The "Immaculate Reception" of Franco Harris (December 23, 1972)


Until 1972 my hometown Pittsburgh Steelers had a long history of losing.  This season, however, they finished with a solid winning record (11-3) and made it to the playoffs.  On Saturday, Dec. 23 the Oakland Raiders were in Pittsburgh playing the Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.  That afternoon, while the game was being played, I was out collecting payment from customers of my morning paper route (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).  Since it was Christmas, instead of the usual 25 or 50-cent tips, I was collecting tips in the stratospheric $2 to $5 range.




When I returned home the game was on the radio, and it didn't look good as the Raiders had a 7-6 lead very late in the game.  Then in a flash the tables were turned as a pass by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw bounced off the intended receiver and landed in the hands of Steelers rookie (and NFL Rookie of the Year) Franco Harris just before it reached the ground.  He scooped it up and scooted 60 yards for the game winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds remaining.  However, it took five minutes before Harris' catch was confirmed by officials as a legitimate reception.  It was even more confusing if you weren't watching on TV as was our case since the game was blacked out in Pittsburgh. 




Even today it seems unbelievable that this catch happened.  And although the Steelers season ended the following week, when they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, it was the beginning of the Steelers becoming one of the most successful and widely followed teams in the nation.  (To immerse yourself fully in "Steelers Nation" lore the book The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Pittsburgh Steelers is a good starting point.)  




(Sadly, Franco died just two days before the 50-year anniversary of his miracle catch.)

Harvey Milk & San Francisco's Mayor Murdered (November 27, 1978)




November 1978 was a month like few others for the city of San Francisco.  On Nov. 7 voters in California rejected the anti-gay Briggs Initiative which would have banned the hiring of gay teachers.  It was an emotional victory for openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk who had put considerable energy campaigning against it.  Then a week-and-a-half later Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple cult, forced more than 900 of his followers to commit suicide in their Jonestown settlement in the Venezuelan protectorate of Guayana.  Jones and many of the victims were from the Bay Area.


On Nov. 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving, disgruntled former city supervisor Dan White snuck into City Hall during the morning and shot dead mayor George Moscone (pictured, below with Milk) at point blank range and then walked down the hall and did the same to Milk.  In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, Moscone and Milk had a connection to Jim Jones, who a few years earlier was chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority.




At the time I was in my senior year at Penn State University and in the early stages of coming out so Milk's murder was especially sobering for me.  Back than having an openly gay man in such a high profile government position was unheard of, compounding the loss.  In 2009 Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Milk in the movie Milk.  The film was based on the biography The Mayor of Castro St. - The Life & Times of Harvey Milk.    






The Hijacker Vanishes: The Legend of DB Cooper (November 24, 1971)

Pittsburgh_penguins The day before Thanksgiving 1971 was a snowy one in the hills of Western Pennsylvania (about 4" fell).  I was in the 9th grade at the time and my dad had gotten four tickets at work to tonight's Penguins hockey game at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena.  I went with my older sister Linda, older brother Darrell (home for the holiday during his freshman year at Indiana University of PA) and a neighbor from down the street.  The Penguins lost to Toronto 2-1 but it was an enjoyable outing nonetheless. 



Snow_covered_street Walking home after getting off the bus we were playing around in the snow and throwing an occasional snowball.  At one point I jerked my head to avoid one being thrown and my glasses flew off.  After looking for them for some time with no luck I ran home to get a flashlight (Mom joined us).  Finally, in the midst of our search a neighbor approached in his car and stopped when he saw our search party in the middle of the street.  He stayed so we could look in the light cast by his high beams and shortly thereafter we found my glasses.  We had been out in the cold for close to an hour.


Db_cooper Meanwhile, while we conducted our search another was about to unfold in the Pacific Northwest.  A passenger named DB Cooper had hijacked a plane, demanded parachutes and $200,000 (about $1 million in today's $) and then jumped from the plane during a rainstorm into the wilderness north of Portland, Oregon.  Although hijackings had become a hazard of air travel since the late 60's, the way this one was carried out made it unique.  And although a bundle of deteriorated twenty-dollar bills was discovered in 1980, and traced back to those given him, Cooper himself was never found. 



(The book D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive? provides the full story of this mysterious man and his curious caper.)  The following clip goes into greater detail about Cooper.






Jim Jones Administers the Grape Kool-Aid (November 18, 1978)

Jim_jones I was in my senior year at Penn State during the fall of 1978 and had just come home for term break on Nov. 18.  That evening our TV watching was interrupted by a news bulletin reporting that California congressman Leo Ryan and eight others (including an NBC cameraman and two newspaper reporters) were gunned down at an airstrip in the small South American nation of Guyana.  They were there on a fact-finding mission to investigate a cult known as the People's Temple whose members were mostly from California.



Jonestown_massacreAs bad as this news was an even grislier story unfolded the next day as the residents of Jonestown, the settlement Ryan was visiting, participated in a mass suicide ordered by their paranoid leader Jim Jones.  Although some had been shot most died after drinking a grape-flavored drink laced with cyanide.  The number of dead was truly staggering.  As the week went on the numbers rose steadily, 100 at first, then 250, 500 all the way up to a staggering final toll of 913.  Understandably, this tragedy cast a pall over the Thanksgiving holiday. (A number of books have been written about this event including Raven: The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones & His People.)


One legacy of this tragedy is the phrase "drinking the grape Kool-Aid", which was coined to suggest that someone was brainwashed.  

Americans Taken Hostage In Iran (November 4, 1979)

Iranian_revolution_1979A new pope, the Village People and the 3-Mile Island meltdown all upended the world order in 1979.  But the year's biggest news story was the revolution in Iran, which had major implications for the U.S. since the revolutionaries considered us its greatest enemy (the "great Satan") because of our support of the Shah during his 27 years in power.  To retaliate they instituted an oil embargo, worsening America's already floundering economy.  Their enmity towards us worsened in late October when president Carter allowed the Shah to enter the U.S. to receive cancer treatment.  


American_hostages_iranHowever, the year was a momentous one for me as I graduated college (Penn State) and joined the workforce, hired at New York ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves where I worked in its media department.  Seven months after beginning my job a furious mob broke into the U.S. embassy in Tehran (in response to the Shah coming to the U.S.) and took 54 American employees and diplomats hostage. 


TIMEMagazine_HostageCrisisEndsI was anxious over this turn of events because there was talk that the U.S. might reinstate the draft and go to war.  (And less than two months after the hostages were taken the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.)  However, after a number of months that possibility seemed to have passed, even if it took more than a year before the hostages were released (444 days, to be exact, with their release occurring the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration in January 1981).


Ben_affleck_argoAll of my feelings of anxiety from this grim time in U.S. history came flooding back in 2012 when I went to see Ben Affleck's new movie, Argo, about six Americans who managed to escape the U.S. embassy in Tehran when it was overtaken.  The film perfectly captures the pervading sense of despair, impotence and anger felt in America at that time.  





Jimmy Carter Elected President Over Gerald Ford (November 2, 1976)

Carter_vs_fordSince 1960 there have been four very close presidential elections*.  One of them - 1976's race between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford - happened to be the first I voted in (but I voted by absentee ballot since I was away at college at Penn State).  Ford was the incumbent, immortalized by Saturday Night Live's Chevy Chase for his clumsy (albeit congenial) nature.  Meanwhile Carter came out of nowhere (nowhere being Plains, Georgia) - trailblazing a path that future Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama would also take.   


Jimmycarter_1976campaign A month before the election Carter made a campaign stop at the Beaver Valley Mall which was adjacent to campus.  It was Saturday morning and a group of us walked there to see if we might catch a glimpse of him.  I got close enough to snap the photo to the right (as you can see, of poor quality), but a bit too close for the Secret Service agents when I ducked under some barricades.  I'm sure if it had been 30 years later I would have been tackled and 'cuffed rather than just pushed back.   






Donkey_elephant The autumn of '76 was also memorable because I had my one - and only - girlfriend at that time (I came to the realization that I was gay the following summer).  And what sticks with me about this election was that Carrie was a Ford supporter.  This was hard for me to reconcile because I had the naive notion in my head that everyone in my circle of friends would have similar political leanings.  After all, how could someone I enjoyed being with have such a different view when it came to politics?  (I had a similar feeling when I joined Facebook and was taken aback by troubling political comments made by some of my "friends".)  It just so happened that ours was a short-lived relationship and this would be one of the final nails in the coffin.  





Carter_mondale On Election night I had sign-in duty at my dorm, a co-ed building in which girls lived on one side, guys on the other.  Members of the opposite sex were required to sign in to visit the "other side" after 8:00.  I heard election returns in piecemeal fashion and was in bed long before Carter was declared the winner at 3:30 AM (I had to be up early for my 8:00 philosophy class.)  His victory was delivered by Ohio, which he won by just 0.27% - beating Ford by 11,000 votes out of four million cast.  Of course, I was delighted - even more so because it gave me bragging rights over Carrie and her vexing choice.  (Post script: 33 years later Carrie and I became reacquainted on Facebook).


To read more about their respective presidencies two books to consider are The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. and Gerald R. Ford.


*The other elections were 1960 (Kennedy vs. Nixon), 1968 (Humphrey vs. Nixon) and 2000 (Gore vs. Bush).      

Post-Season Baseball: The Agony & the Ecstasy

A few weeks ago I wrote about ten hurricanes and the memories I associated with each of them.  In this post I've chosen to write of memories I connect with ten post-season baseball games over the past 45 years (not including the 1986 World Series, which I've written about in a previous post).


1969 World Series

Game 5/Mets vs. Baltimore (Oct. 16)

I was home from school (7th Grade) with a cold so I was able to watch the entire game.  I wasn't rooting for the Mets because, despite winning 100 games in the regular season, in my eyes their rise was a fluke.  (I felt the same when expansion teams like Florida, Arizona and Tampa Bay played in the World Series.)  And I certainly didn't think they'd be able to prevail over the mighty Orioles (who had won 109 games), but not only did the Mets do it - but in just five games.  




1971 World Series

Game 7/Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore (Oct. 17)

It was a Sunday afternoon when the Pirates won a 2-1 nail-biter over the Orioles to win the World Series.  My mother and I waited for the game to end before we drove my grandmother home, honking the car horn the entire way.  (My dad, never a big Pirates fan watched the day's football games on our other TV.)  We also put a big "Bucs Fever" sign in the living room window.  Since I was too young to celebrate the Pirates' 1960 World Series victory over the Yankees this one was very sweet.  The '71 Series was the first to have a game played at night, a novelty that eventually became the norm by the mid-1980s.




1972 National League Playoffs

Game 5/Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati (Oct. 11)

The game was still being played when I headed out to my weekly Junior Achievement meeting in downtown Pittsburgh, so I brought my transistor radio with me to listen to the closing innings.  As the bus I was riding approached the City on the Ft. Pitt Bridge I heard the Reds score the winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning on a wild pitch to advance to the World Series.  A similar crushing loss in the bottom of the 9th happened to the Pirates 20 years later when they lost Game 7 of the NL Championship Series to Atlanta.  (Then they went 21 years before their next winning season.)




1973 National League Playoffs

Game 3/Mets vs. Cincinnati (Oct. 8)

I had just come home from school and turned on the game.  As I was changing clothes Pete Rose and Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson got into a scuffle after Rose slid hard into Harrelson at 2nd base.  However, the Mets got the last laugh by advancing to the World Series.  Like 1969, I wasn't a Mets fan, especially since they barely had a winning record (82-79) and had passed my Pirates in the final week of the season to win the NL East.  Two big news events occurred during that post-season: 1) VP Spiro Agnew resigned due to tax problems and 2) Egypt attacked Israel on the eve of Yom Kippur during the weekend the World Series began.    





1975 World Series

Game 6/Cincinnati vs. Boston (Oct. 21)

I was in my freshman year at Penn State and watched the game in a friend's dorm room when it went into extra innings, so I saw the Red Sox' Carlton Fisk hit his famous game-winning home run in the bottom of the 12th inning.  This game was such a good one that almost forgotten is the fact that Cincinnati won the next day to win the World Series.  




1978 AL Tie-Breaker

Yankees vs. Red Sox (Oct. 2)

The Yankees had stormed back in August and September to tie the Red Sox for the AL East crown and played a one-game tie-breaker.   I watched the first seven innings in my dorm's TV room.  I left for dinner after seeing the Yankees' Bucky Dent (pictured with Reggie Jackson) hit his memorable 3-run homer over the Green Monster at Fenway to erase Boston's 2-0 lead.  The Yankees won the game and went to the World Series - which they won over the Dodgers for the second year in a row. 




1979 World Series

Game 7/Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore (Oct. 17)

The "We Are Family" Pirates defeated the Orioles in a carbon copy of their 1971 World Series championship over them, i.e. after falling behind 3 games to 1, they swept the next three games.  But it was a bittersweet victory for me because I was living in northern New Jersey and there was no celebrating crowd.  I called my brother who lived down the street and then my parents back in Pittsburgh to share the good news.




1989 World Series

Game 3/Oakland vs San Francisco (Oct. 17)

This World Series is forever known for the earthquake that struck minutes before Game 3 was about to start - and captured on live TV.  I had turned on the game about five minutes after the quake hit.  Since the Series involved two teams from the Bay Area it was delayed for 10 days.






2003 NL Championship Series

Game 6/Marlins vs. Cubs/Oct. 14

As was my usual habit I went to the gym late after taking a nap (around 9:30).  The game was on one of the TV monitors above the treadmills and Stairmasters, and when I left it appeared the game was in hand with the Cubs leading 3-0 in the top of the 8th inning.  If they won they'd advance to the World Series and get a chance to break their 95-year streak without a World Series championship.  However, between the time I left and got back to my apartment, about 10 minutes, the game had turned around completely and the Marlins had taken an 8-3 lead!  It turned out that an overzealous fan (the infamous Steve Bartman) had leaned over and deflected a fly ball that the Cubs outfielder was about to catch.  After that the floodgates opened.  (This was was somewhat similar to what happened in the 1996 AL League Championship between the Orioles and Yankees when 12-year old Jeffrey Maier reached out to grab a fly ball hit by Derek Jeter that was about to be caught.  It was called a home run and the Yankees won the game because of it.)   




2009 World Series

Philadelphia vs. Yankees

A novel experience was having someone to watch the games with as my boyfriend David was also a baseball fan.  However, we had different ways of enjoying the games.  For instance, David was more a student of pitching while I liked high-scoring games.  Furthermore, he found it peculiar that I often commented about the appearance of each player as they came to bat (which I thought was normal, especially for a gay man).  Lastly, I found it nerve wracking to sit through an entire game, especially if the Yankees had a lead, while David enjoyed watching the entire nine innings.  However, one thing we had in common was rooting for the Yankees, who beat the Phillies in six games.





Superstar Pope Makes First Visit to U.S. (October 1-6, 1979)

Pope_with_prez The world was wild about Pope John Paul II.  Less than a year into his papacy he made a triumphant visit to his Polish homeland in June and a few months later the U.S. got its turn when he spent the first week of October 1979 in the Northeast visiting Boston, New York, Philadelphia and D.C. (he was the first pope to visit the White House).  During his visit to New York I managed to see him twice. 


Mys first sighting was during lunchtime on Tuesday, October 2 as I waited with three co-workers (the "3-M's": Marina, Maria & Marian) at the corner of First Ave./49th St.  We saw him drive past after he left the U.N., which was a short walk from our office on 3rd Ave./50th St. (ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves). 


Pope_lifemag I saw him again the following morning and this time it was pure happenstance.  I was walking to work in a downpour when he came riding past in his "popemobile" down 5th Ave. on his way to Madison Square Garden after saying mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral (see video clip below).  Not a bad way to start the day I must say!  And it seemed that the good feeling generated by JP-II's visit extended to much of the nation (or, at least, among Roman Catholics) but the euphoria would last for just a month because on November 4 the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken and 52 of its American staff were taken hostage.  This turn of events, combined with tough economic times (e.g., double-digit inflation), created a national malaise that would be instrumental in bringing down Jimmy Carter's presidency. 




Two Popes Die Within Weeks of Each Other (August 6 & September 28, 1978)




The summer of 1978 was my last living in my hometown of McKees Rocks (a suburb of Pittsburgh).  This particular weekend in early August was a fun one as my older brother was visiting from New Jersey.  On Friday evening he, my sister Linda, her friend Ilene and I went to see a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; the next day we saw Animal House, which had recently opened. 


Then on Sunday afternoon (8/6) Darrell and I went on a long bike ride that took us all the way out to Pittsburgh's airport along winding & hilly roads as well as some risky time peddling on the shoulder of the Parkway West.  All told, it was perhaps a 25-mile round trip.  When we got back home we heard the news of Pope Paul VI's death.  He was 80 and had been pope for 15 years. 


Less than two months later I was back in school, my senior year at Penn State.  As I was getting ready for my Friday morning classes (Bowling followed by Broadcast Communications 325) I heard a news report that the new pope, John Paul I, had died the night before (9/28) from a heart attack.  He had been pope for just one month and was only 62 years old.  I told the news to friends at breakfast and they thought I was joking. 




10 years later I was dating a religion reporter for Time Magazine and he told me that it was widely rumored that John Paul (known as "the smiling pope") was a victim of foul play because 1) his liberal leanings clashed with those of the conservative Vatican hierarchy and 2) he was about to begin an investigation into financial misdeeds at the Vatican Bank.  The book In God's Name: An Investigation Into the Murder of Pope John Paul I provides further insight into the matter.


By coincidence, the day of John Paul's death was one day after the anniversary of the death of Pope Urban VII, the pope with the briefest papal reign - 13 days.  And following John Paul's brief time on the papal throne John Paul II would have one of the longest reigns - nearly 27 years. 




Patty Hearst Captured (September 18, 1975)

It was Friday afternoon, Sept. 18, 1975, and I was making my first visit home since beginning freshman year at Penn State when I heard the news of Patty Hearst's capture (or was it a rescue?).  The reason for coming home that weekend wasn't because I was homesick, but rather to pick up my high school yearbook (The Voyager) which had just been published (I was its editor).  I was riding in a friend's car when we heard about Hearst on the radio.




Thus ended a fascinating 19-month odyssey.  First came the kidnapping of the 19-year-old newspaper heiress/college student (Univ. of California at Berkeley) in February 1974, followed a number of months later by her participation in a bank heist in which she was caught on camera toting a machine gun.  Then later that spring the LA bungalow where she was supposedly staying at with her captors (from the Symbionese Liberation Army) was surrounded by police and burnt to the ground during a gun battle.  Patty went from being an innocent kidnap victim to landing on the FBI's Most Wanted list.  She even changed her name to Tania, and when booked in prison after her arrest listed her occupation as "urban guerilla".







Hearst will forever be part of the zeitgeist of the mid-70s.  (I still have the TIME Magazine cover saved, shown above, with her hard-bitten mug shot on it.)  A 1988 TV movie (starring Natasha Richardson) and the feature film Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst were made about the kidnapping.  Her defenders said she suffered from Stockholm syndrome, whereby she came to identify with her captors.  As high school students, for kicks we'd occasionally point and yell "Patty Hearst!" when we were in a crowd.  (Of course, "streaking" was a more common activity in those days.)






Years later, after serving nearly two years in prison and becoming an upstanding wife and mother, "Patricia" (as she preferred to be called) made cameo appearances in a number of films by off-beat director John Waters, including Cry Baby and Serial Mom (in which she is beaten to death by Kathleen Turner's demented title character for wearing white shoes after Labor Day.)




(You can read Patricia's account of her ordeal in the book Patty Hearst: Her Story.)