my friends, I hated the White Sox. It was something like a religious obligation, almost an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt hate the Chicago White Sox.” Just as religion required me to honor my father and my mother, so did it ask that I root for the Cubbies only: “Thou shalt have no team before the Cubs.”

My Uncle Sam was an exception to the family allegiance to the Cubs. He was my mother’s brother, was raised on the South Side, and breathed the air of other Sox loyalists. He also had a friend who was a White Sox scout and minor league manager, Frank Parenti. Frank would get Sam tickets for some of the games and occasionally I got to see American League contests played in old Comiskey Park as a result. But that didn’t mean that I had to like them or like the White Sox! No, I went out of curiosity, as a sort of scientific observer, and to see what the draw of the Sox was to my uncle; not to mention getting to watch Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, and other American League greats close up.

Thanks to Mr. Parenti, both my uncle and my dad got to see the second game of the 1959 World Series. Back in those days, the games were all played in natural light, so school required that I miss seeing most of the weekday action on TV. But I was more than happy when the Sox returned to Chicago for the sixth game down 3 games to 2. Only one more loss and the World Series would be over! The sooner, the better, I felt.

I came home after school on the afternoon of the 6th game, October 8th, to find the White Sox down by a score of  8 to 3 in the 7th inning. It was clear to me, as it must have been to every other Chicago baseball fan, that the World Series was effectively over. The Sox had a relatively weak hitting team staffed by the likes of Luis Aparicio, Nelson Fox, Sherman Lollar, and Al Smith; and had won the American League Championship by dint of excellent pitching and defense, and a surprising off-year from the Yankees. The South Siders would have needed a miracle to reverse their fortunes. I was feeling good!

Along about the 8th inning, still 8-3, my mom strolled into the living room where I was parked in front of a large Muntz TV. “What’s the score,” she asked?

“Eight to three,” I replied, “the World Series is pretty much over.”

Then the words I have not forgotten, will never forget; more indelible than a tattoo on the heart they were about to break:

“Oh, that’s too bad. Your dad had a World Series ticket for you tomorrow.”

I don’t have much recall after the trauma of those words. I think I started rooting feverishly for the White Sox, but I can’t really remember any detail. All I know is that my life changed forever. I had learned a hard lesson.

As Oscar Wilde put it many years before: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.”

In the succeeding 50 years, I have yet to see a World Series game except on TV. And I have become that rare Chicago sports fan who hopes for the best for both the Cubs and the Sox.

I know, all too well, the danger of doing otherwise.

The above image is by Kalel2007, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.