1969: A year for long shots

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This Saturday, we celebrate one of the longest of long shots to have come in.

It was 50 years ago — July 20, 1969 — that Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, becoming the first human to step foot on a celestial body not called Earth.

If you were alive that day (actually night), you can probably recite where you were when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of their Lunar Excursion Module nicknamed “Eagle” and had an entire planet transfixed as their traversed the dusty, crater-laden gray surface of the moon.

Me? I was 12 years old, watching on my mother’s friend’s television in Washington D.C., where I had stayed prior to attending the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at RFK Stadium a couple days later.

It was late at night but I wasn’t about to fall asleep and miss this. I was a space junkie, going back to Project Mercury. John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Scott Carpenter were my heroes along with sports heroes Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford of the Yankees.

This notion of putting a man on the moon was so far-fetched, yet so intriguing to follow.

How long a long shot was this? According to a 2018 story in the Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine, William Hill offered 1,000-1 odds in 1964 on the chances of man stepping foot on the moon. Mind you, this was just three years after then-President John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to send a man to the moon, land him on the surface, then return him safely to Earth.

By the time 1969 had rolled around and the Americans were closing in on their objective, the odds had dropped considerably. It was down to just 7-4 in June, less than a month before Apollo 11 would launch. 

Some guy in England bet 10 pounds at 1,000-1 back in 1964 and would walk away with 10,000 pounds. William Hill would pay out more than 100,000 pounds in winning bets.

There have been longer shots that have come in over the years, but not many. Leicester City to win the English Premier League soccer title at 5,000-1 in 2015 may be the biggest example.

But Apollo 11 wasn’t the only long shot to come in back in 1969. When the New York Jets won Super Bowl III as 18-point underdogs to the Baltimore Colts in January, it should have served as an omen for what was to come that year.

In October, the New York Mets pulled off what cynics might have believed was a bigger upset than Armstrong’s one small step for man by defeating the Baltimore Orioles and win the World Series. The Mets had lost 89 games the year before, finishing in ninth place in the National League. They opened the ’69 season as 100-1 long shots in Las Vegas. Given their history of ineptitude, you probably should have gotten 10,000-1.

But the Mets had really good starting pitching. They had some young, talented hitters. They had a smart manager in Gil Hodges. And a couple of shrewd trades in late July brought some veteran leadership to the club.

They got hot, got a little lucky and took a wave of momentum into the playoffs, which for the first time, had an additional round of games to get to the World Series.

You know the rest of the story. The Baltimore Orioles were formidable. But with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman out-pitching the Orioles’ starters, with Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda making heart-stopping catches in the outfield and with enough clutch hitting, the Miracle Mets went from laughingstocks to kings of New York, not to mention World Champions.

Of the 62-plus years I’ve been alive, nothing compares with 1969. It was a year that began with a new president (Richard Nixon), an ongoing war in Vietnam that few wanted any part of, a summer that saw half a million people descend upon a dairy farm in upstate New York for “3 days of peace and music” called Woodstock while the Beatles performed together for the last time.

It was a year America learned who Charles Manson was, where the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village in Manhattan became the epicenter for gay rights, and where Chappaquiddick was thanks to Ted Kennedy.

But what we learned the most from 1969 was that when people  put their mind to doing something and work together, anything is possible. It results in long shots coming in. Even at 1,000-1.

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About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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