I’ve written more about the major league games that were played on the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing in this post.
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.
I did a little more 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.