Carl Yastrzemski Leads Red Sox to World Series on Final Day of Season (October 1, 1967)

Yastrzemski_baseballcard My nascent interest in baseball was boosted by the excitement created by 1967's American League pennant race, decided on the final day of the season.  The race was between Boston, Minnesota and Detroit.  Boston played Minnesota in the closing weekend and both games were telecast.  The rabid interest shown by my dad in these games rubbed off on me and the rest of the family.  Although our hometown team was the Pittsburgh Pirates he was closely following the Red Sox's Carl Yastrzemski because of their shared Polish heritage (truth be told, my dad was never a big fan of the Pirates).


Yaz_for_mayor Boston won both games over the Twins that weekend but then had to wait for the outcome of the second game of the Tigers' doubleheader against the Angels (the Tigers lost) before laying claim to first place.  As for "Yaz" he finished the season by becoming one of the select few players to ever win the Triple Crown (i.e., highest batting average, most home runs and most runs batted in).  In fact he would be be the last player to achieve this honor.  His storybook season was instrumental in making Boston a serious contender, a huge surprise after it finished next-to-last the previous season. 




Sandy_koufax Before this weekend the only other baseball event I had any recollection of was the 1966 World Series between the Dodgers and Orioles.  My 15-year old sister, Linda, had a crush on Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax and at her urging we visited our Uncle John so we could watch one of the games Koufax pitched on his new color TV.


Ultimately the Red Sox's magical season would end in defeat in Game 7 of the World Series versus the St. Louis Cardinals.  The book The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox recounts Boston's enthralling season.  And here's a great clip from a 1967 TV special on Boston TV station WHDH celebrating the Red Sox's season.  




Rob_10yrsold Skip ahead to the spring of 1968.  I shocked my male classmates because here I was, the boy who preferred reading rather than go to recess, rattling off baseball statistics in front of them on the playground. It was the first instance of me being drawn to numbers and the math behind them.  This interest in statistics and the analysis of them is what would also interest me in meteorology (high/low temperatures, amounts of precipitation), music (Billboard charts) and many years later proved instrumental in fueling my career in media research. 


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)

Munich72 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.)  


The Death of Mickey Mantle (August 13, 1995)

Mantle_magcover I don't know why Mickey Mantle's death sticks with me.  Perhaps it was because he hit his 500th home run on my 10th birthday.  Or because he was the embodiment of the classic All-American boy from the nation's heartland.  Whatever the reason, I heard the news of his death on Sunday afternoon shortly after I returned from a vacation in Provincetown.  He was only 63. 


Mantle died from cancer a few months after receiving a liver transplant.  His life was somewhat of an American tragedy.  In his last years he had gone public about his struggles with alcoholism and how it likely diminished what could have been an even more glorious career.  (Not surprisingly, the bases are loaded with books written about MM.  One is Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son; another that was published last October is The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle & the End of America's Childhood.)


Ptown As it turned out, the summer of '95 (made memorable by the Macarena craze sweeping the nation) would be my last time in Provincetown, a wonderful place at the tip of Cape Cod I'd vacationed at on numerous occasions between 1980-95.  The following summer I began spending summer weekends at Fire Island, a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island. (The community I stayed in is the Pines.)


Smiling_mickeyMantle played his entire 18-year career with the Yankees, much of it during the Yankee dynasty of 1949-1964.  He died just as the Yankees were re-emerging as a powerhouse.  One of the main contributors of this era, Derek Jeter, passed Mantle at the end of the 2011 season as the player with the most games played as a Yankee.  FYI, five of Mantle's Hall of Fame counterparts are still with us: Yogi Berra (88 years old); Whitey Ford (84); Ernie Banks (82); Willie Mays (82) and Hank Aaron (79). 

Here is a video clip from the daytime Joan Rivers Show that aired just a year or so before Mickey's death.  In it he candidly discusses his struggle with alcohol. 




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.








U.S. Hockey Team Stuns Russians at Winter Olympics (February 22, 1980)

050217_miracleOnIce_hmed_7p_standard It was Friday night and after work (I was an assistant media planner at ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves) I poked my head into a few bars in the vicinity of my office on Manhattan's East Side.  At Cowboys & Cowgirls on 53rd St. I was idly chatting with an older fellow (I was 22 at the time so most everyone qualified as "older") who teasingly mocked my choice of cocktail, a Tom Collins, as being an "old man's drink".  That may have been, but I was a novice and still familiarizing myself with mixed drinks. 


While standing at the bar we overheard that the U.S. hockey team had beaten the Soviet team 4-3 at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (which made the victory even sweeter).  It was a huge upset and took some of the sting from the the Russian basketball team's controversial defeat of the U.S. at the 1972 Summer Olympics. 




Images Shortly afterwards I met up with a few friends from work and we went to the dance club Stix (formerly the Barefoot Boy) which was a few blocks north of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel on 2nd Ave.  Two particular songs I remember dancing to were Vertigo/Relight My Fire and Don't Cry for Me Argentina (from the classic Disco Evita album).  We stayed until the wee hours and since I lived in New Jersey at the time (Bayonne) I slept over at my friend Phillip's place in the Lower East Side.


Olympics-1980-GoldMedalCeremony-flagsH2OAlthough the U.S.'s victory over the Russians was a huge accomplishment it wasn't the end of the story.  In order to win the gold medal they still needed to win one more game.  That match was played two days later on Sunday - and they prevailed over Finland.  This provided a huge boost to a nation whose pride had taken a serious hit a few months earlier as a result of the Tehran hostage crisis - which continued for nearly another year. 


(To learn more about this inspiring David-and-Goliath story the DVD Do You Believe in Miracles? and the book The Boys of Winter provide excellent background.)