Before HBO, the rise of cable, or the invention of the VCR/DVR, Saturday was a vibrant night of programming for the Big 3 TV networks, not an afterthought, or a repository for repeats, as it is today. In the 1970s it was a night of classic sitcoms on CBS, and in the '80s NBC and ABC had hit shows like The Golden Girls;Hunter;Love Boat; and Fantasy Island. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the crown jewels of CBS's Saturday night schedule. Besides Mary's character, the show's other beloved characters included Mr. Grant; Ted; Murray; Sue Ann; Rhoda; Phyllis and Georgette. The sitcom's last episode aired on March 19, 1977. (It was curious that such a big episode was scheduled in between the February and May ratings "sweeps".)
Although I'd been a regular viewer of the show during its first five seasons, once I was away at college I rarely had the opportunity to watch it - but tonight was an exception. I was in my sophomore year at Penn State, where I was attending a branch campus in Beaver County, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It was largely a commuter campus with one dormitory, which I lived in. (I transferred to main campus in my junior year.) The dorm often emptied out on weekends and this weekend, when Mary ended her seven-year run, was no different. However, I stayed on campus and watched the episode alone in my dorm room on my roommate's little black and white set while I sat on my bed doing school work.
This funny episode (everyone at TV station WJM was fired, except for Ted Baxter) ended with the touching group huddle pictured above. It posted a Nielsen household rating of 25.5. Although it wasn't a blockbuster rating like that delivered by the finales of M*A*S*H (60.2 HH rating); Cheers (45.5); or Seinfeld (41.3), it was a solid bump from its 20.5 season average. Hats off to Mary! (Pun intended.)
(Oddly, the final season of Mary Tyler Moore, as of March 2013, had yet to be released on DVD). However, if you'd like to purchase any of the first six seasons click here.)
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.
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.
As 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.
Since 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'sChevy 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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.