Fifty years ago, today, all systems were ‘GO’ for Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins to become the first humans to walk on the moon. Years of work by NASA engineers and astronauts had come down to this very moment.
This past week, I’ve been staying up way too late watching documentaries on the 1969 moon landing. The “Space Race” of the Cold War has always been an interest of mine. As a kid, I would occasionally spend the night at my grandparent’s house. On clear nights we would often look at star constellations and the moon and he would tell me about the moon landing and how brave the men were that traveled to it. After all, if things went south — there was no coming back. After all, as Gene Kranz famously said, “failure is not an option”. My Pop-Pop would usually put me to bed and while most kids were read children’s books before bed, we would often find ourselves staying up away too late reading books about the submariners of the NAVY, the Cold War, or sometimes, we would grab a globe and he would tell me stories about whichever country I picked. He really had strong opinions of the Communist party and “treasonous spies”. I think as a 6-year-old, I knew more about Alger Hiss than many people know in their entire life. Looking back, as a kid I thought I would run into more “Commie’s” as an adult than I really have. (Just in case, I’m still always on the lookout.)
Tonight before you go to bed, take a look up at the moon and remember that 50 years ago today – we were there.
Looking back, the 1969 baseball season was a good one. Not only was it celebrated as the 100th anniversary of professional baseball, honoring the first professional touring baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings; it was the New York Mets that would be the World Champions after being the laughingstocks of the league for the better part of the 60’s. In 1961 people thought Kennedy was overreaching when he pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Had he pledged that the New York Mets would win the World Series by the end of the decade though – people would have thought he was just plain crazy. “Amazin’ly” by 1969, both missions would be accomplished.
In addition to the Mets going from worst to first in 1969, the league also lowered the pitcher’s mound by 5 inches and tightened up the strike-zone with the intention of curbing the trend of low-scoring games that had plagued the league for the past six years. The owners felt that pitching tyranny was ruining the game as spectators preferred 11-7 games and would grow tired of buying tickets to 1-0 games. The move was not well received by Bob Gibson. He said, “You can’t pitch a shutout anymore”. Gibson was baseball’s best pitcher in 1968 with a 1.12 earned run average. That average more than doubled in 1969.
Baseball also expanded by adding teams in San Diego, Seattle, Kansas City and decided to make baseball an international sport by adding a team in Montreal. 1969 would become known as the first year of the “Divisional Era.”
1969 was also the debut of the iconic Major League Baseball logo.
The New York Mets and the Baltimore Orioles faced each other in the World Series. Having won the N.L. East Division with a league-best 100–62 record, and sweeping the N.L. West Division Champion Atlanta Braves in three games in the first National League Championship Series, the “Miracle Mets” became the first expansion team to win a pennant. They faced the A.L. East Division Champion Orioles, holders of the best record in baseball (109–53), who swept the A.L. West Division Champion Minnesota Twins in three games in the first American League Championship Series. The upstart Mets upset the heavily favored Orioles and won the World Series title in five games.
John “Blue Moon” Odom – Simply dominant in the first half of the 1969 season, going 14-3 with a 2.41 ERA heading into the All-Star break. He also showed himself to be one of the league’s better hitting pitchers as he went 3-for-3 with a home run and six runs batted in against the Seattle Pilots on May 4. He was named to his second consecutive All Star team, but was tagged for five runs (four earned) in just a third of an inning as the National League cruised to a 9-3 victory. His numbers tailed off considerably following the All-Star break, as he went 1-3 with a 4.09 ERA in the second half of the season.
Steve Carlton – September 15, 1969, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Cardinals hurler Steve Carlton struck out 19 Mets batters to establish a new major league record. Unfortunately the 24 year old lefty surrendered a pair of two-run homers to New York outfielder Ron Swoboda that proved to be all the Mets needed as they went onto win 4-3. Mets batter Amos Otis was unfortunate enough to be the 19th strikeout victim to Carlton. As he returned to the Mets dugout, his teammates cheered “let’s hear it for Otis!”, grabbed his bat and told him they were going to ‘send it to Cooperstown.’
Bill Mazeroski – Regarded as one of the greatest defensive second basemen of all time. Mazeroski passed Frankie Frisch’s career total for assists with his 6,027th at Wrigley Field in Chicago on April 14, 1969. Statistically, however, 1969 was a subpar season for him both defensively and offensively. He played in only 67 games.
Hank Aaron – On July 31, 1969, Aaron hit his 537th home run, passing Mickey Mantle’s total – this moved Aaron into third place on the career home run list, after Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. At the end of the 1969 season, Aaron again finished third in the MVP voting.
Pete Rose – Rose had his best offensive season in 1969, when he set a career-high in batting (.348) and tied his career-best 16 homers. As the Reds’ leadoff man, he was the team’s catalyst, rapping 218 hits, walking 88 times and pacing the league in runs with 120. He hit 33 doubles and 11 triples, drove in 82 runs, slugged .512 (by far the highest mark of his long career), and had a .432 OBP (also a career best). Rose and Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente were tied for the batting title going into the final game; Rose bunted for a base hit in his last at-bat of the season to beat out Clemente (.345).
Bob Gibson – Aside from the rule changes set to take effect in 1969, cultural and monetary influences increasingly began impacting baseball, as evidenced by nine players from the Cardinals 1968 roster who hadn’t reported by the first week of spring training due to the status of their contracts. On February 4, 1969, Gibson appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and said the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) had suggested players consider striking before the upcoming season began. However, Gibson himself had no immediate contract worries, as the $125,000 salary Gibson requested for 1969 was agreed to by team owner Gussie Busch and the Cardinals, setting a new franchise record for the highest single-season salary.
Despite the significant rule changes, Gibson’s status as one of the league’s best pitchers was not immediately affected. In 1969 he went 20–13 with a 2.18 ERA, 4 shutouts and 28 complete games. On May 12, 1969, Gibson struck out three batters on nine pitches in the seventh inning of a 6–2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gibson became the ninth National League pitcher and the 15th pitcher in Major League history to throw an “immaculate inning”. After pitching into the tenth inning of the July 4 game against the Cubs, Gibson was removed from a game without finishing an inning for the first time in more than 60 consecutive starts, a streak spanning two years. After participating in the 1969 All-Star Game (his seventh selection), Gibson set another mark on August 16 when he became the third pitcher in Major League history to reach the 200-strikeout plateau in seven different seasons.
Johnny Bench – After winning Rookie of the Year in 1968, Bench would knock 26 dingers in ’69 as the Reds secured a 3rd place finish. One of the highlights of Bench’s 1969 season would happen during Spring Training. The manager of the Washington Senators was passing through the Red’s locker room and left Bench star-struck. Bench asked him for an autograph and as he walked back to his locker he looked down at the ball. “To Johnny-a sure Hall of Famer” it read. The manager was none other than Ted Williams.
Rich Nye – In the first season after the National League was split into two divisions, the Chicago Cubs finished with a record of 92–70, 8 games behind the New York Mets in the newly established National League East. Caustic 64-year-old Leo Durocher was the Cubs manager. The ill-fated season saw the Cubs in first place for 155 days, until mid-September when they lost 17 out of 25 games. After being used sparingly and finishing with a 3-5 record, 1969 would be Nye’s last year with the Cubs. When asked about the relationship with Durocher, Nye said, “People have asked me why I didn’t push harder with Leo in 1969. I’d won 13 games as a starter in 1967. My arm was healthy. I was young. Why didn’t I go to Leo and tell him I could try to give the team 200 innings? The answer is Leo himself. Leo was unapproachable. He had his tough guy image to maintain, and you just didn’t question him. And part of it had to do with me as well. It wasn’t in my nature to go to a manager that way.” Nye may have enjoyed baseball but he never really needed it. Not only did he go on to be a prominent doctor, he also used his civil engineering degree to help build the Sears Tower in Chicago and then moved into the medical field. Nye’s affinity with birds and exotic animals led to his establishing the Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital with colleagues Susan Brown and Scott MacDonald; Nye regularly treats ferrets, snakes, rabbits and parrots–anything but cats and dogs.
Jerry Koosman – Koosman was the pitching star of the 1969 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. After Seaver was defeated in Game One, Koosman, leading 1-0, held the Orioles hitless until Paul Blair singled to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning, eventually scoring on Brooks Robinson’s only hit in 19 Series’ at-bats. The Mets regained the lead in the top of the ninth; Koosman got two outs in the bottom of the frame, then walked the next two batters. He was relieved by Ron Taylor, who induced Robinson to ground out to end the game.
With the Series shifting from Memorial Stadium to Shea Stadium for the next three games, the Mets won Games Three and Four, and Koosman took the mound for Game Five. He fell behind 3-0 in the third inning after giving up home runs to his mound opponent, Dave McNally, and Frank Robinson. The Mets, however, cut into the Oriole lead on Donn Clendenon’s two-run home run in the sixth, then tied the game in the seventh on a homer by Al Weis, who had hit only six career homers at that point—none of which had been in a home game. The Mets scored two runs in the eighth to take the lead, and after walking Frank Robinson to lead off the ninth, Koosman retired the next three hitters to end the game and complete the Mets’ improbable World Series win.
Tom Seaver – In the 1969 National League Championship Series, Seaver outlasted Atlanta’s Phil Niekro in the first game a 9–5 victory. Seaver was also the starter for Game One of the 1969 World Series, but lost a 4–1 decision to the Baltimore Orioles’ Mike Cuellar. Seaver then pitched a 10-inning complete game for a 2–1 win in Game Four. The “Miracle Mets” won the series. At year’s end, Seaver was presented with the Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year and Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsman of the Year” award. Seaver would also win the 1969 National League Cy Young Award.
Roberto Clemente – Leading the league in triples in 1969, Clemente was also a National League All Star. The Pirates would go on to finish third in the National League East. While the Pirates 1969 season was fairly uneventful, Clemente is involved in a rumor only recently confirmed by fellow player Dave Concepcion. After a night game in San Diego, roommate Willie Stargell had sent Clemente out to pick up some fried chicken for dinner. En route back to the hotel, Clemente was kidnapped at gunpoint by four men in a car. The kidnappers drove him into the hills to rob and presumably kill him. With a pistol shoved in his mouth, Clemente told the men who he was and pleaded for them to spare him his life. Finally realizing who he was, they threw him back in the car, drove him back to his hotel, and handed him back his wallet (with the $250 in it) and World Series ring. Visibly shaken, Clemente headed to the front door of the hotel lobby and heard the car get thrown into reverse and pull back up to the sidewalk. The window slowly rolled down and one of the guys reached out and handed Clemente the bag of fried chicken that he was originally carrying. As he walked into his hotel room, Stargell grabbed the chicken and asked what had taken him so long. Clemente never spoke of the incident until years later.