At 4:17 p.m. Eastern time on July 20, 1969, Mike Epstein stood 90 feet from home plate and some 238,000 miles from the moon.
With the Washington Senators and New York Yankees tied at 2 in the eighth inning of their series finale at Yankee Stadium, Epstein, a Bronx native, had one thing on his mind. It wasn’t Apollo 11’s lunar descent.
“I wasn’t concerned with it,” Epstein, now 76, said from his home outside of Denver last month. “I was concerned about scoring a run.”
An estimated 650 million watched Neil Armstrong take man’s first step on the moon more than six hours later, but during the lunar landing, 32,933 were in the stands at Yankee Stadium on the Sunday before the All-Star break. Ken McMullen dug in against Jack Aker with Epstein on third, a man on first and no outs. Most scheduled sports programs were preempted by coverage of Apollo 11’s progress, but Washington’s WWDC Radio carried the Senators-Yankees game with short reports on the moon mission.
“The 1-1 pitch to McMullen, swung on, hit foul down the third base side,” intoned WWDC play-by-play man Rex Barney, the former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher. “One ball, two strikes now.”
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
As the umpires, according to prior arrangements, waved their arms and stopped play, an urgent voice came over the radio: “Here is a bulletin from WWDC News, Apollo 11 is 100 feet from the surface of the moon. We now switch live to the manned spacecraft center.”
Similar interruptions took place on radio stations and at stadiums across Major League Baseball as the sport paused to direct everyone’s attention toward the moon. At Montreal’s Jarry Park, the Mets and Expos took an extended break between games of their doubleheader so the 27,356 in attendance could listen to coverage of the landing over the stadium’s public address system. In Chicago, Comiskey Park’s exploding scoreboard shot sparks when the lunar module touched down, which happened to coincide with Walt Williams’ infield single to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning. And the Yankees-Senators game was stopped for four minutes to celebrate the accomplishment.
Barney was reading out-of-town scores when WWDC returned to coverage from Yankee Stadium, where public address announcer Bob Sheppard was sharing the historic news with the crowd.
“Ladies and gentleman, your attention please,” Sheppard said. “You will be happy to know that the Apollo 11 has landed safely on the moon.”
The cheers from the crowd drowned out the final two words of Sheppard’s announcement, but the message displayed on the scoreboard in right-center field was loud and clear: “THEYRE ON THE MOON.”
“I’m sure you heard it in the background,” Barney said. “The announcement and the game being paused, Apollo 11 has landed safely on the moon. That’s what the cheering and applause was for. They’re on the moon right now. And it’s a standing ovation, very inspiring, and I’ll tell you one thing, sitting here and broadcasting this game, and watching the players, I think there’s only one thing going through everyone’s mind. ... As I sit here and I have been all weekend long, really, and I think my thoughts along with everyone else has just been of those people that are on the moon. They’re there, right now.”
The cheering at Yankee Stadium continued for about 45 seconds, according to The New York Times, as thousands of children waved the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. Louisville Sluggers they received on Bat Day.
“On the field, the players seemed confused, or impatient,” Leonard Koppett wrote in the Times. “Most did not turn toward the scoreboard. Finally, the announcer could be understood, and he asked the crowd for a moment of silent prayer for the safe return of the astronauts.”
After a few seconds of silence, a recording of “America the Beautiful” played over the Yankee Stadium loudspeaker. The crowd sang and then cheered some more.
“I guess it’s tough, I know it is for everyone – ballplayers and fans alike – to keep their mind on what’s going on,” Barney said.
“To be honest, it wasn’t a big deal for me,” Epstein said in a phone interview. “... I remember I did look up toward right field and I said, ‘Wow, that’s really neat.’ Outside of that, I was a baseball player, and my intent was to score that run from third base.”
Aker, then a 29-year-old reliever for the Yankees, was more focused on the goings-on on Earth, too.
“It was something strange,” Aker, 79, recalled in a phone interview. “We’d never done something like that before. I just walked off the mound and stood around. I didn’t go to the dugout or anything. I stayed on the field. I wasn’t that interested in it. When you’re pitching and you’re concentrating on that inning, you don’t want anything that cuts into your concentration.”
If the ballplayers weren’t concerned, the reaction to the historic moment was far different in the stands.
Like many kids fascinated by the Space Age, 13-year-old Mark Polansky had followed Apollo 11’s mission with great interest since it launched from Kennedy Space Center four days earlier. Polansky, who grew up in New Jersey, spent parts of most summers living in Manhattan and going to Yankees and Mets games with his grandmother and two aunts, all of them rabid sports fans.
“I don’t remember a darn thing about the game,” Polansky said in a phone interview. “I would’ve had to have looked to see who the Yankees played that day, let alone who was on the team, but I do remember where we sat. We sat on the mezzanine, behind home plate, somewhere in that area.”
Polansky also remembers Sheppard’s distinctive voice interrupting play in the eighth, and the crowd singing “America the Beautiful.” It was an inspiring moment for a man who, 32 years later, in February 2001, piloted space shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-98.
“I couldn’t tell you if there were 5,000 or 50,000 people there, but whoever was there, they went wild,” Polansky said. “It was the proverbial everyone being united for a moment and sharing a common thing. And then the game went back to being played.”
After the roughly four-minute stoppage, McMullen hit a grounder to third baseman Bobby Cox, who threw home to nail Epstein for the first out. Aker hit Hank Allen with a pitch to load the bases before getting Ed Brinkman to ground into an inning-ending double play. The Yankees walked off the Senators an hour later on Gene Michael’s RBI single to score Roy White in the 11th inning. Aker, who pitched four scoreless innings in relief, earned the win in the Yankees’ 3-2 victory.
Epstein has fond memories of childhood trips to Yankee Stadium with his uncle Irving, of being mesmerized by the green grass amid a concrete jungle. He hit his first major league home run there June 5, 1967, in his first game with Washington after being traded from the Orioles. That, he said, was a bigger moment in his career than standing on third base when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
“It was in the newspapers every day, but it wasn’t something to me that was going to impact my life,” said Epstein, who hit a career-high 30 home runs for the Senators in 1969 and played five more seasons in the big leagues with the A’s, Rangers and Angels. After receiving a letter of endorsement from his former manager in Washington – Hall of Famer Ted Williams – while working as a roving instructor in the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor league system, Epstein founded a hitting school that his son, Jake, still operates.
“The more time that went by, the bigger deal it became for the players,” Aker said. “We probably talked more about it a week later than we did on the day it happened. It’s something that I certainly remember now, especially when I see replays of TV and books and such.”
Polansky went back to his grandmother’s house after the game.
“Like everybody else in the entire world, we watched them actually come down the ladder and step on the moon that night,” he said. “I do remember after we walked on the moon saying, ‘Gosh, I really want to do this and I want to be the first guy that lands on Mars,’ because I loved exploration, and this just cemented the deal.”
Aker watched Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon that night, too, but his memories of another historic moment during his playing career are much more vivid. On April 8, 1974, Aker was standing in the home bullpen at Atlanta’s Fulton-County Stadium when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record.
“Before that game, we had decided instead of fighting over the ball, we would each spread out and take a portion of the bullpen,” Aker recalled. “We spread out before he hit, but when the ball was on the way to the bullpen, Tommy House broke our little rule. He left his area and came over to where the ball was coming down, and he grabbed the ball.”
Polansky was finishing his senior year of high school when Aaron hit his 715th career home run. That fall, he enrolled at Purdue University and met Gene Cernan, who, two years earlier, became the last person to set foot on the moon. Polansky said his encounter with Cernan - as part of a small, informal gathering - convinced him that he wanted to become an astronaut.
After his maiden space flight aboard Atlantis, Polansky made two more trips out of Earth’s atmosphere, as commander of STS-116 Discovery in December 2006 and of STS-127 Endeavour in July 2009.
“My running joke is this month we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of my last flight,” he said.
The Yankees will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing Saturday wit Colorado visiting. Polansky, who lives in Houston, said the team invited him to participate in a pregame ceremony, but he will be on a previously planned European vacation with his wife and children.
Fellow former astronaut Mike Massimino will throw the ceremonial first pitch to Aker, who didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the event when he stood on the mound exactly 50 years ago.
“It wasn’t until the next day when the papers came out that I realized, ‘Holy cow, this is a real moment in history,’” Aker said. “I didn’t enjoy it the way I should have.”