Mark McGwire Smashes Roger Maris' Record With Tainted Home Run (September 8, 1998)

HR62 It was Tuesday evening, September 8, 1998, and I turned on the game between the Cubs and Cardinals in hopes of seeing Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' record for most home runs in a season. Since his home run chase had been so widely followed the game aired on a broadcast network, Fox, which was highly unusual for a regular season game in primetime.  After he failed to do so in his first at-bat I decided to go to the gym. 



Mark_mcgwire_with_son Although my gym (Crunch Fitness) had TV monitors I missed seeing McGwire launch his historic 62nd home run because I was in the middle of doing a set of pulldowns, so my back was to the screens.  When I turned to look after completing my set I saw McGwire rounding the bases and then watched some of the celebration including congratulations from his young son and fellow home run chaser Sammy Sosa of the Cubs.  It was a sweet moment. (The YouTube video of the HR is no longer available.) 


Looking back at it now, with all we know about the charges that McGuire, Sosa (as well as A-Rod, Big Papi and Manny Ramirez among others) were taking performance enhancing substances, this milestone leaves a bitter taste.  A supposed moment of triumph instead somewhat resembles the foolishness of President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment five years later a few months after the U.S. incursion into Iraq began. 


Bonds_cheaties Three years later, on October 5, 2001, I also missed seeing Barry Bonds break McGwire’s record.  I happened to switch to ESPN close to 11PM (the game was being played in San Francisco) just as Bonds was rounding the bases in the 1st inning.  However, compared to McGwire's pursuit of the record, I had less interest in following it this time around since I was hardly a fan of Bonds.  Also, since it came just a few weeks after 9/11 it seemed somewhat trivial.  



Barrybonds_756_76017794_18 And six years later when Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all-time record for career home runs (Aug. 7, 2007) I was vacationing out at Fire Island and read the news about it online.  I was happy Bonds' joyless pursuit was finally behind us and delighted that once the media attention ended he more or less disappeared from public view. (Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal does a good job of revealing the underlying reasons behind the Bonds controversy.)  


Hank_aaron Happily, I did see Hank Aaron hit the home run that moved him ahead of Babe Ruth (April 8, 1974).  I was a junior in high school and had taken a time-out from studying for the SATs to watch the game.  After Aaron eclipsed Ruth's record with HR #714 in the bottom of the 4th inning I resumed studying.  It seems fitting that this is the milestone I witnessed since his achievement appears to have been the only legitimate one of the three players since he wasn’t hopped up on performance enhancing drugs.  (For more on Aaron's pursuit you may find the book Hank Aaron & the Home Run That Changed America of interest.)





Israeli Team Massacred at 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich (September 5, 1972)




Up until today the 1972 Summer Olympics had been about the sterling performances of U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz and Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut.  Sept. 5 was the day after Labor Day, and the first day of the new school year for me, where I was starting the 10th grade at Sto-Rox High School.  When I returned home from classes that afternoon is when I first heard word that terrorist guerillas from the Palestinian Black September movement had taken athletes from the Israeli team hostage. 






Later that night at a little past 10:00 I was getting ready for bed.  My father was dozing in the living room in front of the TV and my mom was out bowling in her Tuesday night league.  I had my bedroom door open so I could listen to the Olympics coverage when I heard ABC Sports anchor Jim McKay give a brief update on the situation that ended with the words "they're all gone".  Nine of the hostages and five of the eight terrorists had been killed at the airport in a bungled rescue attempt (two other Israeli athletes had been killed at the beginning of the ordeal at the Olympic Village).  It was very distressing news to hear before going to bed.






Although I was aware of earlier acts of terrorism in the Middle East this one was by far the most audacious.  And distressing news from the Olympics continued later in the week, but in a very different vein, when the US Men's basketball team was upset by the archrival Soviet team after a very controversial call in the closing three seconds (a play that was replayed repeatedly).  It was the first time the US team failed to win the gold medal in that event.




(An in-depth account of the guerilla incident is provided in the book One Day in September: The Full Story of the Munich Olympics Massacre & the Israeli "Wrath of God" Revenge Operation.)  


Richard Nixon Resigns the Presidency (August 8, 1974)





I was a teenager at the time of Richard Nixon's resignation and had yet to develop much in the way of a political consciousness.  Sure, I knew my parents were registered Democrats but I didn't really have an opinion about President Nixon (although I had some initial misgivings when he was first elected because the scuttlebutt on the playground was that he was going to institute Saturday classes).  And although the televised Watergate hearings had been a constant presence, and part of the background "noise" at home during the preceding 12 months, I watched tonight's presidential address to the nation with no feelings of triumph or vindication.  Rather, it was a somber occasion and I thought how lamentable it was that Nixon had let his presidency unravel.  (For background on the Watergate affair you may find Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward's acclaimed book The Final Days helpful; or perhaps the Oscar-nominated film from 2008 Frost Nixon.) 


It was just me and my mother watching; Dad was outside puttering in the garden.  And although I knew I was witnessing an event unmatched by few others in US history, I had other pressing concerns on my 17-year-old mind -  I was editor of the yearbook and had plans to make as my senior year in high school approached.  (I also hoped that Nixon's resignation wouldn't cast a pall on the upcoming school year.)






Speaking of the yearbook, I had just returned the day before from a workshop for yearbook staffs from high schools throughout Western Pennsylvania.  It was held over the course of three days at Seven Springs ski resort, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh.  My ascension to the post of editor (at Sto-Rox High School) was a bit unconventional because I hadn't been part of the yearbook clique.  A new yearbook advisor decided to select the editor based on who wrote the best essay - and I was chosen. 





The next morning, a Friday, I watched as Nixon and Pat Nixon, now private citizens, left the White House and boarded a helicopter for San Clemente, CA.  Newly sworn-in president Gerald Ford and the new First Lady Betty Ford saw them off.  However, I was preoccupied with my morning paper route (I delivered the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) because I had one paper left and I didn't know who I had missed.




My interest in politics would begin in earnest two years later when Jimmy Carter ran against Ford and I voted in my first presidential election. 





Yankee Catcher Thurman Munson Dies in Plane Crash (August 2, 1979)

200px-Munson_2 Roberto.clementeI had been working in New York for just four months and had yet to develop an allegiance to any New York team so perhaps that's why I don't recall what I was doing when I heard of Thurman Munson's death.  However, a number of years earlier I experienced the same shock and utter disbelief as Yankees fans when Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente was killed - also in a plane crash.  I was getting ready to deliver the morning paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at 6AM on Jan. 1, 1973 when I heard the news on the kitchen radio.  What an awful way to begin a new year.  I tried to console myself with the memory of Clemente getting his 3,000th hit in his final at-bat of the 1972 regular season.


To pay proper tribute to Munson I've asked a friend and devoted Yankee fan, Sam Belil, to fill in for me and provide his memories and reflections.  Sam, thanks for your heartfelt tribute.


Thursday, Aug. 2, 1979 - I'll never forget that day, the day we lost our Captain, the heart and soul of the New York Yankees - Thurman Munson.  He was my first baseball hero and is STILL my favorite Yankee of all-time (Jeter is #2).  I remember it as if it were 30 seconds ago and not 30+ years.  I was watching General Hospital on WABC-Channel 7 when a "Special Report" came on and (pardon the pun) a VERY grim looking Roger Grimsby reported that "New York Yankee star catcher Thurman Munson has been killed in the crash of the plane he was piloting".  As I write this I feel the same exact pain in my gut that I felt that afternoon.  For those of us who were alive back then losing Thurman is something we'll probably never get over - a part of my heart was forever broken. (In less than a year's time Yankee fans had gone from the exhilaration of Bucky Dent's game-winning home run in their one-game playoff against the Red Sox to take us to a third straight World Series, to this crushing blow.) 




Not surprisingly, the next few days were emotionally draining.  Before the start of the game on the day following his death (and with home plate left unoccupied), Munson received a 10-minute standing ovation from the Yankee Stadium crowd.  Then on Monday, August 6, the day of Munson's funeral, the Yankees flew to Canton, Ohio for the morning funeral and flew back for that evening's nationally televised game - which MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn wouldn't allow the Yankees to postpone.  Fittingly, the Yankees came from behind to win in the bottom of the 9th on a 2-run walk-off home run by Munson's close friend Bobby Murcer.




As a teenager, besides my girlfriend at the time, Thurman Munson was MY EVERYTHING.  My favorite memories of him come from his extraordinary 1976 post-season - he batted .435 against the Kansas City Royals and .529 against the great Cincinnati Reds, including six consecutive hits.  He was the only Yankee not to be intimidated by the Big Red Machine, the only Yankee whose body language said, "Yes, I belong here and I will make the most of it!"  Whenever I watch highlights of that World Series I always listen to the meeting at the pitcher's mound between the Reds' Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and manager Sparky Anderson as they talked about Munson ... "Man that guy can flat out HIT!"  It still brings tears to my eyes.





Although he played shortstop in high school and college Thurman looked so natural in his catcher's gear.  Statistically speaking he may not have been the greatest Yankee ever, but his leadership, grit, genuine concern for his teammates and clutch hitting make him, to me, the greatest Yankee Captain of all time. (And he holds the distinction of being the only Yankee to win a Rookie of the Year and MVP award.)





When his autobiography was published in 1979 (and I've already bought and read the new biography about him, Munson: Life & Death of a Yankee Captain) what touched me most about Munson was his dedication to his family and the importance he placed on being a good father.  Ironically, it was his desire to be in close contact with his family in Ohio that motivated him to take up piloting.  From Thurman I learned the importance of family and being close to them. I have a 19-year-old son (and just celebrated 21 years of marriage). Coincidentally, his name is Michael, the same as Munson's son.  I cherish every day with him as if it were my last on this planet.  Thurman Munson was my role model in more ways than one.








America Celebrates Its Bicentennial (July 4, 1976)

Bicentennial_FrontPage My summer job in 1976, which was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Penn State, was working at Roy Rogers restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh.  And that's where I spent the 4th of July - the day the nation was celebrating the Bicentennial.  (Our distinctive salutation to customers was "Howdy Pardner", and after giving back their change, "Happy Trails".)  Roy's was the only fast-food restaurant open that day in the vicinity of Point State Park and Gateway Center, where Bicentennial festivities were taking place, so the line of customers was non-stop and it went out the door.  Sunny and mild weather ensured that the celebratory crowds would be quite large.


RoyRogers_Nametag Because of the large number of customers that day the roast beef we served was unusually rare because there wasn't enough time to cook it completely (under orders from our manager).  Rather than come off in full slices the beef came off the slicer in drippy clumps.  Burgers were a bit rare as well, but that was the cooking instruction on any day (the district manager would make spot visits during lunch and slice open a burger to see if it was pink in the middle.)  At least we didn't get any complaints from customers.  On a typical day I put in 4-5 hours but that Sunday it was a 12-hour day.  When I punched out it was nearly 10:00 and the fireworks were over.  On the bright side, at least I didn't have to work on the day before or after the holiday.





Hurricane Agnes Floods the Mid-Atlantic (June 21-24, 1972)

MapofpittsburghBecause of its inland location Pittsburgh isn't susceptible to the furies of a full-blown hurricane (and its hilly topography largely protects it from tornadoes.)  However, the city's famed three rivers (Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio) make it susceptible to flooding.  Fortunately, the neighborhood I grew up in sat protected on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River about 10 miles down river from Pittsburgh's renowned Golden Triangle. 


Hurricane Agnes was a rare June hurricane, but when it crossed the Florida panhandle on June 19, 1972 it was a weak storm that caused little damage.  However, once it was downgraded to a tropical storm it turned into a prodigious rainmaker as it moved up the Eastern Seaboard.  The storm became known for the loop it made over New York state and Pennsylvania where it stalled and caused catastrophic flooding that extended into Maryland and Virginia as well.




Although our neighborhood was out of harm's way from flooding my family was nevertheless impacted by the storm.  My dad was a foreman at a steel fabricating plant on Neville Island, situated in the middle of the Ohio River, and it closed that Friday (June 23) when water began covering the main highway.




Meanwhile my sister Linda's job  at Joseph Horne department store, where she was an assistant buyer, was interrupted for a few days when the waters of the Allegheny River overran its banks.  To protect the store special floodgates were wrapped around the building.  Linda's plans to see Alice Cooper in concert at Three Rivers Stadium on Friday were scuttled when the waters of the three rivers made their way into the stadium.  And my brother Darrell, who was home from college after his freshman year had a summer job as an usher at the Roxian Theater in our hometown of McKees Rocks and helped bail water from the theater.





Although rainfall in Pittsburgh itself wasn't excessive (2.50" fell on Thursday and Friday) the watershed areas for its rivers and creeks received over six inches and caused the city's most serious flooding since 1936 (e.g., the Monongahela River crested 11-feet above flood stage).  However, flooding in Wilkes-Barre (below), the state capitol of Harrisburg and Elmira, NY was much more destructive.  These areas had in excess of 10 inches of rain.  And despite the fact that summer had just begun temperatures in Pittsburgh got no higher than the mid-50s for three consecutive days (25 degrees cooler than normal).




Fortunately the hurricane season of 1972 was one of the least active on record which allowed the Mid-Atlantic to dry out.  The U.S. mainland wouldn't be ravaged by such a destructive hurricane until 1983 when Alicia hit Houston.  (For those fascinated by hurricanes a book to consider is Hurricanes & the Mid-Atlantic States.)





Soweto Uprising Draws World's Attention (June 16-17, 1976)

Soweto_riot_76 South Africa's selection as host of soccer's 2010 World Cup was a great honor since it was once a pariah state for repressing its black population.  Back in mid-June 1976 the world's attention turned to the all-black township of Soweto after police violently repressed a student protest there.  The protest was in reaction to a law requiring schools to provide instruction in the Afrikaans language, the tongue of the minority white population (which enforced the legalized separation of the races known as apartheid).  Violent altercations with police resulted in hundreds of deaths and the incarceration of thousands.


Welcome_to_york I read about the uprising in the morning paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as I drove with my parents and sister to my cousin Karen's wedding in York, PA.  We left on Friday, June 19.  Driving east from Pittsburgh, the trip of 175 miles took about four hours.  My brother Darrell drove in from northern New Jersey and provided music during the ceremony, playing a number of trumpet solos. Rather than the traditional Wedding March he played Trumpet Voluntary by Henry Purcell and Processional & Recessional by Eugene Hemmer.


Platform_shoes It's painful for me to admit, but I wore a get-up that was more appropriate for Soul Train than a family wedding, i.e., a wide collared, bold brown and white patterned qiana shirt and platform shoes that made me tower over everyone.  (And the platform part of the shoes was made out of rattan.)  Looking back I don't know what was I thinking but I also wonder why my parents or sister didn't say anything?  In my defense it was the 70's and I was 19.


Nelson_mandela_with_winnie The Soweto uprising was a turning point for South Africa's black population as the world's press remained focused on the struggle there.  This attention ultimately led to boycotts and ostracism by the world community.  Still, it wouldn't be until the early 1990's before the apartheid regime was finally dismantled.  In June 1990 long imprisoned freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie were honored with a ticker-tape parade in lower Manhattan celebrating his release from prison earlier in the year.  (Hollywood embraced this hard fought and inspirational struggle with a number of acclaimed films including Cry Freedom, Sarafina! and A Dry White Season.)  


BONUS. Here is a vintage music video of the 1984 protest song Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid (featuring artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates and Pat Benatar) that called for performers to boycott South Africa's Sun City entertainment complex because of its whites-only admissions policy.  Parts of the video were filmed in New York's Washington Square Park.  


Near Meltdown Occurs at Three Mile Island (March 28, 1979)

1101790409_400 After I graduated from Penn State at the beginning of March 1979 I spent the rest of the month going on job interviews in New York City.  I stayed with my older brother, Darrell, who lived in Bayonne, NJ, conveniently located across from Manhattan.  In the months preceding my graduation I had set up meetings at ad agencies such as J. Walter Thompson, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and Grey Advertising, and also arranged appointments with a number of personnel agencies.  If nothing turned up on the job front I planned to return home to Pittsburgh where I'd resume my job search.  (However, the personnel director - it wasn't called Human Resources back then - at the Kenyon & Eckhardt ad agency insisted that if I really wanted to work in advertising it had to be in New York, particularly after he interviewed for a job at Pittsburgh's major agency, Ketchum & MacLeod, and was told that if he wanted to be hired as its personnel director he'd first need to marry the woman he was living with.)


March 28 was a chilly Wednesday and after having meetings at three personnel agencies I walked across town to the Port Authority terminal to catch my bus back to Bayonne.  Walking along 42nd St. near the Public Library a NY Post headline caught my eye.  It screamed (as only a Post headline could) that an accident had occurred at a nuclear reactor in south central Pennsylvania and there was the possibility of a radiation leak. 




Residents of the New York metropolitan area were reassured that if a leak occurred we wouldn't be in danger, at least for the next few days, since the wind would be coming out of the north.  Still, the accident was of great concern since 30 million persons lived within a 200-mile radius of the reactor.  There was also skepticism about how forthright officials were being with the public as they tried to reassure residents in the vicinity of the reactor.  (My Aunt Lee and Uncle George lived in York, Pennsylvania, which wasn't far from where the reactor was located.)




A few days later Darrell and I saw the new movie China Syndrome (starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas) which, by eerie coincidence, had a plot about a meltdown cover up.  Looking back, I don't recall ever feeling panicked over the incident at Three Mile Island despite the fact that it was the most serious accident at a commercial nuclear power plant in US history.  Perhaps it was the cockeyed optimism that came with being a recent college graduate. 




A week later my future looked bright as I was hired by ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves to work in its media department.  And thousands of residents from south central Pennsylvania began returning to their homes. (Later in the year, however, my future seemed somewhat uncertain when talk of war, and a possible military draft, arose after Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in Iran were taken hostage.)


Karen Black Stars in "Trilogy of Terror" - A TV Movie for the Ages (March 4, 1975)

Trilogy of terror zuni bath As a teenager I regularly watched ABC's Tuesday Movie of the Week.  It was on the network's schedule for seven seasons between 1969 and 1977 and showed great made-for-TV movies such as Brian's Song; The Girl Most Likely;and Crowhaven Farm.  And the movie that aired on March 4, 1975 may have been the most famous of them all.  It was talked about for days afterwards at school (I was in my senior year).  Titled Trilogy of Terror, it was three half-hour stories, each starring Karen Black.  But it was the third of these mini-movies, Amelia, that was the memorable one. 


Karenblack_trilogy_of_terror The movie told the story of a voodoo doll that Black's character Amelia received in the mail that came to life and terrorized her.  She tried drowning it in the bathtub, trapping it inside a suitcase and finally throwing it in the oven but she couldn't vanquish it.  Ultimately, its spirit possessed her.  The chilling closing shot showed her crouched in the corner of the living room and wielding a butcher's knife while waiting for her nagging mother to arrive for dinner.  Viewing it now, the doll is cheesy and somewhat comical, but back then it freaked me out.  He was a scary little bugger.        





Mommie_dearest Unfortunately for Black, despite roles in well regarded movies such as Five Easy Pieces (with Jack Nicholson), Day of the Locusts and Nashville, she may be best known for this role (she died in 2013 at the age of 74).  This is similar to what happened to Faye Dunaway after her over-the-top performance in Mommie Dearest.  (They both do demented very well.)  

Remembering When Disco Madness Swept the Nation

Disco_ball I graduated from Penn State University on March 3, 1979 but the occasion wasn't tied to any momentous historical event.  Rather, my commencement took place at the height of the disco-dancing frenzy sweeping the nation.  At the time it seemed that Top-40 radio was playing nothing but wall-to-wall disco, e.g., hits such as YMCA; I Will Survive; Shake Your Groove Thing; Le Freak; and Do Ya Think I'm Sexy, to name just a few.  The Village People (whose first LP I bought in the spring of 1978) even appeared on the the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.


After a celebratory lunch in State College with my parents, brother and sister, rather than return home to Pittsburgh I went east with my brother to his apartment in Bayonne, NJ.  (It would serve as my home base while I went on job interviews in Manhattan for a position in advertising.)  As we drove he played a cassette he had made from the wildly popular New York disco station WKTU.  As I caught a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline at sunset Sister Sledge's song He's the Greatest Dancer came on the air.




Four months later a backlash to disco music began, largely a reaction by listeners with more rock-oriented musical tastes (and who helped make My Sharona a big hit later that summer).  It was epitomized by "Disco Demolition Night" at Chicago's Comiskey Park on July 12 when a riot ensued after thousands of disco records were blown up as part of a radio station promotion (between games of a doubleheader).  However, gay, black and Latin audiences, who first embraced disco music in underground clubs in the early 1970s, would continue to do so for years to come as it evolved into hybrids such as Eurodisco, hi-NRG and electronica.




(If you'd like to relive the disco era, consider watching the movie 54, reading the book Hot Stuff: Disco & the Remaking of American Culture or listening to a great compilation of classic disco hits.)