Reusse: Townball heroes still revered in southern Minnesota

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2012 - 12:03 AM

The late "Moose" Skowron became Austin's adopted big-leaguer after he leaped from town ball to the Yankees.

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Former town ball star Bill Skowron posed with Whitey Ford, left, at a Yankees old-timers’ game in June. Skowron died Friday at age 81.

Photo: Ramsay De Give, New York Times

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The Rochester Royals and the Austin Packers were playing in the 1949 championship series for the Southern Minny League. This was Class AA town-team baseball, which was more semi-pro than amateur during that fleeting time between the end of the Big War and the start of television reaching the masses.

Austin had finished 5 1/2 games in front of second-place Rochester during the regular season. This put the Packers at home on Sept. 1 for the first game of a best-of-five series.

Rochester came with Sam Jones as its starting pitcher. He was one of several black players signed for Rochester by Ben Sternberg, later well-known as a boxing promoter and sports columnist for the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

Jones carried a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, before shortstop Dick Seltz reached him for a three-run home run. It was a Bobby Thomson moment in Austin baseball, even though it came two years before Thomson performed the "Miracle at Coogan's Bluff" for the New York Giants.

"Sad Sam threw from the side, and I didn't like that as a righthanded hitter," Seltz said. "But I got lucky. He hung a curveball right where I wanted it."

Jones would pitch a no-hitter vs. Austin later in the series -- Rochester's only win in the best-of-five. Six years later, Jones would pitch a no-hitter for the Cubs, the first in major league history for an African-American.

"Sad Sam was a tough customer," Seltz said.

Dick Seltz had faced much tougher. He was in combat with the Army's First Battalion for seven invasions in the Pacific.

"There were guys you got to know, and then you never saw them again," Seltz said. "You assumed the worst."

The worst was Leyte, to start the retaking of the Phillipines. "Horrible," Dick said, then paused and added: "But I made it home."

Seltz went to Humboldt High in St. Paul. He played in the minor leagues for St. Louis in 1943. He spent two years in the New York Giants' farm system after the war.

"I was going to school at Hamline in the offseason," Seltz said. "After three years, I knew I wasn't going to the big leagues, so I wound up playing ball in Austin."

Seltz also wound up marrying Rosalie, raising four children and teaching social studies and coaching baseball for nearly four decades at Austin High School.

No surprise there. Dick could have been named Austin's emperor after the home run off Sad Sam in 1949. Austin won the Class AA title that year, then found an impressive reinforcement for the 1950 season:

Bill (Moose) Skowron, a baseball and football player for the Purdue Boilermakers.

On Friday, Skowron died at 81 of cancer in Arlington Heights, Ill. The assumption always had been that the "Moose" nickname came from his muscular frame, but things weren't that simple growing up on the north side of Chicago in the 1940s.

Obituaries informed readers that "Moose" came from childhood friends who thought a bad haircut made him look like Benito Mussolini.

Skowron came to Minnesota through the lobbying of Harry Smith, a Purdue graduate and owner of a shoe store in Austin.

"I was living in a room above the shoe store," Seltz said. "Moose didn't have a place to stay, so he moved in above the store, too. We got to be friends that summer."

Skowron did so well in Austin that the Yankees made a contract offer. He signed in September and his college athletic career was over. Moose played 14 years in the big leagues. He hit 211 home runs, including 77 in his three best seasons as the Yankees first baseman from 1960 through 1962.

Skowron met Virginia Hulquist in Austin and they were married for a time. When the Yankees first started coming to Bloomington to play the Twins, there were generally feature stories on Moose in the Twin Cities newspapers as if he were a home-state athlete.

"I never thought there was enough credit given to Moose with the Yankees," Seltz said. "It was all Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Moose was an outstanding hitter."

Apparently, Moose felt the same way about the shortstop he saw that summer in Austin.

Years ago, the Seltzes' daughter Louise sent a letter to Skowron asking for some autographs. She received those and also a return letter that included this note:

"Your Dad was a hell of a ballplayer."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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