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The Royals and the moon landing

Tranquility base, the Eagle has landed

Buzz Aldrin Poses next To The U.S. flag On Moon Photo by NASA/Liaison

July 20, 1969 was an important day in American history. As you’ve probably been hearing on the news recently, July 20th is the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing. What was life in America like in 1969? The United States were very fragmented at the time. The late ‘60s were a turbulent time in American history. The country dealt with assassinations, race riots, campus protests and the war in Vietnam. In July of 1969, Richard Nixon was president, the average income per year was $8,550 and a new car would set you back $3,270. Gasoline was 35 cents a gallon. 638 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in July of 1969 in Vietnam.

Music was huge in 1969. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and the Beatles were delivering hits and in August, more than 400,000 people made their way to upstate New York for the Woodstock music festival. Easy Rider was the hot movie that summer. On July 18th, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car off a pier. He survived. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, did not.

In 1969 the Royals were a first-year expansion team and the Chiefs were still six months away from winning their first and only Super Bowl title. On July 15th, Lee May of the Cincinnati Reds stroked four home runs in a doubleheader. On the same day, Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins stole home for the seventh time. Not the seventh time in his career, the seventh steal of home in the 1969 season.

In July of 1969, I was eight years old and our family lived in Ness City, Kansas, a small farming community in the western half of the state. That day, a Sunday, we had gone to some friend’s house to watch the moon landing. While the adults grilled burgers and drank beer, the kids splashed around in a horse tank that had been filled with water. Baseball had been off my radar since the Athletics moved to Oakland. I had been buying baseball cards at the local Five and Dime store, and was aware of this new team, the Royals. I felt no allegiance to any other team, so I adopted the young Royals as my new favorite team.

On July 20th, as Michael Collins, Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to land on the moon, the Royals were playing a doubleheader in Chicago against their division rival the White Sox. Jim Rooker started for the Royals and Gary Peters took the mound for Chicago. Going into the top of the fifth, the game was tied at one apiece. Ellie Rodriguez and Paul Schaal hit back to back singles to lead off the fifth. Lou Piniella popped up to the second baseman for the first out, bringing Robert Taylor to the plate for the Royals. Robert Dale “Hawk” Taylor was a journeyman catcher and outfielder who was acquired by the Royals in December of 1968 in the Rule 5 draft from the California Angels.

Taylor had made his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 as an 18-year-old and somehow carved out an 11-year career in the big leagues, despite a slash line of .218/.258/.319. He got 724 at bats in the majors and finished his career with 16 home runs and 82 RBI. He played two seasons in Kansas City, getting into 121 games. The Royals used him as a utility player, plugging him in at catcher, right field, left field and first base.

On this day, the Hawk was in right field. Right field has always been a black hole for the Royals. To the best of my recollection, the team has only had two outstanding right fielders: Al Cowens and Jermaine Dye. Danny Tartabull and Clint Hurdle also had some decent seasons and could be added to the conversation. After those four, it’s pretty grim.

July 20th was shaping up to be a career day for Hawk Taylor. He had drawn a walk in the first inning and singled in the third, driving in the first Royal run of the game. In the fifth, Taylor turned on a Gary Peters fastball and deposited the pitch into the leftfield stands for a three-run home run. The next hitter, Bob Oliver, also homered giving the Royals a 5-1 comfortable lead.

The White Sox came back with three runs in their half of the fifth, to cut the lead to 5-4. In the top of the sixth inning, Jackie Hernandez drew a one out walk. At 3:18 Central time, the scoreboard at Comiskey Park flashed a message that Armstrong and Aldrin had landed on the moon. The game was stopped to acknowledge the feat. The organist played a rendition of “America the Beautiful” and the crowd of 12,691 joined in singing.

The Royals kept the lead until the bottom of the seventh, when future Royal Gail Hopkins hit a two-out double off Moe Drabowsky to tie the game. The next batter, Bill Melton, also doubled, bringing home Hopkins and giving the Pale Hose a 6-5 lead.

The Royals answered in the eighth. Ed Kirkpatrick drew a leadoff walk and scored on a Buck Martinez double. Joe Keough came on as a pinch runner for Martinez and promptly stole third. The Sox called on knuckleballer Wilbur Wood and Ellie Rodriguez greeted him with a single, bringing home Keough with the go-ahead run.

Then things got weird. Wood walked Paul Schaal intentionally, putting runners at first and second with one out. The Sox replaced Wood with Gary Bell. Lou Piniella drew a walk from Bell, loading the bases for our man, Hawk Taylor. Taylor hit a smash to third that bounced off Bill Melton. Rodriguez scored easily, but Paul Schaal got greedy and tried for home. Melton’s throw got Schaal at home plate for the second out. Piniella never stopped running and the Sox trapped him between second and third. The Sox ran him down for an inning ending double play. I’m not even sure how to score that, maybe 5-2-5-6? Either way, Hawk Taylor picked up another hit and RBI, which stretched the Royals lead to 8-6. Manager Joe Gordon brought in Wally Bunker to get the final three outs in the 9th inning for the save.

How about Hawk Taylor? He ended this historic day with what was most certainly his best day as a pro: three for four with a walk, five RBI and one run scored.

After a break, the two teams reconvened for the second game. Kansas City called on lefty Bill Butler while the Sox countered with Joe Horlen. Game two was a classic pitchers duel, as Butler scattered 12 hits over ten innings of work, while Horlen only gave up five hits in nine innings.

The Sox squeezed out a run with two outs in the ninth to send the game to extra innings, tied at two. In the top of the 11th, Lou Piniella stroked a leadoff double off Wilbur Wood and moved to third on a Buck Martinez single. Bob Oliver stroked a single to left to score Piniella, before Wood settled down and retired Hawk Taylor and Ellie Rodriguez to end the inning.

Dick Drago came on for the Royals and picked up his first career save. The double header sweep improved Kansas City’s record to 41-55 and pushed the team into sole possession of third place in the American League West division.

As for Hawk Taylor, the Royals traded him to the Boston Red Sox in February of 1971 for left-handed pitcher Billy McCool. McCool, who had one of the all-time great baseball names, made his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1964 as an 18-year-old. He pitched well enough to make the 1966 All-Star game, but never lived up to expectations and was out of baseball at the age of 26. McCool spent the entire 1971 season in Omaha and never pitched in the majors again.

After the second game ended, Neil Armstrong made his way down the ladder of the lunar module and stepped onto the surface of the moon. The time was 9:56 CST. Armstrong then spoke the immortal words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.” Contrary to popular urban legend, he did not say “good luck Mr. Gorsky.”

July 20th, 1969, a historic day for the nation and a career day for Hawk Taylor.