“Mark my words a man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.”
Giants manager Alvin Dark’s response when Harry Jupiter of the San Francisco Examiner told him Gaylord Perry was looking good during batting practice in 1964. Perry, like most pitchers, was not a threat with the bat, just his arm. Pitchers are paid to get outs not hit baseballs. Few were ever better at pitching while having minimal ability to hit a baseball than Gaylord Perry.
The Space Race was in high gear in 1964. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had achieved space flight and cosmonauts and astronauts were following Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn into Space. President John F. Kennedy committed America to “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson sought to fulfill the mission. Project Mercury was winding down as Project Gemini ramped up. Glenn’s three orbits of the earth two years earlier was light years behind Gordon Cooper’s day long Space flight.
Gaylord Perry was outstanding on the mound, winning 314 games. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Back on earth, 25 year old Gaylord Perry was establishing himself as a Major League pitcher. Entering his third season, Perry was 4-7 with a 4.46 ERA in 119 innings. Alvin Dark and the Giants were just two seasons removed from winning the National League Pennant. San Francisco was once again among the front runners for the Pennant and Dark needed every player to contribute in the field and at bat. Space was on everyone’s mind and Perry could not hit.
Gaylord Perry finished the 1964 season 12-11 with a 2.75 ERA in 206.1 innings, the best of his young career. However, Dark’s words about Perry’s hitting abilities appeared true. Perry went 3 for 56 at the plate, a .054 Batting Average, .071 OBP, .071 SLG, and .156 OPS. His -56 OPS+ was otherworldly, considering a 100 OPS+ means a player is league average. Gaylord Perry was 156% worse than an average Major League hitter.
Gaylord Perry pitched for 22 seasons for eight different teams, most notably the Giants. Perry won 314 games with a 3.11 ERA and 1.181 WHIP in 5,350 innings. He struck out 3,534 batters while throwing 303 Complete Games, including 53 Shutouts. Perry was elected to five All Star Games, and won a Cy Young Award in each league (1972 for Cleveland and 1978 for the Padres). He won 20 or more games five times. Throwing 10 or more Complete Games in 12 consecutive seasons. Perry’s durability on the mound allowed him to pitch 205+ innings in 15 consecutive seasons. Always taking his turn in the rotation, Perry pitched 300 innings six times, including four straight from 1972 to 1975. Perry was elected to Cooperstown in 1991 in his third year of eligibility.
Gaylord Perry would do anything to gain an advantage on a batter, including doctoring up a baseball. Umpire John Flaherty checks Perry for foreign substances in 1973. (Associated Press)
Success on the mound meant nothing for Gaylord Perry’s legendary anemic abilities with the bat. In 1,076 career At Bats, he collected only 141 Hits, 23 for extra bases, a .131 Batting Average. He scored 48 Runs, drove in 47 RBI, drew 22 walks, and struck out 369 times. Gaylord Perry posted a career .153 OBP, .164 SLG, .316 OPS, and -10 OPS+. He was a liability at the plate.
1964 was Alvin Dark’s final season as Giants manager. He managed the Kansas City Athletics for two seasons before managing the Cleveland Indians. In 1969, five years after Dark’s proclamation to Harry Jupiter little had changed for Perry at the plate. Gaylord Perry, at this point in his career, was a .141 hitter now with no Home Runs. His four extra base hits were all doubles.
Entering the game against the Dodgers on July 20, Perry’s season Batting Average was just .100. While the world waited for news of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the Giants and Dodgers began their game at Candlestick Park. Not long after first pitch, at 1:18 PM Pacific Standard Time, Armstrong told the world “The Eagle has landed.” As Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to take the first steps on the moon, Perry surrendered three runs to Los Angeles in the top of the first. The scored remained 3-0 entering the bottom of the third, with Dodger starter Claude Osteen facing the minimum. Hal Lanier flew out to second baseman Ted Sizemore. Bob Barton followed by grounding out to Bill Sudakis at third. The San Francisco faithful had little hope as Gaylord Perry stepped to the plate. Shocking everyone, Perry drove Claude Osteen’s pitch over the outfield wall. Alvin Dark had no idea his proclamation five years earlier prove correct, but by just 30 minutes. Perry sparked a Giants comeback, as San Francisco defeated the rival Dodgers 7 to 3. Gaylord Perry pitched a Complete Game, allowing three Runs, six strikeouts, and no Home Runs.
Alvin Dark was mostly right about Gaylord Perry and the Moon landing. A man was on the Moon, when Perry hit his Home Run but had not walked on it. (NASA)
Gaylord Perry hit six career longballs. He hit one each season from 1969 to 1972. San Francisco traded Perry to Cleveland and after three and a half seasons, Cleveland sent him to the Rangers. Perry did not bat in the American League because of the Designated Hitter. Returning to the National League with the Padres in 1978, Perry needed a season to warm up before going deep again in 1979. He spent 1980 split between the Rangers and Yankees, before hitting his sixth and final Home Run for the Braves in 1981 at the age of 42.
Known for his pitching and lackluster abilities at the plate, Gaylord Perry was destined for baseball greatness. It took a frustrated manager, an optimistic sportswriter, and the Space Race to create the perfect cosmic storm. Alvin Dark never dreamed he was foreshadowing Perry’s first career Home Run. Yet the stars and the moon aligned to create one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.
On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy addressed a Joint Session of Congress with a Special Message To The Congress On Urgent National Needs. As every President does, Kennedy spoke of the pressing needs facing the nation and his plan to solve them. When the speech reached the ninth section, President Kennedy told Congress, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” The Space Race began before Kennedy took office, but he pushed the race with the Soviets to the next level. The Soviets reached space first, but the moon was America’s opportunity to win.
On July 20, 1969, 2,979 days after President Kennedy spoke to Congress, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle in Tranquility Base as Michael Collins circled in lunar orbit in the Columbia Command Module. America achieved Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade.
Wally Moon adjusted his swing to take advantage of the strange configuration at the Coliseum. (Los Angeles Times)
Back on earth, the Dodgers and the Giants have one of the most intense rivalries in baseball, regardless of the standings. In 1958, Dodger owner Walter O’Malley moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Construction on Dodger Stadium would not begin until September 1959 forcing the Dodgers to play in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Coliseum is home, most prominently, to the University of Southern California football team. Turning the Coliseum into a baseball field meant the fence in Leftfield was only 251 feet from home plate. A 41 foot tall screen was constructed, making Home Runs more difficult. Batters needed to loft the ball high above the screen for a Home Run, and no player is more remembered for this than Wally Moon and his Moonshots.
Wally Moon broke into the Majors in 1954 with the St. Louis Cardinals, winning the Rookie of the Year Award over Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron. He was an All Star in 1957 before a disappointing 1958 season made him expendable. Moon and Phil Paine were traded to the Dodgers for Gino Cimoli. Moon played 12 seasons in the Majors, five in St. Louis and seven in Los Angeles. In 1,457 career Games, Moon hit .289, with a .371 OBP, .445 SLG, and .817 OPS. He scored 737 Runs, collected 1,399 Hits, 212 Doubles, 60 Triples, slugged 142 Home Runs, drove in 661 RBI, stole 89 bases, drew 644 walks, and struck out 591 times. He was a three time All Star, 1957 and twice in 1959, and won a Gold Glove in Leftfield in 1960. Moon won two World Series with the Dodgers, 1959 and 1965. His pinch hit ground out in Game 6 of the 1965 Fall Classic was his final game. Moon sat on the bench in Game 7, watching Sandy Koufax pitch a Complete Game shutout to secure the World Series victory. Wally Moon enjoyed a successful career, however he appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot just once, in 1971, receiving just two votes (0.6%) and falling off the ballot.
Arriving in Los Angeles, Wally Moon was greeted by two things. The short, yet high porch in Leftfield and the rivalry with the Giants. Moon, hitting from the left side, understood he did not possess the power to launch baseballs out of the Coliseum to Rightfield, as the wall was 440 feet away. His career high in Home Runs was just 24. Moon adjusted his swing with Stan Musial’s help to hit balls to the opposite field.
The Coliseum created one of the strangest field configurations in baseball. (www.cbssports.com)
The Dodgers and Giants were locked in a pennant race as summer began to wane in 1959. San Francisco held a slim two game lead entering play at the Coliseum on August 31. Jack Sanford and Sandy Koufax were locked in a pitchers duel, allowing two runs each in the first eight innings. Koufax struck out the side on just 10 pitches in the top of the ninth. Sanford began the ninth by inducing a Maury Wills ground out. Koufax and Jim Gilliam hit back to back singles to Left. Giants manager Bill Rigney called in Al Worthington from the bullpen to end the threat. Worthington threw a first pitch strike to Wally Moon. His next pitch missed. On the third pitch, Moon lofted a deep fly ball to Left, clearing the screen. The Moonshot gave the Dodgers a 5 to 2 walk off victory. Los Angeles trailed the Giants by one game.
The Dodgers won the 1959 National League Pennant, two games ahead of the Milwaukee Braves and four ahead of the third place Giants. Los Angeles defeated the Chicago White Sox in six games, winning the only World Series ever played at the Coliseum. Wally Moon’s Moonshot against the Giants came 634 days before President Kennedy presented his vision of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth.
The Moonshot took men to the moon and safely returned them back to earth. (NASA)
A walk off Home Run between bitter rivals foreshadowed the next stage of the Space Race. Wally Moon used the short porch in Leftfield at the Coliseum to his advantage. President Kennedy and NASA did the unimaginable, sending a man to the moon and back defeating the non-baseball playing Soviet Union. The United States won the Space Race with a few steps by Neil Armstrong, while Wally Moon helped to win the Pennant with one swing of his bat. Both were incredible Moonshots.
Happy 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing.