In the late 1950s the Soviets jumped ahead of us in space exploration. Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin became household words before Alan Shepard and John Glenn did. And people were talking about moon shots. We knew rockets would soon go to the moon.
In the late 1950s, the winter of 1958 to be exact, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved across the continent to be become the Los Angeles Dodgers. What broke the hearts of the Flatbush faithful made a dream come true for youngsters in Los Angeles like me. Before the 1958 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were the farthest west extension of Major League Baseball. Among my baseball loving friends, we essentially chose to root for one of three teams, the New York teams, each identified by a star centerfielder: “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” (one of my favorite baseball songs has that title). I cast my lot with the loveable, usually losing the big games, Dodgers and their star, Duke Snider.
In 1954 a St. Louis Cardinals player named Wally Moon won the National League rookie of the year honors. He did everything well for five years with the Cardinals, but people weren’t talking about moon shots yet. Then the Dodgers traded to acquire Moon before the 1959 season. Soon people would be talking about moon shots, but in a whole new way.
Wally Moon died three days ago as I am writing this on February 12, 2018. As I read his obituary in the New York Times yesterday, a flood of happy memories came over me. Moon shots became a regular feature at Dodgers home games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Not Dodger Stadium; it wasn’t built yet. The Coliseum was a terrible venue for baseball. It was built for the 1932 summer Olympics and hosted the 1984 Olympics and will have a hosting role in the projected 2028 Olympics. It was made for track and field and served well for football, being the home for the Los Angeles Rams, The USC Trojans, and UCLA Bruins. I went to countless track and field meets and football games there in my youth.
About all it had going for it as a baseball park was size; it could seat over 90,000 people. Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, would need that revenue to build the new baseball showcase called Dodger Stadium. Right center and right fields were cavernous, cutting into left-handed power hitter Duke Snider’s career home run totals. But left field was barely Little League sized; the distance from home plate to the left field foul pole was just 251 feet. That could make some major league popups into homeruns. So the Dodgers erected a 42 feet high stiff screen in left field. It was like the green monster in Fenway Park, but made of netting that could easily be seen through.
That brings us to Wally Moon and moon shots. Moon was, like Snider, a left-handed hitter, meaning his power swing naturally went to right field. In the Coliseum what would have been homeruns to right field in every other ballpark were usually just long outs. When Moon was traded to the Dodgers, his Cardinals teammate Stan Musial, once of the greatest hitters of all time, suggested that he develop an inside-out swing that would send his hits to left field with its cozy dimensions and that big net wall. Moon did just that and soon he was hitting high popups that went over the screen into the left field seats. Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers announcer, was always aware of high culture and pop culture, a poet at his work. As “moon shots” was becoming a common term for those early rocket launches that were catching the world’s attention, Scully began calling Wally Moon’s homeruns to left field moon shots. Of course. In Moon’s first year with the Dodgers, they would win the World Series. And their World Series games in the Coliseum drew the largest crowds ever for World Series games.
I was 11-14 years old in the years the Dodgers played in the Coliseum. I would go to games with my dad or friends are often as possible. Our pre-game ritual was clear. We would position ourselves behind the screen in left field for batting practice, gloves on. On a good night, we would get some official major league baseballs before the game began. If the San Francisco Giants were in town, the bitterest of our rivals, we would hope to catch a ball hit by Willie Mays, the greatest player I ever saw in person. But no ball was more treasured than a moon shot. We sometimes took those freshly caught baseballs to the dugout area as batting practice ended to get autographs from our baseball heroes. I got baseballs autographed by Snider, Koufax, Drysdale—and Wally Moon.
When Dodger Stadium was built, it instantly became the most beautiful and well-designed ball park in the country. But it would never hold the wonder and mystique of Dodgers baseball in that not-made-for baseball Coliseum, with its ridiculous dimensions and that left field screen.
Now Wally Moon is dead. Only Willie Mays of “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” is still alive. Stan Musial is dead. Vin Scully is finally retired. I am no longer a kid. Spring training for the new baseball season is just a few days away. That will make me a kid again—at least for a while. And today I am thinking of moon shots I saw and baseballs I caught.