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04/27/12 8:46 PM ET

Skowron, part of Yankees powerhouses, dies

First baseman provided right-handed thunder to '50s-'60s teams

The third "M" in one of the most formidable batting orders in history has died. Moose Skowron, the first baseman during the Mantle-Maris era of the Yankees' dynasty in the early 1960s, passed away on Friday in Arlington Heights, Ill. Skowron, 81, was a victim of lung cancer, detected in March 2011. He died of congestive heart failure.

Skowron was a popular and above-average complementary player with the Yankees teams that won seven American League pennants and four World Series from 1955-62 and a member of the Series-winning Dodgers of 1963. So Skowron played with three straight World Series champions, playing a prominent role in the Dodgers' sweep of the Yankees.

Bill Skowron was a powerful right-handed batter who hit 211 home runs in 14 seasons and who was responsible for 28 of the then-record 240 home runs the Yankees hit in 1961, the year Roger Maris hit 61 and Mickey Mantle 54. His total was the third highest among six Yankees' totals that exceeded 20. Skowron hit more than 20 in three other seasons and drove in at least 80 runs five times, including 1956 and '60, when he totaled 181. His respective batting and slugging averages in 5,547 big league at-bats were .282 and .459.

"There weren't many better guys than Moose," said Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who usually batted near Skowron in the order. "He was a dear friend and a great team man. A darn good ballplayer, too. I'm going to miss him."

Skowron's most productive year was 1960, when he drove in 91 runs, hit 26 home runs and 34 doubles, batted .309, a career high, and had a .528 slugging percentage. He placed ninth in the MVP Award balloting; Maris and Mantle placed first and second. He had played in 146 games that season, one of merely four seasons in which he played at least 140 games. Physical maladies, including a chronic back condition, undermined his career, as did the dimensions of Yankee Stadium.

Although Skowron had significant power to right-center field, he clearly was affected by Death Valley in the old ballpark. Only 60 of the 165 home runs he hit for the Yankees were at the Stadium. And the home runs Skowron hit to right-center didn't come cheaply. The wall to the left of the home bullpen in right-center was 407 feet from the plate.

Moreover, Skowron was undermined to some degree by where he batted in that Yankees order, not that he was wrongly placed by his managers, Casey Stengel and Ralph Houk. The Yankees' regular lineups during Skowron's tenure were unmatched in the AL -- the lineups of 1960 and '61 have drawn comparisons to many of the best in history. The free-swinging first baseman regularly batted fifth through 1960. In his last two Yankees seasons, Skowron batted sixth and seventh more often.

"If Moose had played with [a team other than the Yankees] in his prime and batted fourth, where he should have, instead of fifth or sixth, he'd be in the Hall of Fame," former teammate Tony Kubek said years later. And Kubek, the shortstop on those teams who went on to a laudable broadcasting career, isn't given to exaggeration.

"Moose was my roommate for a while, and we were friends for so long," said Bob Turley, the AL Cy Young Award winner in 1958. "He was a good guy and people loved him. Moose could really hit the baseball -- especially home runs to right field -- and he was a good first baseman. I was glad Moose was on my team because he always wanted to win."

Skowron played briefly for the Washington Senators and California Angels, and parts of four seasons for the White Sox in the latter portion of his career. He maintained a close relationship with the White Sox, serving as a community relations representative.

Skowron was almost as readily recognized as his Hall of Fame teammates Mantle, Berra and Whitey Ford. The Yankees' high profile, his facial appearance -- he often looked as if he had come across a foul smell -- and his often one-handed swing made him distinctive. And the origin of Skowron's nickname added a layer of intrigue to his image.

Casual fans wrongly believed Skowron was called Moose because of his size and physique. He had been a running back at Purdue University, and though he was strong with wide shoulders, he was not particularly big. Skowron's nickname was, instead, linked to his appearance as a youngster. After a haircut, his grandfather decided he resembled Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini; hence the nickname that stayed with Skowron for the rest of his life.

Skowron was quite popular with his teammates; he often was the target of their clubhouse pranks and jockeying. They had high regard for his talent and willingness to play with pain. Though he played with other teams, Skowron understandably considered himself "first and foremost a Yankee." He always spoke proudly of his Yankees relationships when he attended the club's Old-Timers' Day functions. Skowron was particularly close to Mantle -- he was one of Mantle's pallbearers in 1995 -- though not one of his notorious running buddies.

"Moose will always be remembered as being one of the key members of the Yankees' dynasties in the '50s and early '60s," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. "He was a winner in every sense of the word, and someone the Yankees family cared deeply for. Baseball lost one of its finest ambassadors, and on behalf of the entire organization, I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife, Cookie, and his entire family."

William Joseph Skowron was the son of a garbage man -- he called his father a garbologist -- who grew up near Chicago. He signed with the Yankees as a free agent in 1950 after he had played baseball and football at Purdue. His baseball coach was that Hank Stram. Skowron made his big league debut in 1954, appearing in 87 games and batting .340.

Always searching for versatility, Stengel started him twice at third base and once at second that year, but Skowron made only one additional appearance at second and a handful more at third in his career. The presence of left-handed-hitting Joe Collins and Stengel's penchant for platooning had some effect on Skowron's playing time until after Collins' departure following the 1957 season. But the Yankees frequently were opposed by left-handers at Yankee Stadium, so Collins seldom was seen as a regular, and Skowron's opportunities increased only marginally in 1958.

Skowron made the final out of the 1957 World Series, and that bothered him more than it should have. The Yankees had loaded the bases, but they trailed 5-0. Yet that out, a ground ball to Eddie Mathews at third, stayed with him, at least until the following fall when the Yankees avenged their loss to the Braves. Skowron hit a three-run home run in the eighth inning of Game 7 to pad the Yankees' lead to the final score of 6-2. He had driven in the Yankees' first run as well.

"I am saddened by the loss of Moose Skowron, a great baseball man who was an integral part of the wonderful Yankee teams of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "As a Milwaukee Braves fan, I will always remember his two-out, three-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1958 World Series."

A productive World Series player, Skowron delivered a seventh-inning grand slam that eliminated all drama from Game 7 of the 1956 Series against the Dodgers. He had a postseason career .293 average, with eight home runs and 29 RBIs in 39 games and 133 at-bats. He batted .385 in 13 at-bats against the Yankees in 1963.

A six-time All-Star, Skowron batted .429 in 14 at-bats in All-Star competition.

"Moose could flat-out hit ... for average, and he had real power," Mantle said. "People used to look at our lineup and concentrate on the guys in the middle of the order. Moose might have been batting sixth or seventh, but he made our lineup deep and more dangerous. You didn't want to give him too much around the plate. He was like Yogi, he could hit bad pitches out and beat you."

Skowron is survived by his wife, Lorraine ("Cookie"), daughter Lynnette, sons Greg and Steve, brother Edward and four grandchildren. Visitation services will be held on April 30, with funeral services taking place the following day.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.