Garfien: Remembering Moose Skowron

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Garfien: Remembering Moose Skowron

In a world of six billion people, there are only a select, precious few who are actual living legends.

81 years ago, one was born in Chicago.

His knack for playing baseball made him a household name, sent him around the world, and produced a life that was straight out of the movie, "Forest Gump."

But his story? It's completely real. And there was no one more real than the one and only Moose Skowron.

Friday morning, the former New York Yankee great passed away at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, Ill., from congestive heart failure.

He was loved by so many, the baseball world feels a pain in its collective heart with the loss of such an incredible icon.

On December 18, 1930, Moose was born as William Joseph Skowron Jr. However, his first name would be changed forever as a seven-year-old when his grandfather gave him a haircut that looked like Italian dictator Mussolini. His family shortened his name to "Moose."

He wouldn't be known as William or Will or Bill ever again.

Signed by the New York Yankees in 1950, his surreal journey left the port, taking him to places well beyond his wildest expectations.

"I've been lucky all my life," Skowron said in an interview last year. "I'd rather be lucky than good. I was at the right spot at the right time."

Was he ever.

Over a nine-year period from 1955 to 1963, Moose played in eight World Series, winning five of them. Four with the Yankees. One with the Los Angeles Dodgers. As a Yankee, he drove in the winning run against the Milwaukee Braves in Game 6 of the 1958 World Series. He then smashed a three-run homer in Game 7 to lead the Yankees to the title. In Game 7 of the 1962 World Series against the San Francisco Giants, only one person crossed the plate in that game.

Moose did.

Looking back, it all makes sense.

In the course of his career, Skowron came into contact with just about everybody who was anybody. Both past and present.

He met Ty Cobb. He met Honus Wagner. He met even Cy Young.

"I met all those guys," Skowron said. "I never asked for autographs. Today it's a big thing. I could kick myself in the fanny when I think about the people I met."

His was a life straight out of Hollywood, and often mingled with it. Like the time Moose went to dinner with Joe DiMaggio and Joe's wife...Marilyn Monroe.

"I shaved four times that day," Moose said with a huge grin across his face. It was his standard line. He probably said it a million times, and he gave that same, big smile every time.

Moose appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

"They put me in the stands, so when you waved you got 500 bucks. That's all I did. They introduced me and I waved."

Moose was fine with that.

He also got to meet television's other Ed. The famous horse named Mr. Ed.

"They hit the ball, the horse ran around all the bases and touched homeplate," Skowron remembered. "I said, 'Leo Durocher you have a telephone call!' He was in the dugout. That was it. That's all I said."

Skowron played 14 seasons in the major leagues, and never made more than the 47,000 paycheck he received from the White Sox in 1965.

"Today A-Rod from the Yankees, he's making 27 million!"

Rodriguez was actually making 32 million. I didn't have the nerve to tell him.

"I made a half million dollars in 14 years! He gets that in two times at-bat," Moose said. "But these kids today. God bless them."

The bonds between Moose and his Yankee teammates were immeasurable. He had an especially close kinship with Mantle, who during his prime carried baseball, as well as a heavy burden.

"He'd maybe strike out three or four times in a game, and he'd cry by my locker. I said, 'Mickey, tomorrow's another day.' He said, 'Moose, I let 50,000 people down.' That's the way he was. He was a great competitor."

Above the fireplace in Moose's living room is a signed photograph from Mantle which reads, "To Moose, my best wishes. We came up at the same time, and it was one of the best things in my life. Thanks a lot, Mickey Mantle."

Moose read Mantle's words, paused, and said, "I never forgot him."

Bring up the 1964 season, and Skowron never forgot how close he came to winning another pennant with the White Sox, who acquired him from the Washington Senators that July.

"I was a Chicago born guy from the Northwest Side. I got a chance to play for my home team," he recalled. "We beat the Yankees four in a row at home. A kid by the name of Phil Linz got on the bus and played a harmonica. He and Yogi Berra, he was the manager, they got into a fight. That motivated the Yankees. They won 11 in a row. We won nine in a row. We lost the pennant by one game. I'd been in three consecutive World Series with three different teams."

In 1999, Skowron joined the White Sox community relations department. His duties were to make appearances around the area and greet fans on behalf of the team. Mainly, his job was to just be Moose. There was no one like him. He was cherished for his wit, his charm, and for always telling it like it is.

I asked him one day why he was always so open and honest. He nearly jumped out of his chair.

"What have I got to hide? I'm 81 years old! Where am I going, Chuck? I tell the truth. I got some good stories."

He sure did. Some of the best.

In the last year, Moose's health began to deteriorate. Doctors found cancer in his throat, then his lungs, then his bladder. He kept putting up a fight, but his body started wearing down. As recently as January of 2011, he participated in the White Sox fantasy baseball camp in Glendale, Arizona, serving as one of the coaches. He coached first base, and had more energy than most of the campers.

Still, he knew that time would eventually catch up to him. He never feared death, and was prepared for what was to come, whenever that time arrived.

"What can I say? God has been good for me," he said. "I just hope that when I go, I go fast. I already told my wife, 'Pull the plug.' I'll sign the papers. Anything, because I had a wonderful life."

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

Bobby Howry wasn't aware of the fact he was part of one of the more infamous transactions in White Sox history until a few years after it happened. 

In 1997, with the White Sox only 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians, general manager Ron Schueler pulled the trigger on a massive trade that left many around Chicago — including some in the White Sox clubhouse — scratching their heads. Heading to the San Francisco Giants was the team's best starting pitcher (left-hander Wilson Alvarez), a reliable rotation piece (Doug Drabek) and a closer coming off a 1996 All-Star appearance (Roberto Hernandez). In return, the White Sox acquired six minor leaguers: right-handers Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, Keith Foulke, left-hander Ken Vining, shortstop Mike Caruso and outfielder Brian Manning. Only Foulke had major league experience, and it wasn't exactly good (an 8.26 ERA in 44 2/3 innings). 

Howry was largely oblivious to the shocking nature of the trade that brought him from the Giants to White Sox until, before the 1999 season, he was featured in a commercial that referenced the "White Flag trade."

"I don't even know if I knew it was called that before then," Howry recalled last weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago at Cubs Convention. 

The trade was a stark signal that youth would be emphasized on 35th and Shields. Both Alvarez and Hernandez were set to become free agents after the 1997 season, and the 40-year-old Darwin wasn't a long-term piece, either. With youngsters like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee rising through the farm system, the move was made with an eye on the future and maximizing the return on players who weren't going to be long-term pieces. 

Sound familiar? 

It's hardly a perfect comparison, but when the White Sox traded Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in December for four minor leaguers — headlined by top-100 prospects in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech — it was the first rebuilding blockbuster trade the organization had made since the 1997 White Flag deal. Shortly after trading their staff ace at the 2016 Winter Meetings, the White Sox shipped Adam Eaton — their best position player — to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects featuring two more highly-regarded youngsters in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. 

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And there still could be more moves on the horizon, too, for Rick Hahn's White Sox (Jose Quintana has been the subject of persistent rumors since the Winter Meetings). But for those looking for an optimistic outlook of the White Sox rebuilding plans, it's worth noting that the club's last youth movement, to an extent, was successful.

Only Howry (3.74 ERA over 294 games) and Foulke (2.87 ERA, 100 saves over 346 games) became significant long-term pieces for the White Sox from those six players brought over in 1997. And it wasn't like Schueler dealt away any of the franchise's cornerstones — like Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Robin Ventura — but with future starters in Lee, Ordonez and Chris Singleton on their way the White Sox were able to go young. A swap of promising youthful players (Mike Cameron for Paul Konerko) proved to be successful a year and a half later. 

And with a couple of shrewd moves — namely, dealing Jamie Navarro and John Snyder to the Milwaukee Brewers for Cal Eldred and Jose Valentin — the "Kids Can Play" White Sox stormed to an American League Central title in 2000. 

"It was great," Howry said of developing with so many young players in the late 1999's and 2000. "You come in and you feel a lot more comfortable when you got a lot of young guys and you're all coming up together and building together. It's not like you're walking into a primarily veteran clubhouse where you're kind of having to duck and hide all the time. We had a great group of guys and we built together over a couple of years, and putting that together was a lot of fun."

What sparked things in 2000, Howry said, was that ferocious brawl with the Detroit Tigers on April 22 in which 11 players were ejected (the fight left Foulke needing five stitches and former Tigers catcher/first baseman Robert Fick doused in beer). 

"About the time we had that fight with Detroit, that big brawl, all of a sudden after then we just seemed to kind of come together and everything started to click and it took off," Howry said. 

The White Sox went 80-81 in 1998 and slipped to 75-86 in 1999, but their 95-67 record in 2000 was the best in the league — though it only amounted to a three-game sweep at the hands of the wild-card winning Seattle Mariners. 

Still, the White Flag trade had a happy ending two and a half years later. While with the White Sox, Howry didn't feel pressure to perform under the circumstances with which he arrived, which probably helped those young players grow together into eventual division champions. 

"I was 23 years old," Howry said. "At 23 years old, I didn't really — I was just like, okay, I'm still playing, I got a place to play. I didn't really put a whole lot of thought into three veteran guys for six minor leaguers." 

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins discusses staying at catcher

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins discusses staying at catcher

White Sox 2016 first round pick Zack Collins joins the podcast to talk about his future with the White Sox, when he hopes to make the big leagues and the doubters who question whether he can be a major league catcher.   He discusses comparisons with Kyle Schwarber, his impressions of Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, why his dad took him to a Linkin Park concert when he was 6 years old and much more.