Saturday, July 20, 2019

Michael Collins Drops Off Two Guys at the Moon...

"WAIT IN THE CAR, MIKE," Neil and Buzz said, hopping out after their four day, 238,900-mile road trip. "Gonna take a walk, talk to some folks, grab some rocks. You drive around the block, we'll be right back."
Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong conquer the Moon
Life Magazine photo.

With that, Michael Collins, a dutiful, low key sort of guy listened to the radio, sipped coffee, circled and waited for his cohorts to return from their errand.

Or not.

The actual details likely differed, perhaps substantially, but just in dialog, not in result.

On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first to human beings to set foot on the Moon, Earth's orbital companion for the past 4.5 billion years or so, previously an unreachable place in the sky.

Armstrong, the commander of NASA's Apollo 11 mission, arrived preloaded with matchless lines that would echo down through history: "The Eagle has landed," "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" and "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky."

Apollo 11 blasted off
on July 16, 1969.
Life Magazine photo
Aldrin, the second man off the lunar lander, helped plant a U.S. flag on the dusty surface and posed for pictures taken by his boss with a Hasselblad camera. And, during their relatively brief 2 1/2-hour lunar romp, the men collected roughly 13 pounds of rocks.

Fulfilling a fundamental dream of human existence, Armstrong and Aldrin spent more than 21 hours at Tranquility Base (another Armstrong-ism) etching their names in history.

Meanwhile, Collins flew around the Moon alone in a spaceship called Columbia -- glimpsing the dark, far side we can't see from Earth -- waiting for the others to fly up from the surface aboard top half of the lunar lander Eagle and rejoin him for the long ride back home.

Eventually they did, leaving behind a wire-stiffened flag, a solar wind experiment and the lunar module's descent stage. Affixed to one leg of that landing craft, a stainless steel plaque bearing the signatures of all three travelers and President Richard Nixon, stating, "We came in peace for all mankind. July 1969 A.D."

The facsimile signature was as close as Michael Collins would get.

Imagine flying nearly half a million miles to ferry two companions to a place where no man had gone before, while your assignment is simply to wait for them to return.

Michael Collins did that, without evident rancor, bitterness or disappointment.

"I didn't feel lonely or left out," Collins wrote in his recently republished memoir, Flying to the Moon. "II knew my job was very important and that Neil and Buzz could never get home without me." So he flew, and waited, and listened to pre-recorded music including, he said without irony, the 1965 Jonathan King song, Everyone's Gone to the Moon.

Collins actually had another destination in mind, he said: Mars. "It, not the Moon, is where I wanted to go as a child."

The Collins-designed mission patch.
 That said, after the travelers returned, they were kept in quarantine for nearly three weeks, until scientists were sure they'd not returned with Moon bugs. Then the now-world famous trio was released to the public for a trip around the world good will tour that included a ticker tape parade down New York City's lower Broadway, a thoroughfare nicknamed the Canyon of Heroes.

And then Collins walked away from the space program, returning to his Earthbound life as a husband and father.

Armstrong, famously reclusive, gave few interviews and died in 2012 at age 82. Two years later, Congress renamed NASA's primary flight research center in his honor, adding to a veritable mountain of accolades he'd received in his lifetime, including a Presidential Gold Medal bestowed by Richard Nixon. His name also adorns a museum, an airport, public schools and an engineering center at his alma mater, Purdue University.

Aldrin, 89, too received those medals, had schools named in his honor, a lunar crater and this toy.

At 88, Collins legacy is less distinct as he shares his name with a noted Irish independence leader about whom a movie was made starring Liam Neesen. Born in Rome, Italy, the son of a career Army officer, spaceman Collins wrote that he had no home town to honor him with a parade after his first spaceflight, Gemini X, in 1966.

Special edition.
He graduated West Point but opted to join the Air Force, rather than the Army, becoming first a fighter pilot, then a test pilot and then an astronaut. Upon leaving NASA, he briefly served as U.S. Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Like his crewmates, he was honored by the president, Congress and other distinguished groups.

Collins retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major General in 1982.

Today he dreams of mankind traveling into the solar system, perhaps establishing a permanent town in space called Libra at the solar system's libration point where the gravities of the Sun, Earth and Moon cancel each other out. He's still willing to go to Mars, just to find out what's there.

"And Mars is just the beginning," Collins said.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When Skylab Made Us All a Little Chicken Little

SKYLAB WAS MANKIND'S first semi-permanent off-world home. Shot into Earth orbit in May of 1973, the combination laboratory and apartment housed nine men during its cumulative 171 days of occupancy.

Its last three-man crew vacated the premises in February 1974, after a record 84-day stay, leaving behind an assortment of supplies including film, food, and a roll of teleprinter paper for future visitors. Then, using their own spacecraft, the astronauts nudged the space station into a higher orbit and returned to their planet.

Damaged upon launch, Skylab began life as a fixer-upper.
NASA photo taken by the lab's last departing crew.
For five and a half more years, Skylab circled the globe patiently awaiting new residents or the boost of a passing space shuttle, but neither one came.

Without assistance, the nearly 100-ton satellite gradually lost its war with gravity and drag and began falling back to Earth, reentering the atmosphere 40 years ago today, July 11, 1979.

Though its return was long forecast, the imminent arrival of a large falling house, superheated by atmospheric friction, set off a planetary frenzy.

While NASA -- America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- had put the laboratory in orbit, it had utterly and completely failed to make adequate plans for either keeping it there or gently landing it in some pre-ordained safe place.

Project Apollo, which provided launch vehicles for the lab and its three separate crews, had long since ended. The shuttle program was years behind schedule.  Only a year earlier, a Soviet-launched nuclear satellite crashed in Canada, spreading radioactive debris.

Now, NASA could identify a swath of Earth over which its wayward space station may come down, but it could not say precisely where. In Europe, some people panicked. In America, some held parties.

Poster board headgear promised
.00193 nanoseconds of warning you've been hit
The San Francisco Examiner newspaper offered a $10,000 bounty for the first piece of genuine wreckage brought to its offices. The rival San Francisco Chronicle promised $200,000 to any subscriber whose home sustained damage. Some enterprising folks cashed in by offering early-warning headgear.

NASA downplayed the risk, predicting the odds of any individual being struck by its falling object were about 600 billion to 1. Some of the implements aboard the disintegrating station: a 5,000-pound airlock, a 4,000 pound lead safe and a half-dozen 2,700 pound oxygen tanks.

Still, the space agency -- in a last ditch effort to influence the outcome -- fired the station's remaining booster rockets upon reentry, aiming it toward the Indian Ocean. They missed.

Skylab broke up in the sky, raining parts over rural Western Australia, earning NASA a $400 fine from the Shire of Esperance for littering. There, resident Stan Thornton collected some some of its fragments and flew to San Francisco to collect his prize.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Less Than Miraculous: An Ode to the 1979 Mets

EVERYONE LOVES A WINNER and few winners are more beloved than the Miracle Mets of 1969. Sad sacks, lovable losers and ultimate underdogs, they rose from historic ineptitude to world champs in just eight seasons.

This weekend, those legendary Mets are being honored, revered and remembered at Citi Field. So, fĂȘte away 50th anniversary celebrants, this weekend is yours!

The 40th Anniversary
For me, 2019 is a more personal anniversary, I'm commemorating the Mets' return to awfulness, 1979 -- my first year as a dyed-in-the-wool, watch-every-game fan -- the year the Mets had the lowest full-season attendance in franchise history: 788,905 including me, thrice.

It was the year of Maz, Swannie and The Grave Digger, of The Flushing Flash and Kelvin Chapman. It was the swan song for Ed Kranepool, who joined the team as a teenager during its woeful first season in 1962, partook in the miracle, stayed through the downfall, and -- after a brush with death -- will appear at Citi Field today.

At 9-15, the '79 Mets fell to last place on May 7th and never got up. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.

With the death of founding owner Joan Whitney Payson in 1975, control of the team passed first to board chairman M. Donald Grant and then, ultimately to Payson's daughter, Lorinda de Roulet.

Grant and de Roulet ran the club as cheaply as possible, dealing away rather than rewarding those who had kept them competitive for most of the 1970s, including Miracle mainstays Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. While the cross-town Yankees were signing the likes of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, winning three straight pennants and back-to-back world series, the Mets were decorating the National League East cellar.

Parity with the Yankees, at least on cardboard.
The '79 season dawned with the my naive expectation they'd somehow outperform their shoestring budget.

Their pitching staff was anchored by Craig Swan, whose 2.43 earned run average led the league in 1978. Battery-mate John Stearns had just set a big league record for most stolen bases in a season by a catcher, 25, while first-baseman Willie Montanez had driven in 96 runs.

Veteran infielder and off-season grave digger Richie Hebner was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies after their signing of Pete Rose made him expendable. The price was pitcher Nino Espinosa, whose 11 wins led the staff in '78. His departure would leave a void the team failed to fill.

The brightest star on the Mets roster by far was Brooklyn-born centerfielder Lee Mazzilli, 24, who emerged a bona fide big league talent in '78, batting .273 with 16 homers, 61 RBIs and 20 steals. With his Italian good looks and tightly-tailored uniforms, Maz was a matinee idol on the rise.

The matinee idol, from the '79 yearbook
But he couldn't pitch and the club sorely needed pitching.

The Mets brought to camp then declined to sign veteran Nelson Briles and went north with a rotation including Swan and Seaver trade piece Pat Zachry, Brooklyn-born Pete Falcone and rookies Neil Allen and Mike Scott. In the bullpen: Koosman acquisition Jesse Orosco, 22, starting a career that would see him pitch in a record 1,252 games.

They also brought up Chapman, an infielder attempting to jump from AA to the majors after impressing in camp. He'd open the season at second base, pushing incumbent Doug Flynn to short and veteran Tim Foli to the bench.

The rookie stroked two hits and scored two runs in the Mets' 10-6 opening day win over the Chicago Cubs. Hebner went 4-for-5 with a homer and Swan picked up the victory. Mazzilli's three hits the next day keyed a 9-4 win. It was all down hill from there.

Rookie Kelvin Chapman, from the '79 yearbook
Chapman had four singles and a double in his first 16 at bats, then went ice cold, mustering just one more hit in April, by which time the Mets had dealt Foli to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the fleet-footed though erratic-fielding Frank Taveras, relegating the rookie first to the bench and then to the AAA Tidewater Tides.

Hebner, who'd made the post-season seven times as a member of the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates, was a miserable Met. His streakiness at the plate and apparent carelessness in the field wore on the fans and they on him. Despite batting .268 with 10 homers and a respectable 79 RBIs, he'd last just a single season in Queens before being shipped to the Detroit Tigers.

Montanez utterly failed to hit and in August he was traded to the Texas Rangers.

A freshly-minted Met, from the '79 yearbook
Scott and Orosco struggled and were returned to the minors. But for an injury, Allen would have joined them. As he healed, closer Skip Lockwood went down with a bad shoulder. The righty Allen was sent to the bullpen where he formed an effective short-relief tandem with lefty Ed Glynn, a one-time Shea Stadium hot dog vendor nicknamed The Flushing Flash.

They combined for 15 saves, but those opportunities came few and far between.

When an elbow injury sidelined Zachry, the Mets were forced to go outside the organization for help, acquiring veteran Dock Ellis -- who once pitched a no-hitter while high on acid -- and swingman Andy Hassler. Neither could stanch the bleeding.

After 156 games, the Mets record stood at 57-99. The club seemed destined to lose more than 100 games for the first time since 1967. Yet somehow they didn't, reeling off a season-best six-game winning streak to end the year.

Swan went a career-best 14-13, with a 3.39 ERA, hurling 251.1 innings over 35 starts while no other Mets starter won more than six games.
By 1979, he had seen it all.

Utility man Joel Youngblood Wally Pipp-ed the starting right fielder's job away from rare free agent-signee Elliott Maddox, emerging as a viable everyday player with moderate power and a strong, accurate throwing arm.

Still, the year belonged to Mazzilli, who batted .303, with 15 homers, 79 RBIs, and 34 stolen bases. Selected to the National League All Star team, he stroked a game-tying pinch-hit home run, then coaxed a game-winning walk from the Yankees' Ron Guidry an inning later.

The 63-99 season was the last for the Mets' original ownership group, who sold the team to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon for $21.1 million that winter.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, December 22, 2018

MISL Launch -- The Birth of Big Time Indoor Soccer

PETE ROSE HAD at least a dozen kids in 1978. There were Buzz and Gene, Tony and Mark, Ty, Mario, John, Krys, David, Doc and two guys named Keith.

They weren't literal kids but Cincinnati Kids, one of the original six franchises in the Major Indoor Soccer League, the MISL that launched 40 years ago today.

From volume 1, issue 2 of Missile, the official
magazine of the Major Indoor Soccer League
Rose -- part owner of the Kids -- kicked out the first ball in the league's inaugural game against the New York Arrows at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island on Dec. 22, 1978.

His star power wore off quickly though as the host Arrows downed der fussball kinder 7-2 before 10, 376 curious onlookers.

A week later and 120 miles south, the Philadelphia Fever opened to a sellout crowd of 16, 259 at the Spectrum arena. Game on!

Indoor soccer, the mutant spawn of outdoor soccer and ice hockey: six guys per side, five chasing a bright red ball around an astroturf-covered NHL-size rink, trying to slam it off the walls, off each other, and into a 6 1/2-foot high by 12-foot wide goal set into the end boards and guarded by the sixth.

Human pinball.

Briefly dubbed hoc-soc -- a hat tip to its genetics -- the concept was tried out in 1971 by the Division I outdoor North American Soccer League. In the winter of '74, the NASL tried it again with a series of exhibition matches against a touring Soviet squad, most famously one with the Philadelphia Atoms that drew 11,790 fans to the Spectrum. That contest begot another the next year against the league's glamor franchise, the New York Cosmos.

Shep Messing, cover boy and interviewee
One of those watching was Ed Tepper who, together with his friend attorney Earl Foreman, recognized that with some rejiggering -- a bigger goal than used in those early matches, and four 15-minute periods rather than three 20-minute intervals -- they could create a fast-paced, high scoring version of soccer for American sports fans.

Foreman would be the MISL's founding commissioner, with Tepper as his deputy. The league, wherever possible, would rely on American players, a commitment mostly honored in the breach.

Still, its first signee was ex-Cosmos star goalkeeper Shep Messing, who once posed for Viva magazine wearing nothing but a soccer ball and would soon publish an autobiography, The Education of An American Soccer Player. He'd play for the New York Arrows.

In addition to New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, the founding franchises of the MISL included the Cleveland Force, Pittsburgh Spirit and Houston Summit Soccer, named for a home arena that would one day become evangelist Joel Osteen's megachurch.

They'd play a 24-game season capped by a two-tiered playoff in March 1979. With rosters dominated by members of the NASL's Houston Hurricanes and Rochester Lancers, the Summit and Arrows quickly became the class of the league.

Opening night highlights...
... and headlines.

Houston's biggest star was Finnish forward Kai Haaskivi. New York countered with Yugoslavian Steve Zungul, available to the new league only because he'd defected from his homeland and, at that nation's insistence, was then been banned from outdoor play by FIFA.

Zungul's uncanny scoring ability would make him the greatest player in MISL history, while earning the nickname "the Lord of All Indoors." His Arrows wingman was Canadian teen sensation Branko Segota.

Other notable players that first year included Philly forward Fred Grgurev, who won the scoring title, posting 46 goals and 28 assists; Cincinnati's Ty Keough -- whose father Harry represented the U.S. in the 1950 World Cup tourney -- and Cleveland's British-born Alan Hamlyn, who received the Bronze Star for his military service in Vietnam after being drafted while still just a green card-holding U.S. resident.

In February, each team played an exhibition match against the Soviet Union's touring club, Spartak Moscow, which rampaged to a 5-1 record. They lost only to Houston, 7-5, and closed out their visit with excessive force, crushing Cleveland 20-2.

Spartak Moscow, the red menace
Houston paced the league with an 18-6 record, followed by New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Pittsburgh and Cleveland didn't make the post-season dance. In round one, the fourth-seeded Fever brought down the Summit, while the Arrows beat the Kids, setting up a best of three final between New York and Philly. The Arrows won, two games to none, capturing the MISL's first championship. Zungul was its first MVP.

For the most part, MISL hit its target audience and by season's end, though its league-wide average attendance per game was just below 4,500, plans were unveiled to expand to Buffalo, Detroit and perhaps two more cities.

Rose's Kids --  undermined by the free agent baseball star's decision to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies and by their junior leaseholder status at the city's Riverfront Coliseum, which they shared with the doomed World Hockey Association's Cincinnati Stingers -- would not return for year two.

Defector, FIFA outlaw and lord of all indoors
Still, MISL management pressed ahead, adding five teams for a net total of 10,  the Detroit Lightning, Buffalo Stallions, Hartford Hellions, St. Louis Steamer and Wichita Wings. A year later they'd be in 12 cities, adding Chicago, Denver and Phoenix, while losing Pittsburgh and shifting the Summit to Baltimore and Detroit to San Francisco.

All of this ramped up the pressure on the already shaky NASL, which committed ever more to meeting the MISL threat on its own ice-covering artificial turf. Its resources largely depleted, the outdoor league which once boasted 24 franchises across the continent collapsed after its 1984 season.

Four of its franchises found refuge with the all-indoor-all-the-time MISL and suddenly the mutant spawn, playing a bastardized version of the world's most popular sport, was the top soccer league in America.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, December 16, 2018

O.J. Simpson Runs to Glory -- December 16, 1973

I WAS THERE because somebody dumped New York Jets tickets on my dad.

"The consummate runner fulfills the promise"
It was Dec. 16, 1973, one of those punishingly cold days at Shea Stadium, when icy wind whipped in from Flushing Bay, numbing everything in its path. Green Bay's Lambeau Field may be synonymous with "frozen tundra," but a late season Jets home game could just as easily freeze you to the marrow.

On this day, the team was 4-9. By the 1 p.m. kickoff, snow was falling.

So why? Why trudge out to the C-shaped municipal stadium surrounded by parking lots and expressways to sit in the arctic chill, drink watery hot cocoa and watch bad Jets football (a virtually redundant description throughout the 1970s)?

Two words. Make that two initials: O.J., as in Simpson, a man on the cusp of rushing for more than 2,000 yards in a 14-game season, something never accomplished before or since.

O.J., aka The Juice, winner of the 1968 Heisman Trophy while at the University of Southern California. Selected with the first overall pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 National Football League draft, he was handsome, articulate and charismatic. A first-magnitude star.

If you were born after 1994 -- after his descent into infamy -- it may be difficult to comprehend the hold he had on the American public, as an athlete, part-time actor, sportscaster and pitchman for orange juice, western boots and rental cars.

He'd come of age in an era that saw the first wide-spread acceptance of black celebrities as just plain celebrities. In 1965, Bill Cosby became the first black to play a lead role in a television drama, I Spy. Three years later, while Simpson was running to greatness at USC, Diahann Carroll took similar stride for black women in Julia. In 1970, Flip Wilson got in his own TV variety show.

Why run through airports when you can fly?
During the 1960s, Muhammad Ali transcended professional boxing to become one of the world's most widely recognized celebrities, a man willing to sacrifice his career for his principles. But where he was controversial and brash, Simpson was silky smooth and universally liked, by men and women, white and black. He transcended race in the same way Barack Obama would three decades later.

O.J.'s affable demeanor and good looks made him a natural for the tube and silver screen. Holding out for a better deal before signing with the Bills, he even threatened to bypass Buffalo for Hollywood, where he'd already had bit parts in Dragnet, Ironside, Medical Center and It Takes a Thief.

While he eventually signed, he didn't hit the ground running. O.J. rushed for just 1,927 yards over his first three seasons combined, barely surpassing Jim Brown's single-season record of 1,863. But things changed in 1972, when the Buffalo hired a new coach, Lou Saban, who plugged in The Juice and let him run.

Simpson's 1,251 yards led the league. His 94-run from scrimmage in an October game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was the longest in the league that year. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry and 89.4 per game but scored only six touchdowns as the Bills staggered to a 4-9-1 record.

By game 10 of the 1973 season, Simpson surpassed his previous season total, running for 1,323 yards, 123 of them at the Jets' expense in week 3. Though held to under 100 yards in three games, he finished the year in a rush, piling up 480 yards just over weeks 11, 12 and 13. Arriving at Shea, he'd already carried  the ball 1,803 yards and Brown's record was only 60 yards away.

That record fell before the end of the first quarter and, with the frost-bitten Shea faithful to bear witness, piled up precisely 200 yards on the day as the Bills bullied the Jets, 34-14.  It would be the last game for Jets coach Weeb Ewbank, architect of their Super Bowl III victory, and my first as a fan.

For the season, Simpson had juked and jetted his way to 2003 yards -- almost 1.14 miles -- pursued by 11 men sworn to stop him.

In time, and with extension of the standard NFL season to 16 games, the record would fall. So too would O.J., in a manner that would have seemed unimaginable fiction to football fans on that snowy day.

Simpson as doomed astronaut John Walker, with co-stars Sam Waterston and James Brolin
in the thriller Capricorn One. Photo from the July 1978 issue of Starlog Magazine

Between those two defining moments, Simpson played pro-football for just six more years, the final two for his hometown San Francisco 49ers. His acting credits included roles in The Towering Inferno, The Cassandra Crossing, Roots, Capricorn One and the Naked Gun movies.

In 1985 he wed Nicole Brown, with whom he had two children over seven tumultuous years during which the former football star cheated on and abused her. They divorced in 1992.

In June 1994, he was charged with murdering her and friend Ronald Goldman, but apprehended only after a 50-mile -- or 88,000 yard -- low speed chase across the Los Angeles freeway system pursued by dozens of police officers sworn to stop him.

Simpson was acquitted after an epochal 1995 trial but found legally culpable in a civil suit two years later and ordered to pay more than $33 million to the victims' families.

Ten years after that, he'd be convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping for crimes involving sports memorabilia -- our communal tokens of hero worship. Sentenced to nine to 33 years imprisonment, The Juice was set free in 2017.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive