While researching a magazine feature I was writing about what a seminal year 1969 was for baseball and America, I stumbled across a story that was not merely out of the park, but out of this world. A true moon shot, if you will.
After watching future Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry smack several batting practice home runs before a 1964 game, an impressed baseball scribe turned to San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark and told him he wouldn’t be surprised if Perry’s power surge carried over into a game. Dark thought the reporter had lost his marbles. “Mark my words,’’ Dark scoffed, while assessing the hitting skills of the pitcher with the .131 career batting average. “A man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.”
Fast forward to July 20, 1969. Perry was preparing to start a home game against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers at Candlestick Park. Roughly 240,000 miles from San Francisco, something truly astounding was occurring simultaneously as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the moon. After receiving the momentous news, the public address announcer at the ballpark known as The Stick asked the crowd to stand and give a moment of silent thanks to the crew of Apollo 11. About 30 minutes later, in the bottom of the third inning, the weak-hitting Perry smacked his first major league homer.
One giant leap for mankind–and for Gaylord Perry. And one just-in-the-nick-of-time, on-target prediction by Alvin Dark.
Speaking of “moon shots,” there’s a Rochester connection with a capital M. Wally Moon, a sweet-swinging, slick-fielding outfielder from Arkansas, enjoyed a productive season with the Rochester Red Wings in 1953, ripping 24 doubles, eight triples and 12 homers while batting .307. Moon would make his major league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals the following season, homering in his first big-league at-bat, tying a record that can be equaled but never broken. Moon went on to earn National League Rookie-of-the-Year honors, beating out future Hall-of-Famers Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks in the balloting.
Before the 1959 season, Moon was traded to the Dodgers, and he wasn’t a happy camper. With Dodger Stadium still under construction, the team was scheduled to play its home games in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where a baseball diamond was laid out onto a football gridiron. This resulted in some bizarre dimensions, with the right field seats 440 feet from home plate and the left field seats a scant 251 feet away. To make home runs to left a little more challenging, a 42-foot-high screen was erected.
The ballpark clearly favored right-handed hitters and penalized left-handed pull hitters like Moon. That off-season, he conferred with his former Cardinals teammate Stan Musial, who suggested Moon alter his stance and swing to take advantage of the short dimensions in left. Moon took Stan the Man’s advice to heart, and perfected an inside-out swing that enabled him to hit the ball to the opposite field with height and authority. The new approach enabled him to smack 19 home runs, many of them on towering fly balls that soared over the screen in left. Those homers became known in L.A. and baseball lore as “Moon shots.”
The truest moon shots, though, were launched by astronaut Alan Shepard, with golf balls being subbed for baseballs. And they occurred on that big sand bunker in the sky a quarter-million miles away. In 1971, 10 years after becoming the first American in outer space, Shepard became the fifth man to walk on the moon, bouncing around on the lunar surface for a good nine hours as part of the Apollo 14 mission. Most of that time was spent on space exploration, gathering rocks and taking photographs for scientific research. But Shepard also made time for a brief recreational break when he pulled out two golf balls and a club head he had hidden in his spacesuit.
Several weeks before his launch, Shepard asked his local golf pro to design a special 6-iron club head that could be easily attached to the shaft of the rock collecting device he’d be using on the moon. NASA officials did not have a sense of humor after the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission and probably would have put the kibosh on Shepard’s plan had they known. So, the famed astronaut kept it all a secret.
Just before turning the moon into a driving range, Shepard stepped in front of a live television camera being manned by fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell and told the audience: “In my left hand I have a little white pellet familiar to millions of Americans. I’m going to try a little sand trap shot.” Restricted by his bulky spacesuit, Shepard whiffed on his first attempt, then shanked his second try. Not to worry. He had brought a second ball with him, and this time he left nothing for chance, smoothing his lie before taking another hack. He wound up making solid contact and jokingly announced that his shot had traveled “miles and miles,” when, in reality, it probably flew about 300 yards before plopping down in moon dust. Shepard joked that his drives were part of a scientific experiment that attempted to prove golf balls would travel much farther on the moon than on earth because of lower levels of gravity.
He didn’t bother retrieving the balls, but he did bring his specially designed club head back to earth. The artifact is displayed in the USGA Museum in New Jersey, a reminder of arguably the three most famous shots in golf history.
Best-selling author and nationally honored Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak will give a talk and do a book signing at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Wednesday, July 3, at 1 p.m.