America’s called shot, fifty years later

2019-07-19 BuzzAldrinTugMcGraw

“When those astronauts landed on the moon, I knew we had a chance.”—Tug McGraw (right), Mets relief pitcher. (Left, of course, Buzz Aldrin on the moon, in the famous photograph taken by Neil Armstrong.

Writing once to commemorate Apollo 11, George F. Will couldn’t resist comparing John F. Kennedy’s kept promise to a baseball legend: It was like Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’ in the 1932 World Series. America audaciously pointed its bat to the right field bleachers and then hit the ball to the spot.

Whether Ruth actually called the home run he blasted off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root is still open for debate. And it did take Ruth a lit-tle less time to hit the bomb than it took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to hit Kennedy’s ball to the spot.  But let’s not get technical.

The bad news is that 20 July was the birth date of only one Hall of Famer (Heinie Manush) among 48 players to have been born on the date. The good news is at least two World Series champions (Mickey Stanley, 1968 Tigers; Bengie Molina, 2002 Angels) were. And when Armstrong took his small step for man and giant leap for mankind, it inspired the World Series champions to be the same year.

“When those astronauts landed on the moon,” said Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw, “I knew we had a chance. Anything was possible.”

Alan B. Shepard, Jr. took America’s first suborbital space flight a year before the Mets played their maiden season. As portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Shepard walked the line between inveterate joker and unflappable Navy commander. He was much like Original Mets manager Casey Stengel that way. Except that, by the time he launched, he didn’t have to ask NASA’s diligent calculators, physicists, aeronauticians, and biochemists any longer, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Wolfe portrayed with staggering accuracy and insouciant wit an American space program that began much like the Mets, the significant distinction being that the Mets might have been better off with monkeys doing men’s work even though they didn’t flub one rocket launch by blowing the top off like a champagne cork.

America’s space program required graduation from then-Senator Lyndon Johnson seriously considering professional acrobats and daredevil stunt people to pilot spacecraft to one Navy pilot (Armstrong) and one Air Force pilot (Aldrin) descending gently but firmly onto the moon, with a second Air Force pilot (Collins) piloting the command module around the moon.

Collins once admitted that in the event Armstrong and Aldrin died on the moon he’d return to earth as “a marked man for life.” He needn’t have worried. Baseball fans unfortunately treat actual or alleged game goats worse. Armstrong and Aldrin came through admirably and spared Collins any chance of becoming space travel’s Fred Merkle. He settled merely for being its Dick Stuart.

Stuart was a Pirate in 1960, a man blessed with preternatural long ball power and an equivalent talent for playing first base like a future 1962 Met, a talent that earned him the nickname Dr. Strangeglove. (Sidebar: Stuart did play for the Mets briefly during his career—in 1966, the year the Gemini space program concluded.)

Collins was preternaturally disposed against mistakes as he orbited the moon. Stuart—who’d promised to hit one out in the Series—went out on deck in the bottom of the ninth in Forbes Field in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, with Ralph Terry on the mound for the Yankees and Bill Mazeroski leading off for the Pirates.

“I was gonna hit one,” Stuart said afterward. “Can I help it if Mazeroski got cute?”

A Met fan got cute in August 1969, when Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins rode down New York’s Canyon of Heroes for a celebratory ticker-tape parade, hoisting the sign Collins claimed his favourite among the sea of signs: WE LOVE THE METS. BUT WE LOVE YOU MORE. SORRY, METS.

Until Apollo 11, 20 July was a kind of lukewarm date for significant history in terms of volume, anyway. St. Hormisdas was elected Pope to succeed Sympowerus (514); Henry I succeeded his father Robert II as king of the Franks (1031); Sitting Bull surrendered to federal troops (1881); Alice Mary Robertson became the first woman to preside over the House of Representatives’ floor (1921); and, the Indo-China Armistice created North and South Vietnam (1954).

Birthdays on 20 July are something else. Heinie Manush, Mickey Stanley, and Bengie Molina share a birthday with Alexander the Great, Pope Innocent IX, New York City mayor Robert Van Wyck (one of the city’s most notoriously suffocating expressways is named for him), the namesake father (and jurist during the last years of the old Russian Empire) of novelist Vladimir Nabokov, future Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, publisher and one-time Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday, screen legend Natalie Wood, and rock star John Lodge (the Moody Blues).

On 20 July 1969, too, the late Jim Bouton was still a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots and still composing the diaries that would become Ball Four. His entry for 20 July, when the Pilots continued an extra-innings game suspended from the night before: Poor John Gelnar. The game was picked up today in the seventeenth inning and he promptly lost it. Then he lost the regular game, which is two in one day and not, under most circumstances, easy to do.

The Mets spent 20 July 1969 sweeping a doubleheader from the Montreal Expos. Their National League East rivals, the Cubs, swept one from the Phillies. The Astros, to whom Bouton would be traded in time to be part of their outlying spot in the NL West race, didn’t play. And it was baseball’s last round before that year’s All-Star break.

Unfortunately, the Mets were delayed at the Montreal airport for their flight back to New York. It enabled the players to watch Armstrong and Aldrin hit the moon on a television set in the airport bar. “[T]he irony wasn’t lost,” remembered outfielder Ron Swoboda. “I thought, We can’t get back from Montreal to New York, and here’s a guy stepping on the moon!

A day later, Bouton and his first wife asked the Korean orphan they adopted a year earlier if he’d like an American name, a subject they didn’t broach earlier for fear of adding to the boy’s burden adjusting to American parents in America. Knowing the boy’s friends had trouble pronouncing “Kyong Jo,” Bouton asked what about “David.”

The boy said, “Yeah.” “Okay,” said Pop, “we’ll call you David. You’ll be David Kyong Jo Bouton.” Right on cue, the lad ran out to holler to his neighbourhood buddies, “Hey, everybody, I’m David. I’m David!” Today David Bouton helps run Citigroup’s real estate financial group covering North America.

When the Beatles played their first concert at Shea Stadium, the longtime home of the Mets, before a mammoth, packed house, John Lennon is said to have commented after the evening ended, “We’ve been to the mountaintop. Where do we go from here?” Already having achieved a kind of immortality, the Beatles merely went from there to what an eventual fictitious toy astronaut described, to infinity and beyond.

When the 1969 Mets won their unlikely division, pennant, and World Series championships, they could ask, plausibly, “We’ve reached the Promised Land. Where do we go from here?” They went from there to a couple of pennant races, the death of a beloved manager, a few spells of futility and the occasional World Series appearance (including another claim on the Promised Land), and, alas, to today’s traveling circus.

When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, they, especially, could ask plausibly, “We’ve been to the moon. Where do we go from here?” Armstrong became a teacher, co-investigator of the Challenger tragedy, and a businessman; Aldrin, sadly, battled clinical depression and alcoholism before he sobered and, in due course, founded a company to develop re-usable rocket launchers. He also once settled the hash of a conspiracy theorist claiming the moon landings were faked and (with a Bible) poking him repeatedly by administering a right cross.

America sent a few more men (including Shepard himself, romping like a boy all over again with a makeshift lunar golf club) to the moon, ran eventual space shuttle missions to build the international space station among other projects, and has its eye on Mars and beyond at this writing. CBS turned out to be only half kidding when it scored a mid-1960s hit with My Favourite Martian.

Sometimes you can ponder that nothing we’ve done in space since equals Apollo 11 for the singular, permanent joy of having done what we promised to do, that was once unthinkable, and that hadn’t been done. Ever. But then nothing in baseball quite equals the singular, permanent joy of, say, the Mets conquering the game in 1969, the Phillies reaching the Promised Land for the first time ever in three long-distance tries, the Red Sox’s first return to the Promised Land since the end of World War I, the Cubs’ first return to the Promised Land since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), the Angels’ and the Astros’ first trips to the Promised Land ever.

Seven major league teams still have yet to win a World Series at all; another (the Indians) hasn’t won one since the Berlin Airlift. And two have been traded, the Astros going to the American League in exchange for the Brewers. So far, the American League has the better end of that deal.

The Dodgers haven’t won a Series since the day after the British tried to ban broadcast interviews with members of the Irish Republican Army. But right now their chances of returning to the Promised Land this year are the best they’ve been in a likely seventh consecutive season of winning the NL West.

Among the teams having yet to reach the Promised Land, one (the Nationals) plays in the nation’s capital, which once had a couple of baseball teams (both known as the Senators) that gave it a not always accurate image: “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Today, Nats fans can chant plausibly enough, “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and not yet beyond the NL East.”

Take heart, Nationals, Brewers, Indians, Mariners, Rangers, Rays, and Rockies fans. When those astronauts landed on the moon, and the 1969 Mets reached the Promised Land, they did indeed prove that anything was possible. For baseball teams, for America, and for mankind.

And it’s possible that Washington, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Seattle, Arlington, Tampa Bay, and Denver will deliver themselves to the Promised Land before America points her bat to the Martian right field bleachers. And hits the ball to the spot.