Cheers, prayers and unusual home run: How MLB marked historic moon landing

Neil Armstrong, moon landing, first step
Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon on July 21, 1969. (Photo by NASA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Two historic events, 50 years apart, will be marked the weekend of July 20-21. Though unrelated, they are, perhaps, worthy of similar commemorations. 

Black text that reads why this matters
Coming at a time of great turmoil in the United States, the moon landing united all people in concern and admiration for the accomplishment. And while life went on, America’s pastime paused to honor the historic moment.

On July 21, Mariano Rivera, the great New York Yankees closer, will become the first unanimous inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. A huge accomplishment.

On July 20, the world will mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on a celestial body other than Earth, the first humans to do so. An out of this world accomplishment.

It is a long way from Cooperstown, N.Y., to the moon 238,900 miles to be precise. And just as in 1969, there isn’t a coordinated effort by Major League Baseball to memorialize the historic moon landing. 

On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin nestled the lunar module “Eagle” on the surface of the moon at 4:17 p.m. EDT. Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon at 10:56 p.m. EDT with Aldrin following about 19 minutes later.

 On that summer day in 1969, Major League Baseball was in full swing. Games were held in 10 cities that day, and many ballparks had distinct reactions to the historic event.

Hope in a time of turmoil

The New York Mets were playing a doubleheader against the expansion Montreal Expos at Jarry Park on the day man reached the moon. MLB was new to Montreal that season, and the games played in Quebec were the first regular-season contests staged outside the U.S.

The Mets were in the middle of their miracle season, during which they won the World Series against a seemingly dominant Baltimore Orioles team a year after finishing ninth in the National League.

It was in between the first and second games of the doubleheader when the Eagle landed. The Mets lost the first game, but won the second in 10 innings. 

Due to the length of the second game, in addition to airplane problems, the Mets were in the perfect place to witness the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon’s surface.

They were huddled in an airport bar watching the event on television, trying to get home for the All-Star break. Art Shamsky, who platooned at first base on that team, recalled the events of the evening in his book: “After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets.” In an interview, Shamsky had more to say.

“All of us had such pride actually watching what John Kennedy said we were going to do by the end of the decade. It was just a wonderful feeling we all had watching this.” – Former New York Mets first baseman Art Shamsky

“Yeah, we watched the walking,” he said. “There was just an incredible pride that you took in watching it. And remember what was going on in our society at the time. This was a period (where) there was no good news. Nothing positive was happening. Even for us at the time, I don’t think anyone thought we were going to go on and win the division, a pennant and a World Series.

“All of us had such pride actually watching what John Kennedy said we were going to do by the end of the decade. It was just a wonderful feeling we all had watching this.”

The U.S. was in turmoil leading to the moon landing. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, riots that wrecked the inner core of many American cities, and the ongoing protests over the Vietnam War were fresh in American minds. So for a brief moment, even to some baseball players, the moon landing gave them a chance to be hopeful again.

“It all goes back to this world that was upside down at this point,” Shamsky said. “We’re in a world that’s upside down now in many respects. But back then, for those who remember it, there was no good news. In New York, particularly, all the things that were going on, and every big city in the country was going through the same thing.”

And around the Major Leagues

Buzz Aldrin, moon,
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walking on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. Astronaut Neil A. (Photo by NASA/AFP/Getty Images)

In New York on July 20, the Washington Senators were playing the New York Yankees. It was Bat Day, a tradition at the time, and 32,933 attendees received souvenir wooden bats.

In the next day’s New York Times, sportswriter Leonard Koppett explained what happened the moment Apollo 11 touched down on the moon:

“Ken McMullen, the Washington third baseman, was batting against Jack Aker, with men on first and third and nobody out. The count on him had just gone to one ball, two strikes.

“’Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,’ came the voice of Bob Sheppard, 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.’

“The cheering continued for about 45 seconds. On the scoreboard, the message section read: “They’re on the moon.” People stood. They waved the bats back and forth. Shepard kept talking, but his words could not be made out through the din.

“On the field, the players seemed confused, or impatient. Most did not turn toward the scoreboard. Finally, the announcer could be understood, and he asked the crowd for a moment of silent prayer for the safe return of the astronauts.

“The crowd stilled. After a few seconds of silence, a recording of “America the Beautiful,” sung by a chorus, blared through the loudspeakers. At the end of the song, another mighty cheer arose, just like the one that usually greets the completion of the national anthem before a game.

“The game resumed at 4:21 P.M.”

In Atlanta, Boston and Anaheim, brief mentions of the landing and short stoppages in the games took place.

In Chicago’s old Comiskey Park, the “exploding” center field scoreboard, which typically set off fireworks when the White Sox hit a home run or won a game, was synchronized to go off the moment the Eagle landed at 3:17 p.m. Central Time.

At that juncture, Walter “No Neck” Williams seemed startled as he drove in two runs with a single. The scoreboard exploded, but not for him.

In Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, the Phillies and Chicago Cubs lined their respective baselines in a moment of silent prayer for the astronauts, as a version of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” played over the public address system. 

In Seattle’s Sick’s Stadium, a doubleheader between the expansion Pilots and Minnesota Twins had not started when the Eagle landed. Pregame ceremonies were interrupted by an announcement and “America The Beautiful.”

Man lands on the moon before Perry hits a home run

In San Francisco, where the Giants were playing the rival Los Angeles Dodgers at Candlestick Park, one of the day’s best baseball stories involved Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry. 

The right-hander and spitball-throwing ace was a Giants starting pitcher at the time. While Perry won 314 games and the Cy Young Award in both the National and American leagues during his career, he was terrible at the plate.  

At that point in his career, he had never hit a home run. People such as former Giants manager Alvin Dark doubted it would ever happen.

“Mark my words,” Dark said. “A man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.”

As fate would have it, Perry was on the mound that day against the Dodgers when Apollo 11 landed, and the Giants made an announcement on the public address system. 

A half inning later, Perry led off the bottom of the third by hitting his first career home run off Dodgers starter Claude Osteen, fulfilling Dark’s prediction.

Barry M. Bloom has been a baseball writer since 1976, and a National Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1992. His sometimes award-winning national reports and columns appeared on MLB.com for the past 16 years, until recently. He’s now a contributing columnist for Forbes.com