Apparently Max Patkin, the minor league pitcher turned baseball clown, told this story many times over the years. When Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call reporter John Kunda asked Patkin in 1990 what was the smallest crowd he ever performed for, Patkin replied:
“I’m in Great Falls, Mont., and only four people show up for the game. Two of them were the parents of the pitcher. That was the night they put a man on the moon. Are they gonna watch that or watch me?”
In Max’s 1994 autobiography, “The Clown Prince of Baseball,” he wrote the show he put on in Great Falls had to be the toughest he ever did.
Drew four people — it was 1969, the Sunday afternoon the astronauts landed on the moon. The general manager asked me if I would cancel, and I didn’t want to blow the pay day, so I said I’d go on. He said he’d scatter some television sets around the ballpark, but only four people showed up, and two of them were the parents of the starting pitcher.
I did my whole act and afterwards the general manager said, “Max, I can’t believe you worked that hard with nobody in the ballpark.”
And I told him, “All those kids [players] were rookies, they’d never seen me before. They were enjoying it.”
When Patkin died in 1999, the incident even made it into his New York Times obituary. Richard Goldstein wrote:
He appeared before big crowds in the majors, but there was also the time when he performed before a crowd of four, two of the spectators being the parents of one of the starting pitchers. That was in Great Falls, Mont., the night of July 20, 1969, when the rest of America was watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.
Did it really happen? Or was Max exaggerating a bit…or a lot…to make it a better story? I can’t answer the question definitively. My hunch is he probably exaggerated, but maybe not by a lot.
Apollo 11 did indeed land on the moon on Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EDT. And Max Patkin did perform in Great Falls on July 20. While the Great Falls Tribune does not have any coverage of his appearance after the fact, the newspaper’s July 20 edition indicates Patkin will perform that day, as seen at right. (My great thanks to Eva McDunn of the Great Falls Public Library for sharing copies of the library’s microfilm of the Tribune stories included here.)
The Great Falls Giants were members of the rookie level Pioneer League. Note this story says Patkin was scheduled to perform “before the afternoon game of the split doubleheader.” That game was scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. local time (Mountain Daylight), about 45 minutes before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon. If this is indeed what happened, it means Patkin did not perform on “the night of July 20″ while “the rest of America was watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon,” as the Times obituary says. Patkin would have performed before the astronauts even landed, although it would be understandable if the baseball fans of Great Falls had chosen to stay home to watch the live coverage of the landing carried by all the television networks.
So how many people did show up to watch Patkin’s antics? It doesn’t appear anyone from the Great Falls Tribune was among them; the account of the games in the next day’s paper, which I will share in a moment, has just the barest of details and is unbylined, which I take to mean it was provided by the team, probably in a phone conversation with someone at the Tribune. There is no description of Patkin performing before mostly empty seats.
Maybe you’re thinking, well, how about the official attendance? Here’s the problem: the games were a split doubleheader, starting at 1:30 and 7:30. Nowadays in the majors, a split doubleheader means separate admissions, so there would be an attendance figure for each game. But it’s not clear that was the case in Great Falls that day. An attendance is listed only after the second game in the box scores of the next day’s Tribune, and the attendance is listed as 230…which is certainly more than four. But I have to assume that’s the total number of people who attended either game. How many of them were there before the first game started to watch Max Patkin? We’ll never know for sure if there were only four people on hand, but it certainly wasn’t much of a crowd, and however many there were it may well have been the smallest group Max ever performed for. Combine that with the moon landing and it’s an irresistible story.
Here’s the game story and boxes from the July 21 Tribune: Note the visiting team in the first game is misidentified in the box as Caldwell, another team in the Pioneer League. But the opponent in both games was Twin Falls, Idaho. That team is identified as Magic Valley in the 1970 Sporting News Baseball Guide and other reference works, but the newspapers from league cities I’ve looked at consistently used Twin Falls.
By the way, Great Falls’ announced attendance was not the smallest in the Pioneer League on July 20. The box score in the Idaho Falls Post-Register for the local team’s doubleheader against Salt Lake City lists the attendance as “150 (estimated).” That twin bill was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. and would have been in progress when Neil Armstrong took his small step at 8:56 local time. The other games in the league that day were a doubleheader at Billings that started at 2 p.m.; the attendance listed in the next day’s Billings Gazette was 390.
Max Patkin was capable of beating these numbers, even in the Pioneer League. Bob Addie’s column in The Sporting News of September 20, 1969 quoted Patkin as saying he performed before a league-record crowd of 7,200 in Salt Lake City that year and 2,400 in Ogden, Utah, No doubt Great Falls management, which scheduled Patkin’s appearance before the moon landing conflict was known, expected more bang for Max’s bucks.
But going back to the rhetorical question Patkin asked in 1990: “Are they gonna watch that [men on the moon] or watch me?” Well, an awful lot of people were watching something other than the astronauts that day. And this stuns me. I was 11 years old in 1969; the quest to put men on the moon had been going on literally as long as I could remember, and here it was, about to come to fruition, live on television. It was one of the most significant accomplishments in human history, and there was high drama, as nobody could say for sure it was going to work (even if later we came to take it all for granted).
I was certainly glued to the TV that day and that night. Why in the world wasn’t everybody else?
There was a full schedule of major league games that day, the last day before the All-Star break. Games at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were rained out. Eight of the ten teams that hosted games the day of the moon landing exceeded their average attendance for the season, all but Atlanta and Seattle, most of them by a considerable amount. Of course, a typical Sunday would see higher-than-season-average attendance, but a typical Sunday doesn’t also feature MEN LANDING ON THE MOON FOR THE FIRST TIME. ON LIVE TV.
|Game||Game time (EDT)||Attendance||Season average|
|Detroit at Cleveland (DH)||1:00||13,512||8,611|
|Cubs at Philadelphia (DH)||1:05||12,393||7,316|
|Mets at Montreal (DH)||1:35||27,356||16,842|
|San Diego at Atlanta||1:35||12,282||19,707|
|Washington at Yankees||2:00||32,933||15,940|
|Baltimore at Boston||2:00||31,174||25,113|
|Kansas City at White Sox (DH)||2:15||12,691||6,553|
|Los Angeles at San Francisco||4:00||32,560||11,805|
|Oakland at Anaheim (DH)||4:00||17,835||9,849|
|Minnesota at Seattle||5:00||8,287||9,161|
The average attendance I’ve listed for the White Sox is the average for their games in Chicago; they played 11 home games in Milwaukee that year.
I’ve read at least one first-person newspaper account of every game played that day. Here’s what happened. (I should point out Larry Granillo covered some of this material in a post he did on the 40th anniversary of the landing that was reposted on BaseballProspectus.com after Armstrong’s death in 2012.)
Cleveland: While the Indians exceeded their average attendance, the figure was a disappointment, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Russell Schneider wrote the next day:
When the schedule was drawn up last winter, it seemed like yesterday would be the prime date of the summer for the Indians — a double header against the World Champion Tigers. But that was before (1) the Tribe’s collapse, (2) the Baltimore Orioles’ surge, (3) the moon landing and (4) heavy rains yesterday morning.
Consequently, with many fans staying away to watch the astronauts on TV and because of the rain, instead of an anticipated 40,000 crowd, only 13,512 fans showed up…
Alas Russ didn’t tell us how the news of the moon landing was broken to those who did show up, although he did manage to work the landing into his game story: “It was almost as difficult for the Indians to reach the plate as it was for Apollo 11 to reach the moon yesterday.” (Hey, the Indians scored seven runs in the two games…that doesn’t exactly sound like a 250,000-mile trip around the bases to me.)
I don’t have access to the Detroit newspapers, maybe one of their writers had details on how the landing was acknowledged during the game. If you can help, please let me know in the comments section below.
Philadelphia: Bus Saidt tells the story in the next day’s Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times:
At 4:20 yesterday afternoon [this would be right after the Cubs batted in the top of the third of the second game of the doubleheader, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune], Phillies’ PA announcer Eddie Ferenz asked for the Connie Mack Stadium crowd’s attention, then informed one and all that the United States of America had landed a man on the moon.
Immediately, members of both the Chicago Cubs and Phillies lined up along the baselines, there was a moment of silent prayer for the continue safety of our gallant astronauts and for the further success of their mission.
Then the crowd let out a yell and joined in the singing of “God Bless America” with Kate Smith.
Of course the record didn’t play properly, the record playing-system sounded like you would expect of one which first was used right after Tom Edison invented the phonograph, but there was no disguising the genuine emotion generated by the historic moment.
It was the best play the Phillies made all day. [The Phils were swept in the doubleheader, scoring just one run in the process.]
Almost five months later, the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League used Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” in place of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a game, beginning a longtime tradition.
An Associated Press photo taken during the celebration appeared in a number of newspapers the next day; this was in the Omaha World-Herald (note the cutline incorrectly places the ceremony between games of the doubleheader):
Montreal: The Mets and Expos took an extra-long break between games of their doubleheader, pausing from 3:55 until 4:30 p.m. Eastern time so fans could listen to broadcast coverage of the landing over the public address system.
Atlanta: Phil Collier, in his game story in the San Diego Union, didn’t tell us exactly when in the game it happened, but he wrote:
The 12,282 who turned out yesterday in the heat and high humidity gave a rousing cheer late in the game when play was suspended and a silent prayer offered for the American astronauts who had just landed on the moon.
I don’t have access to the Atlanta paper, but if anyone does and can find more information, please let me know in the comments.
New York: Arming thousands of prepubescent boys with clubs may not sound like a great idea in the 21st Century, but in the 1960s it was good clean fun. And it had a name: Bat Day, which was annually one of the most popular promotions at Yankee Stadium (Hard Liquor and Handgun Night had not yet been invented). As a result the Yankees had a sizable crowd on hand for their game against the Washington Senators, including 17,000 youngsters with bats. (By the way, there was an actual academic research paper that found the Yankees’ 1990 Bat Day “did not increase the incidence of bat-related trauma in the Bronx and northern Manhattan.”)
The moon landing took place in the top of the eighth inning, and Leonard Koppett described what happened next in the next day’s New York Times:
Ken McMullen, the Washington third baseman, was batting against Jack Aker, with men on first and third and nobody out. The count on him had just gone to one ball, two strikes.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,” came the voice of Bob Shepard, the public address announcer.
The umpires, according to prior arrangements, waved their arms and stopped play.
“You will be happy to know,” Shepard continued, “that the Apollo 11 has landed safely…”
And a tremendous cheer drowned out the words “on the moon.”
The cheering continued for about 45 seconds. On the scoreboard, the message section read “They’re on the moon.” People stood. They waved the bats back and forth. Shepard kept talking, but his words could not be made out through the din.
On the field, the players seemed confused, or impatient. Most did not turn toward the scoreboard. Finally, he announcer could be understood, and he asked the crowd for a moment of silent prayer for the safe return of the astronauts.
The crowd stilled. After a few seconds of silence, a recording of “America the Beautiful,” sung by a chorus, blared through the loudspeakers. At the end of the song, another mighty cheer arose, just like the one that usually greets the completion of the National Anthem before a game.
The game resumed at 4:21 P.M.
The Times also included a photo taken when the landing was announced:
The crowd stood for a couple of moments of silent prayer before the game before an all-out effort in singing the National Anthem. “I even sang I was so proud,” [Reggie] Smith said, “and I generally just listen.”
Reggie Smith…had just ended the Red Sox half of the seventh inning by forcing Carl Yastrzemski at second base when Mission Control in Houston heard from the moon: “This is base Tranquility. The Eagle has landed.” [Of course, what Neil Armstrong actually said was, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”]
Two minutes later, public address announcer Sherm Feller told the Fenway Park customers and they began an ovation that lasted 57 seconds. The huge throng stood for the last 35 seconds of that salute while organist John Kiley played a nameless tune — “just something dramatic to fit the occasion.”
…Portable radios were in evidence throughout the afternoon and even before the landing was announced over the PA system, a great murmur had begun to swell in the grandstands.
“I didn’t think they were cheering my force out,” Smith said with a grin after the game.
Clary then put the events of the bottom of the seventh inning on the same timeline as the descent to the moon.
[Syd] O’Brien led off the seventh and Houston’s Mission Control reported the Lunar Module 920 feet above the moon’s surface….Aldrin and Armstrong flew past their landing site in a “football field-like crater” and were just 220 feet away as [Mike Andrews] lashed a single to left….Man was just 100 feet away from the first landing on the moon when Yaz forced Andrews…Reggie stepped to the plate as the Eagle began its final few feet of descent.
For Reggie Smith, the moon landing had extra significance, as described in a Herald-Traveler sidebar to the game story:
His brother Lonny worked at MIT as a bacteriologist on that phase of the Apollo program and now has returned to California where he is engaged on research in rocket fuels.
One of the Red Sox center fielder’s best friends, Willard Barnes, also worked at MIT on the lunar orbit phase as part of a North American Rockwell team that was acutely engaged in the computer phase of the flight’s orbit around the moon.
I’d love to know a little more about Lonny (or Lonnie) Smith and Willard Barnes but have not been able to find anything. If you can provide any information, please leave it in the comments.
Chicago: Richard Dozer started his Chicago Tribune game story with the moon landing:
Comiskey Park’s exploding scoreboard must have given Walter Williams a fright when it belched sparks and noise to salute his infield single in the seventh inning of yesterday’s first game between the White Sox and Kansas City Royals.
Actually, it had been synchronized to the moment of the moon landing, and Walter, who seems to be in the right place at the right time, at least as often as any of his teammates, was merely doing his part to trigger a two-run rally against the Royals.
The White Sox went on to lose both games of the doubleheader. Dozer had no other details of how the moon landing was observed at the ballpark, but the Tribune did include this photo:
San Francisco: I’ve read four different accounts of this game (in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner and the Los Angeles Times and Herald-Examiner), none of which offer any real detail about how the news of the landing was announced. A story in the news section of the Examiner, about what was going on around the city at the time of the landing, included this: “Out at Candlestick Park a crowd of 32,500 watching the Giants-Dodgers game let out a huge roar when the moon landing was announced over the public address system.” The only mention of the landing in Bob Stevens’ game story in the Chronicle was that the crowd was “remarkably large in light of the Apollo 11 moon landing.” (It was the Giants’ largest crowd of the season to that point and would wind up being their second-largest of the year.) Bob Hunter, in his Herald-Examiner game story, noted Bill Sudakis walked to load the bases in the top of the first inning “at the exact moment when the astronauts landed.”
But this game is the most famous of the games that were played that day, because it featured Gaylord Perry’s first major league home run, in his eighth season. (He would hit five more before retiring in 1983.) Associated Press baseball writer Hal Bock led his roundup of the day’s National League games with this:
The way Gaylord Perry swings a bat, he stands as much chance of hitting a home run as…oh…as a man does of walking on the moon.
Well, Perry and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin made it together Sunday. The San Francisco right-hander tagged his first career homer and pitched the Giants to a 7-3 victory over Los Angeles, tightening up the National League’s West Division race while the astronauts took a moon stroll that tightened up the universe.
Here’s the headline the Greensboro (N.C.) Record put on Bock’s story:
[Perry’s home run] recalled to Harry Jupiter, formerly of the San Francisco Examiner, that back in 1962 he watched Perry in batting practice one day and remarked to Alvin Dark, then Giant manager, that Gaylord might be a hitter.
“No way,” scoffed Dark. “We’ll have a man on the moon before he hits a home run.”
So, just 25 minutes after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, Gaylord whacked his first big league homer.
There’s no evidence Jupiter, or anyone else, had this anecdote in print before the moon landing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Both Perry and Dark told the story often over the years since.
Anaheim: Here’s the headline on the game story in the next day’s Los Angeles Times:
The Angels divided a doubleheader with the Oakland Athletics Sunday on an afternoon when baseball was minimized by the major news event of the day.
The opening game was 17 minutes old, and Oakland’s Rick Monday was at bat in the second inning when the contest was halted, and the following words were flashed on the message board in left field:
“We have landed on the moon.”
The Ball Day crowd of 17,835 cheered its approval, and then the game resumed.
…The second game ended five minutes before Apollo 11 astronauts began preparations for their unprecedented walk on the moon. In anticipation of the event, however, all but about 3,000 spectators departed the ballpark before the second game ended.
The A’s starting pitcher in the first game was 19-year-old Vida Blue, making his first appearance in the major leagues. He was the only player to debut in the big leagues the day of the moon landing.
Seattle: Play didn’t begin in Seattle until about 45 minutes after the moon landing. Hy Zimmerman doesn’t include a mention of what happened at the time of the landing in his Seattle Times game story, his only allusion to the events of the day being that the crowd of 8,287 — the smallest at the day’s major league games — was “presumably held to that number by the moon landing and pregame showers.” But an Associated Press roundup of what was happening at various places in America at the time of the landing included this:
…pregame ceremonies before an American League baseball game between the hometown Pilots and the Minnesota Twins were interrupted by an announcement of the moon landing. The fans cheered, stood up and sang “America the Beautiful.”
(That’s “America the Beautiful” 2, “God Bless America” 1 for those keeping score.)
Alas, Seattle pitcher Jim Bouton didn’t include any mention of the moon landing in his entry for the day in his published diary of the 1969 season, “Ball Four,” but Jim was preoccupied by the tough outing he had on the mound that day in the Pilots’ loss.
The Pilots actually lost two games that day. The previous night’s game was suspended in the 16th inning, tied 7-7, because of the America League’s 1 a.m. curfew and was resumed before Sunday’s scheduled game began. It turned out to be a big day for Twins pitcher Jim Perry, Gaylord’s older brother. Perry finished the suspended game, pitching two shutout innings and scoring the winning run after an 18th-inning double, then shut out the Pilots in the scheduled game to earn his second victory of the day.
I also did a little poking around about minor league games played on July 20, 1969. From the Des Moines Register:
The crowd of 1,517 who watched the Iowa Oaks lose their second baseball game of the day to Omaha at Sec Taylor Stadium finally had something to cheer about when the public address announcer told them Americans were walking on the lunar surface.
Baseball fans weren’t the only ones in Des Moines blowing off the moon business that night; the Register reported 400 people attended the regular Sunday night band concert on the steps of the Iowa Statehouse, and another 400 turned up for the Sunday night community sing at Greenwood Park. (The Register also reported receiving a phone call from a woman who asked, “You don’t really believe all this, do you? It’s all a fake.”)
The Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard story of the Emeralds’ Pacific Coast League game against Tucson included this: “The crowd of 1,028, undoubtedly held down by television viewing of the Moon landing, was the smallest of the season at Civic Stadium.”
From the Amarillo (Tex.) Globe-Times: “Some 1,354 baseball fans watched the Amarillo Giants’ 4-3 victory over the Arkansas Travelers….personal radios were much in evidence, and a cheer went up from the crowd when the announcement came over the PA system that the landing was an accomplished fact.”
It wasn’t just professional baseball games Americans were attending instead of watching what was going on on the moon…the attendance for a Central Illinois Collegiate League doubleheader in Springfield was announced as 1,117. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon as the night’s next-to-last batter was striking out.
The biggest crowd at any ballpark on the day of the first landing on the moon was not there to see a baseball game. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reported 81,032 people were at Dodger Stadium for an afternoon address by the president of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower Society. He predicted Armageddon would take place in the mid-1970s, although church officials admitted they weren’t quite as sure of that as they had been when they forecast Armageddon would occur in 1925.
One final note about what folks were doing instead of sitting in front of their televisions on July 20, 1969: the Omaha World-Herald reported 156 people attended a performance that night in Brownville, Nebraska of a play, “Fashion,” put on by a Nebraska Wesleyan University theatrical group. The director “stopped the play between the third and fourth acts and placed a television set on the stage,” and the audience watched the moon walk for about 20 minutes before the play resumed.
If you come across any stories about what was going on at baseball games on the day of the Apollo 11 landing, please share them with me in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to credit you in an updated version of this post.