Major League Baseball’s role in the ‘Space Race’

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As one of my sports journalism heroes, Howard Cosell, said long ago, I fully believe the world of sports is a microcosm of real life. 

Brad Crowe

Brad Crowe

Those who read last week’s column about the Los Angeles Angels’ touching tribute to the late Tyler Skaggs saw a fine example of how real-life events can be reflected in a team’s performance. Call me crazy, but I believe the opposite is equally as true. Sometimes our passion for sports bleeds into other aspects of our lives and leaves a mark of its own on the outside world.  

One of my favorite examples of this occurred on July 20, 1969 — 50 years ago this past Saturday. Everyone knows the astronauts on Apollo 11 carried an American flag with them to the moon that summer, but what some may not know is that they also brought along America’s pastime. 

Records show that as the Apollo 11 was nearing its landing on the moon half a century ago, Mission Control was sharing baseball scores and updates with our brave space travelers. More specifically, the topic of the conversation was about the July 18 matchup between the Houston Astros and the Cincinnati Reds. A ninth-inning rally propelled the ’Stros to a 7-4 victory that evening, just half an hour away from Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, where the control team was guiding Apollo 11 to the big cheese wheel in the sky. 

As if the game could have ended any other way. What could possibly be more fitting than having a team from Houston beat the Reds on the same weekend that NASA beat the Soviets to the moon? 

If that isn’t enough to get your blood pumping, perhaps I could share another fact that will hit a little closer to home. The manager of the Astros in ‘69 was Harry “The Hat” Walker, a Purple Heart recipient and two-time World Series champion who was born in Pascagoula. 

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the San Francisco Giants were hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers at Candlestick Park. The Giants’ right-handed pitcher Gaylord Perry was just moments away from putting his own mark on one of the most historic days in American history. 

Legend has it that several years prior to that day, while watching Perry take batting practice, Giants manager Alvin Dark smirked and stated, “They’ll put a man on the moon before (Perry) hits a home run.” 

As fate would have it, Perry knocked one out of the ballpark that day for the first and only time in his career. The home run occurred just minutes after Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew were recorded to have touched down on the moon. 

“Neil and I both had good days,” Perry told a reporter many years later. “But he had a better day than I did. I won a game. What he did was awesome.”

Of course, NASA’s achievement on that day was far beyond — both literally and figuratively — the reach of baseball’s greatest sluggers. Nevertheless, they chose to use their passion for sports as a way to stay calm and poised during the biggest moment of their lives. Thousands of miles below, their bravery was inspiring Gaylord Perry, the Houston Astros and countless others to shoot for the moon. 

So, again, call me crazy, but I’ll go to my grave claiming that Howard Cosell hit the nail right on the head. For those who allow it, life and sports can work beautifully together to inspire us all and lift us to new heights.

Brad Crowe is sports editor of the Leader-Call. Email him at sports@leader-call.com.

 

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