Moon shots

There are people in this world who doubt the authenticity of NASA’s manned trips to the moon. Neil Armstrong, et al. never went to the moon, they say. The TV images were directed by Stanley Kubrick, fresh off his 2001: A Space Odyssey success. After all, how could human beings ever travel through the Van Allen Radiation Belt and live to tell about it?

Well, I have nothing to add to the conspiracy theories that surround those moon shots, but I would like to revisit the Los Angeles Coliseum Moon shots from 1959-1961.

An entrenched nugget of baseball lore concerns Dodger outfielder Wallace Wade (more popularly known as Wally) Moon, who allegedly took advantage of the unique dimensions of the Los Angeles Coliseum to compile an impressive home run record. The 42-foot screen in left field would have been intimidating at conventional outfield distances, but since the left field foul pole was only 251 feet away, the screen was an inviting target for right-handed hitters.

Moon was a left-handed hitter, yet he is usually the first Dodger hitter who comes to mind when the left field screen is mentioned. Look up the Coliseum in any book about ballparks and sooner or later, the author will get around to mentioning Wally Moon and his Moon shots. In fact, Moon himself is now an author and has entitled his book about his life in baseball—what else—Moon Shots.

It has been many moons (660 as I write this) since the Dodgers moved out of the Coliseum, but even people who were not on this earth at that time have heard about Wally Moon and his Moon shots.

Now I’m not trying to say it was all moonshine, that those Moon shots never happened. The box scores from 1959, 1960 and 1961 assert otherwise. But I do believe that the renown of those Moon shots is way out of proportion to the facts.

Moon was not a member of the Dodgers during their inaugural season (1958) at the Coliseum. That season the right field power alley was 440 feet; of the 193 home runs hit in the Coliseum that year, only eight went to right field. The power alley was shortened to 385 feet in 1959 and the right field foul pole was still just 300 feet away, so left-handed pull hitters weren’t entirely disenfranchised during Moon’s three years at the Coliseum. Still, he had visited the Coliseum as a member of the Cardinals in 1958, so he could appreciate the advantages of a left-handed hitter going to the opposite field. Typically, right-handed hitters are more likely to do so given the advantages of hitting behind the runner, but left-handed hitters are generally not encouraged to go the other way. Go ahead and use the whole field if you want to (and Moon had done that while with the Cardinals), but don’t make a special effort to go the other way.

Moon hit 49 home runs from 1959-1961. That’s an average of 16.33 home runs per year. Of those 49 home runs, 13 were hit on the road. So almost three out of four of his home runs from 1959-1961 were hit at the Coliseum. The breakdown is: 14 home and five away in 1959, nine home and four away in 1960, and 13 home and four away in 1961. So Moon averaged 12 home runs a year at the Coliseum. Not bad, but far from historic.

During his previous five seasons with the Cardinals (starting with his Rookie-of-the-Year campaign of 1954 and including his injury-plagued 1958 season), Moon’s average was 15.76 home runs per year, so his three seasons at the Coliseum don’t exactly represent a power surge. His best year of the three was 1959 when he hit 19 home runs total. Yet he already had a 19-homer season (1955) under his belt as a Cardinal, and his best season (1957) in the Mound City yielded 24 home runs. His best slugging percentage as a Dodger was .505 in 1961. He had done slightly better in 1957 (.508) with the Cardinals. So his trade from the Cardinals to the Dodgers hardly unleashed a transformation of the Clark Kent-to-Superman magnitude.

So why are those Coliseum home runs so fondly remembered? Moon never led the league in home runs; in fact, he never led the Cardinals or Dodgers in home runs. Those 19 home runs in 1959 only tied him for third on the Dodgers with Charlie Neal (Gil Hodges led the pack with 25 and Duke Snider hit 23). In 1960 he hit 13 home runs, again good for third on the team, this time behind Frank Howard with 23 and Snider with 14. In 1961 he hit 17, one behind team leader John Roseboro.

Moon hit 142 home runs in 12 seasons. He had 1,399 hits and a .289 batting average. While with the Dodgers, he was an All-Star in 1959 and finished in the top 10 in hitting in 1960 and 1961. A good solid record but not the sort that would make a man a legend.

In fact, Moon was an unlikely candidate for legendary status with the Dodgers. As a native of Arkansas, he probably grew up a Cardinals fan and was doubtless not thrilled to be traded away after an off year. Also, since the Dodgers loaded the line-up with right-handed hitters, he wondered how much he would play.

Moon didn’t hit the ground running on Opening Day. He didn’t hit his first Coliseum home run till May 20, 1959. It was a solo shot in the seventh inning off former Dodger Don Newcombe, then with the Cincinnati Reds. But Moon was prone to hitting home runs in bunches, and he had memorable streaks in each of his three Coliseum seasons. It may be that those stretches are what fueled his legend:

Sept, 11-16, 1959: Moon hits six home runs in six games, including three in a doubleheader against the Pirates.

June 4-9, 1960: Moon hits four home runs in five games, then adds one apiece on June 14 and June 16.

April 11-27, 1961: Moon homers off Robin Roberts in the Dodgers’ home opener, then adds seven more in the succeeding 12 games.

Not all of Moon’s home runs were lofted over the screen, however. Of the 14 home runs he hit at the Coliseum in 1959, nine were hit over the left-field screen. The screen, however, was not just an inviting target for home runs. If your routine fly ball to left didn’t make it over the screen, it might at least hit the screen and you could get a double. A line drive might get you only a single. At any rate, a large percentage of those hits to left field would have been outs in other ballparks.

Moon accrued 456 hits from 1959-1961, and only 36 of those were home runs at the Coliseum. But that doesn’t mean there were only 36 Moon shots:

As used by The Los Angeles Times in the 1950s, a Moon shot was any hit by Moon in any Dodger game, anywhere. For example, a 13th-inning Moon shot to the center field bleachers beat the Cubs 5-4 in Chicago, Aug. 18, 1960. Nor did a Moon shot have to be a home run. A Moon shot double in the ninth inning beat the Braves 2-1, July 1, 1963.

So the media back then employed the term “Moon shot” for almost any hit off the bat of Wally Moon. Today the term has a more strict definition: a home run lofted over the left-field screen at the Coliseum. One wonders if all the contemporary baseball fans who reminisce about Moon shots realize that his home run stats are far from Ruthian.

One thing for sure, Moon’s power totals dropped drastically in 1962 after the move to Dodger Stadium. Moon was not washed up (he was 32 at the time of the move), but he hit just 15 home runs in four years of part-time duty. Thus Wally Moon returned to earth. He may have been the only Dodger who was sorry to leave the Coliseum.

Moon’s association with the left field screen was augmented by the fact that he played left field. Indeed, he mastered the complexities of the screen so thoroughly that he won a Gold Glove in 1960. One suspects that Moon must have had a pretty good relationship with the habitués of the left field seats during his three years at the Coliseum. Generally, fans like to see tape measure home runs; in Moon’s case, they were enthralled by some of the shortest home runs hit in the National League from 1959-1961.

Another part of Moon’s appeal may lie in the fact that, unlike the vast majority of the great unwashed, he had figured out a way to beat the system. Who says the Coliseum is Death Valley for left-handed hitters? Wally Moon’s got it figured out!

In the last analysis, I’m thinking that the term Moon shot was not so much a function of Moon’s deeds but of his name. “Moon shot” was a catchy phrase. If Wally Moon had been Wally Smith or Wally Martinez or Wally Yastrzemski, his three years at the Coliseum would likely be forgotten.

But now let us return to the first paragraph wherein we mentioned the manned lunar voyages. President John F. Kennedy, who took office a few months before the Dodgers embarked on their final season at the Coliseum, was a baseball fan. On May 25, 1961, JFK made his famous speech about landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Is it possible that Wally Moon’s early-season Moon shots—10 home runs by May 12, 1961—put the idea in his head?

Naah, probably not. As long as the Russians kept sending men into space, the space race would have happened no matter what Wally Moon did.

Still, it’s a pity Wally Moon never played for the Astros!

References & Resources
“Dodgers’ Moon found success in Coliseum,” by Steve Springer, Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2008

“Moon shots,” The Daily Mirror, Larry Harnisch Reflects on Los Angeles History, Jan. 18, 2009; latimesblogs.latimes.com

http://www.baseball-almanac.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com

http://www.wallymoon.com

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