Something divine or celestial had to have taken hold some 50 years ago.
It was the first year of MLB’s divisional play, a standings’ structure that went against the grain of game’s long tradition of two separate leagues, each made up of just one set of teams. The lowly Mets, a laughing stock of baseball since their birth in 1962, won the World Series. The Jets representing the upstart and belittled AFL knocked of the mighty Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
But it was more than just a full moon. It was a galvanizing lunar landing. America had done the impossible. Apollo 11 landed on the moon’s surface.
The country then, as it is now, was sharply divided, young vs. old, right vs. left and pro-war vs. anti-war. If the United States needed a unifying shot in the arm, it got it.
On July 20, 1969, two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their capsule, trudged out on and planted an American flag. Fifty years ago this Saturday, the nation was one. To a man, woman and child, we were busting buttons.
It was late on a Sunday. Baseball had expanded that season from 20 to 24 teams. The National League added San Diego and Montreal (now the Washington Nationals) and the American, Kansas City and Seattle (the Pilots, now the Milwaukee Brewers). It was the last day before the All-Star break. Baseball was being played in cities across the country and in Montreal.
A development of such great achievement merited the heartiest of recognition and acknowledgement, including at ballparks, even smack in middle of a game. The module touched down at 4:17pm Eastern and Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon’s surface at 10:56pm.
The J. G. Preston Experience – Moon landing and baseball painstakingly researched how baseball teams treated the day. It’s worth a read. These are some highlights and oddities, followed by some remembrances of local broadcasters:
- The Perry brothers both won that day, Gaylord for San Francisco and Jim for the Twins.
- Five years earlier, Giants’ skipper, Alvin Dark famously said, “Mark my words. A man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.” Dark was right. In the third inning that day at Candlestick, Gaylord hit it out of the park. His first ever homer. Eerie!
- It was Bat Day at Yankee Stadium and when the big moment occurred, the esteemed Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard shared news of the great accomplishment with the fans in the big ballpark. Leonard Koppett wrote this in the NY Times:
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,” came the voice of Bob Shepard, the public address announcer.
The umpires, according to prior arrangements, waved their arms and stopped play. “You will be happy to know,” Shepard continued, “that the Apollo 11 has landed safely…” And a tremendous cheer drowned out the words “on the moon.”
- At some point after the landing, teams at a number of the 12 stadiums hosting games, had their players line-up along the base-lines in front of their dugouts. Holding their caps against their hearts, many bent their heads, praying for the astronauts’ safe return. At Connie Mack in Philadelphia, God Bless America was played.
- In Montreal, the Mets had a doubleheader. The break between games was extended to allow fans and players to absorb information on the big news.
- The Dodgers were playing at Candlestick. The J. G. Preston printed a transcript of Jerry Doggett on radio during the first inning:
Outside, ball four, the Dodgers have loaded them up. (brief pause) And as Sudakis walks to first base, the astronauts have landed on the moon. (brief pause) Boy, that’s quite a moment in our history!
- Oakland’s Rick Monday (now a Dodgers’ broadcaster) was at the plate in the opening game of a doubleheader in Anaheim when the stadium flashed these words on its message board. “We have landed on the moon.” The crowd cheered approvingly and the game resumed.
Local voices share their memories:
Marty Brennaman (Reds):
To the best of my knowledge, I was broadcasting an American Legion baseball game in Salisbury, N.C.
Found out from a board-op at the station during a commercial break. I was in awe. I got to know Neil Armstrong years later. He lived in Cincinnati and was a great Reds fan.
Joe Castiglione (Red Sox):
I was working as a booth announcer at WSYR-TV-3 in Syracuse on July 20th doing misty station-identifications. Of course, we carried the NBC coverage but shortly thereafter, the Chappaquiddick story broke and we knew that it would be a major story too.
Pat Hughes (Cubs):
I believe I was at Candlestick Park that day; Giants vs Dodgers. I was 14 at the time.
I think Gaylord Perry hit a HR in about the 3rd inning (see above). It might have been his first one as a big leaguer… Later that same inning, with Bobby Bonds at second base, a wild pickoff throw by the Dodger pitcher ended up in centerfield, and Bonds flew home with a dramatic burst of speed, a pretty exciting inning of baseball for me to watch!
Eric Nadel (Rangers)
I was 18 years old, home from college and staying with my parents in Brooklyn. My parents were on vacation so I invited some friends over and we all crammed into my parents’ bedroom as it had the biggest TV in the house. (I think it was a 17-incher!) We had a few 6-packs of Rheingold and Schaefer (local NY beers) …well maybe more than a few… and watched in amazement. Definitely a night I will never forget.
Howie Rose (Mets)
I was visiting family in West Hempstead (Long Island). We were all big Mets fans and had just watched them win the second game of a doubleheader in Montreal. After the game, we turned on Walter Cronkite to wait for and watch the moon landing. I remember being awed, but not surprised. That was the legacy of President Kennedy. Even as a youngster who was just nine years old when he was assassinated, he made me feel that Americans could achieve their dreams with commitment and work. What a shame that he didn’t live to see his vision realized!
Vin Scully (ex-Dodgers):
My wife and I were in Las Vegas during the All-Star break. Typical Americana. We got into the hotel elevator and two men, right of Vegas, shiny silk suits, white on white shirt, silk tie, even the pinky rings and the sharp manicure. One says to another. “Did you see the guy on the moon?” And the other fellow said, “Yeah. how long can you watch?”
If that isn’t America, what is? Yes sir, yes mam. We still have a great country!
Announcers of other sports
Gene Deckerhoff (Tampa Bay Bucs/Florida State)
I was a huge space “nut”; made homemade rockets in middle and high school—started making them just after the USSR launched Sputnik (1957). The chemicals I bought at the drug store to make the fuel are illegal to buy today! And rightfully so, I guess.
When Neil Armstrong took that first step at Tranquility Base, I was watching from my home in Panama City Florida where I was the Office Manager for Southern Bell Telephone Company. I returned to broadcasting—as a weekend DJ—in Bradenton Florida in 1971. I broadcast my first HS football game in the Fall of 1972 on WTRL (AM 1490) in Bradenton, FL.
Mike Gorman (Boston Celtics)
I was in the early stages of OCS (Officer Candidate School) after which I would spend six years of military service in the United States Navy….That was a time in our country‘s history where some were not proud to serve…but that day all were.
Bill Hillgrove (Pittsburgh Steelers/U of Pittsburgh)
My wife Rosette, our 3-year old son Billy and I watched it on a black and white TV in our apartment in Wilkinsburg, PA. Billy now spots for me on Pitt broadcasts Saturdays and the Steelers on Sunday.
Johnny Holliday (U of Maryland)
I don’t remember exactly. I do know that I was with KYA in San Francisco doing 2-6 pm and hosting the Giants pre-game show on TV, but that’s it.
While a number of baseball teams will commemorate the historic Apollo 11 landing in some fashion this weekend, Houston is where Mission Control was situated. The Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center was the nerve center. On the 22nd, the Astros will be wearing customized Apollo11 caps to honor the mission.
Walter Cronkite’s memorable report: