"That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
- Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969
Where were you 40 years ago? I know some of you had not yet occupied your space here on Earth. And nobody other than Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin had stepped foot on the Moon.
I turned 14 earlier that month and spent that momentous Sunday at Anaheim Stadium where the California Angels were hosting the Oakland A's in a doubleheader. The Angels won the first game, 7-3, and lost the second, 9-6.
My Dad had joined the Angels as Director of Public Relations and Promotions in February 1969. I had only been a fan of the Angels for less than six months when I found myself sitting in what would now be called a suite on the first base side of the press box as the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the Moon at 20:17 UTC (or 1:17 p.m. for those of us in the Pacific Time Zone).
I don't recall the exact inning when the Eagle touched down on the Moon, but I remember that the public address announcer and scoreboard informed the 17,835 in attendance of this occasion. The event either stopped the game or was reported between one of the early innings during the first game of the twin bill. It was definitely a time for national pride.
While man was making its first visit on the Moon, Vida Blue, not to be confused with teammate Johnny "Blue Moon" Odom, was making his major-league debut that day. A week short of his 20th birthday, Blue had been recalled from Birmingham, Oakland's Double-A affiliate, after excelling in the Southern League with a 10-3 record, 3.20 ERA, and 112 strikeouts in 104 innings.
The teenage sensation allowed solo home runs to Aurelio Rodriguez and Jim Spencer in the first and third innings, respectively, and was saddled with the loss after giving up six hits and five runs (three earned) in 5 1/3 IP. Andy Messersmith, in just his second season in the bigs, was credited with his eighth win on the way to a 16-11, 2.52 ERA (fourth in the AL), 211 strikeouts (third) campaign.
Two years later, Blue (24-8, 1.82 ERA) was on the cover of Sports Illustrated en route to the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Messersmith, for his part, went 20-13 with a 2.99 ERA in 1971.
Doug Miller of MLB.com wrote an article today, recalling the historic day, on and above Earth.
About 400 miles south of San Francisco, a launch of a different kind was taking place on July 20, 1969.
There, in Anaheim Stadium, in the first game of a double-header, a hard-throwing 19-year-old Oakland Athletics left-hander from Mansfield, La., by the name of Vida Rochelle Blue toed the rubber in a Major League game for the first time in what would be a storied career.
Blue, eight days shy of his 20th birthday and straight out of Double-A ball, skipping an entire level of the Minor Leagues, says now that he had no doubts when he stepped on that mound.
"Well, I thought I was ready, and the folks that brought me up thought I was ready," says Blue. "So why wouldn't I have thought that way?"
Blue had been following the news stories chronicling the space program, something he still does to this day, having "TiVo'd just about every shuttle launch in the last 10 years," he says.
But as soon as he began warming up that day, throwing to catcher Phil Roof, the significance of the situation hit him with the force of the 100-mph fastballs he threw.
"I was fresh out of the Southern League," he says with a laugh. "The crowd itself was so different. It was the classic deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. As cool and as calm as you think you are, you're really not. You're thrust into a situation you've never experienced before.
"I mean, seriously, before that game, attendance at one of my games might have been 5,000, maybe 10,000. And now it's 35,000. And these were big league hitters. I'd never seen that type of talent before."
Blue would go on to win 209 career games, make six All-Star teams and take the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in his watershed season of 1971, when he went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA, eight shutouts and 301 strikeouts in 312 innings.
But on that day he was a regular 19-year-old kid.
He lasted 5 1/3 innings, giving up five runs -- three earned -- on six hits, including two home runs, in the A's 7-3 loss to the Angels. His career began with an 0-1 record.
"I was a young, cocky kid, and when you're young and cocky, you think you have it all and know it all," Blue says. "I was no different. That was the attitude I had. That's what kids that age do, and I certainly did it."
At some point during the game, Blue remembers, he heard about the moon landing and, for at least a moment, was able to escape the whirlwind of nerves unfolding around him to focus on something bigger than baseball.
Forty years later, Blue says that he's touched to even be asked about that day.
"I just remember it was obviously a great chance for me, and, as it turns out, it was a unique thing to pitch on the day this country landed a man on the moon.
"It's pretty cool and kind of flattering that it happened on the same day."
I returned home from the doubleheader in time to watch Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon that evening on our black and white television. My parents had received a color TV as a Christmas present from Walter O'Malley after the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959, a gift that would be strictly prohibited today. They held onto the TV for a few years, then sold it for the latest technology, a Hi-Fi (high fidelity stereo). The TV and the Hi-Fi were both housed in huge pieces of walnut or mahogany furniture, which was the norm in those days.
Things were big back then. Or so they seemed.