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Opinion: We were over the moon about Neil Armstrong and sports in 1969  1 Month ago

Source:   USA Today  

Legend has it that the late San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark once jokingly said man would land on the moon before his pitcher Gaylord Perry would hit a major league home run.

Shortly after Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon — at 10:56 p.m., ET on July 20, 1969 — Perry, a career .131 major hitter, clubbed his first MLB home run. It came in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers' Claude Osteen.

Mixing sports memories with man landing on the moon may seem odd, but it fit for many, like me, who grew up in the 1960s.

History rightfully remembers the 1960s as a time of turmoil for many reasons, including the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Dr. Martin Luther King. The fight for civil rights. The Vietnam War. Protests. Rioting. Turbulence was constant.

But the children of that generation also remember the wonder and enchantment of that decade. For me, growing up in Wayne, Michigan, the 1960s were the golden era of both space exploration and sports.

It was common to see Topps 1963 Astronaut trading cards mixed into our shoebox full of football and baseball cards.

Seven months before Apollo 11 went to the moon, Joe Namath had pulled off one of sports’ greatest upsets by leading the AFL’s New York Jets to a 16-7 win in Super Bowl III. Before the game, my hometown sports columnist Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press had playfully predicted that the Baltimore Colts would win 270-0.

While all of this was going on, Bobby Orr was changing professional hockey as the greatest offensive defenseman in NHL history. A few months before Apollo 11 launched, Gordie Howe, then 40, completed the best season of his NHL career with 44 goals and 103 points.

In April of that year, the Milwaukee Bucks made UCLA's Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (then named Lew Alcindor) the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. We eagerly awaited his fall arrival in the NBA.

In the summer of 1968, I had watched Denny McLain win 31 games and the Detroit Tigers win the World Series. After witnessing workhorse left-hander Mickey Lolich win three games in the World Series, I knew I would make my living as a sportswriter.

But I knew just as much about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo teams as I knew about the Tigers, Yankees and Cubs.

It was a glorious time to be a child.

Today, we readily accept that earthlings will someday travel to Mars and beyond. The dreamers of space travel are now mixed in with entrepreneurs developing plans to make it a profitable business venture. But going to the moon seemed miraculous back then.

Similarly, our sports experiences are also vastly different today than they were in my childhood. Today, there is less romance and more statistics.

If you asked me in the 1960s about a “launch angle” I would have guessed you were discussing Apollo trajectory at Cape Canaveral, not Mickey Mantle’s ability to crush a fastball into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium.

I enjoy sports today as much as I did as a child. But I do look back fondly upon the 1960s because there was much more mystery.

We weren’t sure what would happen when Apollo headed to the moon. Today, the unpredictability of sports contests is the same as it was in 1969. But what has changed is the knowledge we have about the game and its participants.

Media coverage of sports in the 1960s was far less expansive, and television coverage was limited.

Today, potential major league stars are identified and publicized long before they turn pro. But in the late 1960s, when Tom Seaver started winning games for the hapless New York Mets, we wondered where he came from.

The one lesson the moon landing taught the children of the 1960s was that the unlikely and unimaginable were possible. You are never without hope.

That lesson was reinforced by a major league team three months after Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins reached lunar orbit.

The hapless Mets had lost 101 games in 1967 and 89 games in 1968. In their first seven seasons as a major league team, the Mets had never finished higher than ninth in a 10-team National League.

But in the summer America went to the moon, the Mets earned the title of “The Miracle Mets” by winning the franchise’s first World Series title.

In the summer of 1969, many of us said, “if we can go to the moon, anything is possible.” That proved to be true on the baseball diamond.

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