Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Remembering Thurman Munson


Thurman Munson’s old locker, which had remained empty in the Yankees clubhouse for nearly three decades, is now on public display in the museum at the new Yankee Stadium.

It serves as a haunting reminder of the Yankees first captain since Lou Gehrig and how Munson’s life was cut short at age 32 when the Cessna Citation he was piloting crashed at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport.

Last Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of that tragedy – still one of the most shocking and saddest sports moments of my lifetime.

I loved watching Munson play. He was a superb athlete stuck in a squatty, unathletic-looking body, which no doubt added to his appeal for the majority of us who weren’t lucky enough to be born to look like Adonis.

The most appealing thing, though, about Munson was his competitiveness and grit. He always put his team first, often playing hurt and seemingly always finding a way to drive in the crucial runs.

And although Reggie Jackson wound up getting a candy bar named after himself, Munson’s teammates, to a man, would tell you that Thurman was the true straw that stirred the drink on those Yankee championship teams during the incendiary Bronx Zoo seasons of the late 1970s.

Besides the anniversary of his death, Munson is back in the news this summer because of a compelling new biography written by Marty Appel, a former Yankees public relations director and co-author of Munson’s autobiography roughly three decades ago.

Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain is a superb read that delves into his turbulent childhood and dysfunctional family. Through extensive interviews with Thurman’s estranged siblings we learn about his impossible-to-please father who continued to rail against his famous son, even in the days following his death.

In one of the more disturbing passages of the book, Darrell Munson approaches his son’s coffin just before it is lowered into the ground and shouts: “You always thought you were too big for this world. Well, you weren’t. Look, who’s still standing, you son of a bitch!’’
Although notorious for his gruffness with the media and strangers, Munson is portrayed as a loving husband to his wife, Diana, and a doting father to his three young children.
In a cruel twist of irony, he upgraded to a jet he may not have been totally prepared to fly in order to shorten the off-day trips from New York to Canton so he would be able to spend more time with his young family.
In one of the most compelling parts of the book, Appel does a masterful job re-creating, in riveting detail, the final days and minutes leading up to the accident.
Munson’s fatal crash is attributed to pilot error, but his heroism is evident to the end. His final actions helped saved the lives of his two passengers, and the first thing he asked after the crash were: “Are you guys okay?’’

Though the circumstances of his death are what many remember most about Thurman Munson, this book reminds us of what an incredible life preceded that tragic ending.

Cobbling together material garnered from more than 150 interviews and his own experiences with Munson during his days as the Yankees PR man, Appel tells, in page-turning fashion, the definitive story of a man and a player who will never be forgotten.

***

Munson was All-Ohio in three sports in high school – baseball, football and basketball. A number of major colleges offered him football scholarships as a flanker and safety, including Syracuse.

***

I never interviewed Munson, but I did speak to him once. My buddy, Wayne Cacciatori (yes, that’s really his name and his nickname was “Chicken’’), and I visited a friend of ours in Tampa in March of '78 and took in a spring training game between the Yankees and Mets in St. Petersburg.

The curmudgeonly Thurman was in an especially jovial mood and was even fielding grounders at third base with his catcher’s mitt on.

After batting practice was over, we called out to him, and he came over, asked us where we were from and posed for a picture from the stands.

I also saw Munson play for the Syracuse Chiefs and was in old Yankee Stadium the night he made his big-league debut.
While playing softball in the late 1970s, I grew a Fu Manchu mustache, and some of my teammates started calling me "Thurm.'' I took it as a compliment. (Hey, it's better than being calling "Squatty Body'' or "Pudge.'')

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Scott,
I know I have told you this before but Thurman was by far my most favorite Yankee. I appreciate this blog, I never tire of reading about The Captian. 30 years have passed and I am still brought to tears when I think of that fateful day. There has never been another one like him and likely will never be. He loved the game, he loved the team but more than anything, he loved his family. What's not to admire about that? RIP #15. Thanks Scott.
Terry Clifford Mandelaro

Dave said...

Scott... I use to love watching Thurman play... Some where along the line I got a Thurman Munson bat... I'm not sure if it was bat day at McCarther Stadium (when the Chiefs were the farm team) or at Yankee Stadium... Either way I loved that bat and made watching him so much better.

Amanda said...

good job roomie 77