When Moose Skowron was working in public relations for the White Sox in 2001, then marketing VP Rob Gallas admitted that some Sox fans complained of Skowron: “Yeah, but he was a Yankee.” “Well, yes,” Gallas conceded, “but above all else, he is a Chicagoan.”
That he was. There have been many fine tributes to Moose Skowron over the past few days, many by Chicagoans whom Skowron had indulged with a story and a laugh. I never had the pleasure of meeting Moose. If I had, I probably would have asked him about softball.
Before Skowron signed a $25,000 amateur free agent contract for the Yankees in 1950, and for a brief time before he left Chicago for Purdue University on a football scholarship, a teenage Moose Skowron was a prodigy of pro and semi-pro 16-inch softball in Chicago.
A Weber High School graduate, Skowron claimed to not have participated in organized baseball until he went to college. Moose’s bat and ball skills were honed on Chicago’s miniature softball diamonds. "I didn't play baseball until I got to Purdue,” said Skowron, "We didn't have baseball at Weber, but I learned to hit playing 16-inch softball.”
Chicago serves as backdrop for softball’s origin myth. A rather inconspicuous gathering of men at the Farragut Boat Club on Thanksgiving Day 1887 ended in a taped up boxing glove being batted around with a broomstick. Voila! “Indoors baseball” was born. Later this game was taken outside, the awkwardness of its original appellation realized, and thereafter renamed “softball.” Since then, Chicago has been closely associated with softball tradition, and with the history of the 16-inch, no gloves variety almost exclusively. It was known for much of the twentieth century as “Chicago’s game.”
16-inch softball came of age in Chicago in the 30s. The game required no investment in gloves, which delighted Depression-era Chicagoans. Also, the larger ball could be contained by the smaller fields in local parks surrounded by Chicago’s cramped neighborhoods.
Softball was a featured event during Chicago’s Century of Progress world’s fair in 1933 to great fanfare. Harry Hannin seized the sport's momentum and organized the Windy City professional softball league in 1934. The best players in Chicago featured on softball fields across the city in front of 2,500-10,000 fans per night.
Professional softball thrived through World War II. During that time more than a few professional baseball players had emerged out of the Windy City league. “These games weren't just some ol' hackers from down the block,” Hannin explained decades later, “My ballplayers in those days were really exceptional athletes. Why the hell do you think 22 of them ended up playing major league baseball?”
In the waning years of Windy City softball a teenager emerged who would set the Chicago softball circuit ablaze. Moose Skowron starred for the great Kool Vent Awnings teams of the late 40s, among other squads of equally fantastic nicknames. Skowron played at Thillens Stadium and Kells Park on the north side. In 1949, Skowron’s Kool Vent team lost the last Windy City championship to Midland Motors, but according to a teammate 19-year-old Skowron hit over .500 that year, finishing a narrow second for the batting title.
After the 1949 season, the Windy City league would close its doors, perhaps prompting Moose to sign with the Austin (MN) Packers to play baseball in the Southern Minny League the following summer, where he caught the eye of some Yankees scouts who promptly offered Skowron a contract. The rest is baseball history.
Perhaps Moose’s most lasting contribution to softball history was the shot heard ‘round every softball tavern in Chicago for fifty years. Like all legends of Ruthian proportions, in this case there is no discerning fact from fiction. Nor will there be any effort on my part to do so, because when it comes to softball stories I prefer to revel naively in enthusiastic embellishment.
Moose was 17 years old, playing in Kells Park when he laid into one. Tim Weigel called it “the longest home run anybody can ever remember in the proud history of Chicago 16-inch softball.” Apparently, in Kells Park in those days, the batter looked out toward the buildings across the street on Chicago Ave. The pitcher who served up the gopher ball claimed that the clincher rolled onto Chicago Ave., where no softball had gone before (perhaps not coincidentally that pitcher soon after began what became a hall of fame umpiring career).
Not to be out-tall-taled, acclaimed Sun Times softball scribe Don DeBat described Moose Skowron’s shot as “a legendary 400-foot home run he smashed off the side of the Rockola Juke Box Co. at Chicago and Kedzie avenues.” The jukebox factory was across the street.
I’m searching for a clever Fonzie joke in here somewhere but reveling in naiveté requires mind numbing sedatives, chased with booze and well, ya’ know, there are tradeoffs.
Anyways, I wish I could have asked Moose about the Kells Park dinger. But that’s ok, it’s enough to remember him as a great ballplayer, and neighborhood kid who took his Chicago softball skills all the way to baseball’s biggest stage.
Tracking Moose - Forget that he was a Yankee - former White Sox star Skowron has plenty of great stories to tell
Chicago Sun-Times - Monday, July 9, 2001
Author: JOE GODDARD
Batting Around Some History - Softball Rolls On From Those Broomstick Days
Chicago Sun-Times - Friday, July 16, 1993
Author: Don DeBat
Visit to `Moose' Lodge Is Always Worthwhile
Chicago Sun-Times - Sunday, June 18, 1995
Author: Tim Weigel