50 years later: coming back to earth after the moon landing
Sunday, July 20, 1969. Millions of Americans were in front of their television sets, watching coverage of the historic Apollo 11 mission. But it was a lovely afternoon in Boston, the Red Sox were hosting the Baltimore Orioles, and cheap seats were available in the distant right-field grandstand for impecunious college students.
To be honest, the game itself was not memorable. The Red Sox were in the middle of an unremarkable year; they would finish in 3rd place in the American League. The Orioles were a stronger team. They would finish atop the American League, then, in a stunning upset, lose the World Series to the “Miracle Mets.” On this particular weekend, however, the Red Sox looked better. Boston won that Sunday-afternoon game, choking off an Oriole rally in the 9th inning to preserve a 6-5 victory and sweep a 3-game series.
Still, some fans are never satisfied. One man in the Fenway Park bleachers was heckling Boston’s right-fielder, Tony Conigliaro, relentlessly. This fellow had a remarkably powerful voice, and as the game wore on, he—no doubt becoming more thoroughly baked by warm sun and cold beer—became more insistent: “Conigliaro, you’re a bum!”
This was unfair, really. Conigliaro had been one of the brightest young stars in the game. He was a hometown hero, raised in a Boston suburb, who had broken into the major leagues at the age of 19 and shown prodigious potential as a power hitter. One year later he led the league in home runs; he hit over 100 homers before he was 23. Then in 1967 he was nearly killed in a frightening on-field mishap: hit in the face by a fastball that shattered his eye socket and permanently damaged his vision. After more than a year in recovery, he returned to the Red Sox for this 1969 season. He wasn’t the same fearsome slugger, but he had a respectable year. In this game against the Orioles he had a hit and a walk and scored a run. A decent showing, but not enough to quiet the leather-lunged critic in the bleachers behind his outfield post. “Conigliaro, you’re a bum!”
During the afternoon the public-address system had been giving fans occasional updates about the moon landing. Late in the game came the momentous announcement:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Eagle has landed! Man has reached the moon!
The crowd leapt up and cheered. It was a natural, spontaneous reaction: a hearty, sustained ovation. On the field the game stopped; the players and umpires joined in the applause. We were happy and excited and proud, and conscious that we were living out a historic moment. Even when the game finally resumed, after a break that must have lasted a few minutes, there was electricity in the air. I suspect the excitement contributed to the offensive fireworks produced by both teams in their final at-bats.
I thought about my mother, at home in front of our little black-and-white TV. She could remember, as a girl, seeing her own father hunched over a new crystal wireless set, listening to scratchy reports from France, anxious to hear whether Charles Lindbergh had finished his solo flight across the Atlantic. Now, a generation later, she relied on a new broadcast medium for news of a new historic first. I could not fully share her excitement. From my days in grammar school I had read about rocket launches, and figured that it was only a matter of time before someone reached the moon. For Mom, though, space travel had been the stuff of science fiction, and to see it come true before her eyes was an awesome, wondrous thing.
And if I was not surprised by the Eagle’s landing, I don’t mean to suggest that I was jaded. It was still a great moment: a magnificent scientific achievement, a demonstration of American technological prowess. For countless generations men had looked up at the moon and wondered. Only one generation, only one nation, could be the first to do what so many others could only dream of doing. We were that generation; we were that nation. It was thrilling.
Eventually the buzz at Fenway Park subsided, the fans took their seats again, the game resumed. Then, from out in the bleachers, came a reminder that the moon landing would not change human nature.
“Conigliaro, you’re still a bum!”
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