One of a reporter's first calls, early last baseball season, for a story on Roger Maris and the 1961 Yankees was to Moose Skowron. Moose had a great memory and a greater gift of gab. But this time his wife, Cookie, politely asked the reporter to call back later. "He's got a little problem," she said, adding that he was at the doctor.
On the callback, Moose was home, but his voice wasn't all there. He was friendly enough, but he said, "You don't want to talk to me."
That was a bad sign. Never could it be said that someone would not want to talk to Bill "Moose" Skowron, or vice versa.
Skowron, who died Friday of congestive heart failure after a yearlong struggle with lung cancer, was more than just another ex-ballplayer. He even was more than another former Yankees star. Nearly 50 years after his final game with the Yankees, he still stood out because of his famous nickname and because he believed from his first game to his last day that baseball was meant to be fun -- for the people who watch it and the people who play it.
Don't get the wrong idea. He was as competitive as they come. It is well known in Chicago that he was a CYO marbles champion when he was 11. The thing was, there was enjoyment to be had, during and after the competition.
He had stories to tell and he loved telling them. There was the one about meeting Cookie on a blind date. Sure, it worked out great for both (it was his second marriage) and they had three great kids, he would say. Then he added, in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, "I found out later she thought I was Moose Vasko, the hockey guy."
There was also the time during his Yankees career when one of the wizened alumni sat him down on a steamer trunk in the clubhouse on Old-Timers' Day. "He said, 'My name is Wally Pipp and I have some advice for you: Don't get a headache or catch a cold. I had a headache once and took a day off. A guy named Lou Gehrig took my place and I never started again, so stay healthy,' " Skowron recalled years later.
Skowron himself became a fixture on Old-Timers' Days, one of the guys to whom you just had to listen. At the new Yankee Stadium in 2009, he said, "They should have built the park like the one I played in, 461 feet . This is a bandbox. I don't know. People like to see home runs, I guess. All I know is that I lost a lot of home runs in that park. We couldn't wait to go on a road trip. But Casey Stengel told me, 'Moose, if you don't like it here, we can put you someplace else.' I never forgot that."
Tony Kubek, his former roommate, fellow infielder and longtime friend, said people never really did know how great a player Skowron was. When the news spread Friday, Kubek got on the phone with Ralph Terry and talked about him. Kubek even looked at the boxscore of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series and noticed that Skowron was batting seventh. He recalled that Ted Williams used to acknowledge that the righthanded-hitting Skowron was a victim of the old Stadium's "Death Valley" and that he was a true power hitter.
He was no Wally Pipp. He lasted long enough to win four World Series with the Yankees, and after they let him go (to make room for Joe Pepitone), he had a terrific World Series for the Dodgers against the Yankees. It was all part of the game.
Even though he worked for the White Sox from 1999 on, "he was a loyal Yankee," former teammate Bobby Richardson said. Well into his 70s, Skowron organized and energized Yankees fantasy camps. When his old club visited Chicago, he would be in the clubhouse. "He was just always positive," Derek Jeter said.
Joe Girardi said: "He was great to be around. Very energetic, a real zest for life."
It was funny that Skowron lived most of his 81 years in Chicago, made his mark in New York and had success in Los Angeles. Meeting him, you would think he came from a small town. He was everybody's neighbor: friendly, grateful, humble.
Skowron was an icon to those who followed him. "He was a legend at Weber High School and was always a great supporter of the school," said Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who went to the same Catholic school years later. "For someone who was a great star, he was a regular guy and a terrific friend to everybody. He was a tremendous person that was loved by everyone. He was truly a remarkable man because he had the ability to make others feel comfortable and special."
He went out of his way to make people feel at home. "Elston Howard was the first black player on the Yankees, and that was not the most comfortable thing," Kubek said. "Moose picked him up at the airport and helped him find a place to live in New Jersey. He was really a great comrade for Elston."
When Mickey Mantle knew he was dying, Skowron was one of the few people he insisted on seeing. Moose was one of the Mick's pallbearers and later said: "I really did love that guy. Hell, I love everybody."
No wonder people felt as if they knew him as they chanted "Moooooose" (he said he once had to reassure his shaken grandmother that they weren't going "Booo!"). Kubek used to accompany him to the stands at White Sox games and saw how people loved it when Skowron asked how many of them were Polish (like Kubek and Skowron). They loved it more when he would count in Polish.
For more than a half-century, people could count on Moose Skowron. He was your type of ballplayer, no matter whether you were on the field or in the stands.