This past Wednesday, October 4, marked the 60th anniversary of the launch into space of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. This triggered the Space Race between the Soviet Union and United States that culminated on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface. Also on Wednesday, the Arizona Diamondbacks returned to the playoffs after a six-year hiatus. This confluence of the Space Race and baseball reminded me of my favorite space/baseball story, which involves Armstrong’s historic step and a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants named Gaylord Perry.
Perry enjoyed a Hall of Fame career, winning 314 games and becoming the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award (the best pitcher in the league for a given year, as voted on by sportswriters) in both the American and National leagues. He is notorious for deceptively doctoring the baseball with saliva or other substances to throw an illegal pitch called the spitball.
Perry made his major league debut in 1962, the same year that Armstrong was named to the astronaut corps. Their careers developed simultaneously over the ensuing years and both enjoyed breakout years in 1966 – Perry won 20 games for the first time and Armstrong made his first flight into space, with Dave Scott on the Gemini 8 mission.
One aspect of Perry’s game for which he was not celebrated was his hitting. Like most pitchers, he was in the majors because of his throwing — not batting — skills. Since he had to bat whenever he pitched, Perry took regular batting practice to keep his batting skills, however limited they may have been, honed.
Sometime during his tenure with the Giants — accounts set the likely date as 1962 or 1964 — Perry was at the batting cage taking practice swings. Reporter Harry Jupiter, watching alongside Giants manager Alvin Dark, purportedly commented that Perry seemed to have decent power. Dark then laughed and made the wisecrack that a man would walk on the Moon before Perry hit a home run (you can see where this is going).
On July 20, 1969, Perry started a game for the Giants against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The game took place at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and started at about 1:00 p.m. Meanwhile, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to land on the Moon a quarter million miles away. At 1:17 p.m., with fuel nearly depleted, the crew successfully landed at the Sea of Tranquility.
While much of the world celebrated the lunar landing, pitcher Claude Osteen of the Dodgers was mowing down the Giants, giving up no hits over the first couple innings. In the bottom of the third, only about half an hour after the Moon landing, Gaylord Perry came to bat against Osteen and accomplished his own Moon shot, hitting his first major league home run.
The veracity of this story is debatable, as neither Dark not Jupiter could later recall their exact conversation. If it did happen, Dark turned out to be a prophet of sorts, if by less than an hour. In any event, it makes for a great story.