Thurman Munson

February 13, 2017

 

During my early years in baseball, I was roomed with our team’s media director to help cut costs for the team. Being an avid reader, especially in the world before laptops and wifi, the first stop I made in our new town was to the local library. When my roommate learned he’d be going on the road with the team I offered to pick him up some reading materials. This began our never-ending quest for great baseball books. 

 

One week, while out wandering the local neighborhood, I happened across a graveyard. Looking at the headstones as I passed I noticed what looked like the back of a baseball jersey. I was immediately drawn through the gates to investigate. 

 

What I found, before I even got to the front of the grave, were baseball cards. Dozens of them had been left in protective sleeves with personal messages. I circled the grave to learn more about the man who had inspired such devotion. 

 

 

A few weeks later, standing in the library looking for yet another baseball-themed book to take out for my roommate’s impending road trip, I happened across a small robin’s egg blue spine. I pulled the hard covered book from the shelf. It looked like one of my father’s old school primers. It seemed so out of place I took it from the shelf to help find it’s proper home. When I flipped opened the unmarked covered, what found was the autobiography of the same man whose grave I had already visited… Thurman Munson.

 

Meeting Munson was serendipitous for me. As team manager from the age of 5, if you wanted to know anything about my teams or their opponents in any one year I was your go-to but, beyond that, if you were looking for a stats head, I was far from your best bet. I was never much for figures, names or history. I was always too busy living this season.  

 

Munson’s book changed that for me. It was the connection I needed between the time when I fell in love with the game and the time I was old enough to know the names of some of the bigger players. His book helped me put the people behind all those wonderful summer memories into context now that I had come to an age where adults had lives too.  

 

Playing on Steinbrenner’s Yankees under Billy Martin’s tutelage, Munson’s career coincided with those of Reggie Jackson, Goose Goslig, Lou Pinella, Catfish Hunter, Felipe Alou, Sandy Alomar, Bucky Dent, Bobby Murcer and Greg Nettles. Those were just the guys on his own bench. He’d go on to lose the ’76 World Series to the Big Red Machine. At the time his career started, players had no rights under free agency. Munson would be seven seasons in before that change took place. Because of his unique time in the history of baseball, and the Yankees organization, Munson’s outlook on the game, and the stories he could tell, were second to none.  

 

As I flipped through the book, I noticed the inside cover of the edition I was holding had his birth, but no death date. I wondered how many people stop before their 32nd birthday long enough to write down the important moments, let alone take the time to write an entire autobiography?

 

The Book

Martin Appel, who was Yankees public relations guy from ’68-’77 helped pen the book. baseballEBM spoke with the co-author about the experience. 

 

How did the book come to be?

After Munson won the AL MVP Award in 1976, I figured someone would do a book about him. He liked me from my days with Yankees. I proposed doing one himself since he didn’t like any of the New York sportswriters. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the project but he bought into my logic of preventing someone else from doing a book where he wouldn’t make any money. 

 

How was the book compiled?

We worked at his home in Norwood, New Jersey. It seems like yesterday sitting upstairs in the den with him, a table between us, talking into a tape recorder. It was only six hours in all.  

 

What has been your most valuable experience as a direct result of the book? 

The connection people make between Thurman and myself makes me very proud.  

 

Is there anything you want people to know about the book, or the man, Thurman Munson?

He held a lot back, particularly his troubled childhood. It was his book, his choice. In the biography, which I wrote 32 years later, we revisit that time. I think only Al Stump, who did Ty Cobb’s autobiography and biography, had a similar publishing experience in baseball. 

 

The Player

The 4th pick in the first round of the 1968 draft, Munson was taken by the Yankees for a $70,000 ($491,000 today) signing bonus. By 1970, he’d taken home the AL Rookie of the Year trophy. 

 

Munson played 11 seasons, all with the Yankees. From 1975-1977 he averaged over 100 RBIs. His lifetime batting average was .292. In 1973, 1974 and 1975 he was the AL Gold Glove winner. In 1976 he took home the AL MVP award. Munson was voted into 7 All Star games. Now the old Yankee Stadium, Munson was the first player to go for yard in the old yard when it was still new.

 

Munson became the first Yankee’s team captain since Lou Gehrig left the team in ’39. At the time it was said no one would again fill that post but Steinbrenner and Martin decided if anyone was ever born to have it, Munson was that man. Billy Martin gave him the honor in 1976 saying, “He has just the right cockiness, he’s a born leader.” 

 

Thurman once told a reporter “The catcher is the most important man in the game. He directs the pitchers and calls the game for them. He must know the capabilities and weaknesses of each batter who comes to the plate. He also acts as kind of a field general because from his position he can oversee the entire field. Even more, he has the important duty of protecting home plate as the runner comes tearing in to try to make the score.”

 

Between ’76-’78 Munson led his team to three consecutive world series taking two rings home from the final two for his efforts. As a catcher he averaged 595 putouts a season. When he took home the MVP award in ’76 he became the only Yankee to that point to ever win both MVP and Rookie of the Year honors. In 1977 he negotiated a 5-year, $250,000/year contract ($990,000/year) making him the highest paid Yankee on the payroll. 

 

Published in the spring of 1978, the book cover reads: “Most Valuable Player of 1976, Golden Glove winner, All-Star, 1970 Rookie of the Year - has been central in the rise of the Yankees of the seventies. Here he tells the story of his remarkable career to date, the exciting season in his and the Yankees' push for the top, and the personal rewards and conflicts along the way.” His career would end, along with his life, less than a season later. 

 

For me, reading the book is like sitting down and listening to a grandpa who’s a prefect storyteller talk about the good old days in a way you never want to end. It pulls you in from page one and never lets you go. I read the entire book, cover-to-cover in a single sitting because every time I tried to put it down, I found I just couldn’t. 

 

His Death

In 1979 Munson got his pilots license. Three weeks before his death he purchased a Cessna so he could fly to see his family on off days during the season. Though he often offered, few teammates would fly in the plane after Reggie Jackson had taken the co-pilot seat and noticed potential instrument trouble. Malfunctioning on a landing, that instrument trouble would ultimately be the cause of Munson’s death. 

 

When he died in 1979, Munson was the 32-year old catcher and captain of the New York Yankees. The day of his funeral, as the Yankees took the field, the catcher spot was left open. 

 

The year he died Munson was on pace for close to an 800 putout season having already accumulated 405 in 88 games. He’s 66th all time in putouts at the position. 

 

According to Ken Singleton, who played for the Orioles at the time, Munson was one of the best he’d ever played against. He said, “Munson was a well-respected player and one of the best competitors in the league.” 

 

The day of the funeral the entire Yankee team and the front office flew to the funeral on a chartered plane, arranged and paid for by George Steinbrenner. Thurman left behind his only love, wife Diana. The two met at 12 years old and became inseparable. Together they had three children who were between 4-9 at the time of his death. At the funeral service each child wore a Yankee jersey with their dad’s number 15 on the back. The family received telegrams of condolence from around the world and four were selected by his wife to be read aloud. The two most notable coming from Muhammad Ali and Eleanor Gehrig, Lou Gehrig’s widow.

 

Of his death Steinbrenner, known as a curmudgeon old man in later years, said, “I’ve lost a dear friend, a pal and one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever known. We spent many hours together talking baseball and business. He loved his family, he was our leader. The great sport, which made him so famous, seems so very small and unimportant now. And there lies a great lesson for all of us.” When he died, his locker permanently remained empty. When the stadium was moved in 2009 his locker went with the team to their new home. Upon his death the Yankees honored Munson’s contract. His wife continued to receive his salary annually through its end.

 

Bobby Murcer, as one might expect of a good friend, had quite an emotional day when Munson was buried. He was so grief-stricken during the funeral he had to cut his eulogy short. During the game however, things were a bit different. Murcer was responsible for all 5 runs that night having hit a 3-run homer in the 7th. In the ninth, having gone 1-4 on the night, looking at men on 2nd and 3rd and one out on the board, Murcer stepped up to the plate once again. Baltimore was ahead 4-3 at the time. Their team was 62/63 that season when they headed into the 9th with the lead. At the funeral Murcer had been unable to complete the task. On the field, he finished the job, eulogizing his friend in the best way possible for a ball player. 

 

According to Appel, the story behind the story of Murcer’s 9th inning game-winning hit goes like this… The pitcher on the mound at the time, Tippy Martinez, had been one half of a Munson battery years before. When he was ahead in the count on Murcer 0-2, he had a flashback to a faceoff with Ron LaFlore of the Tigers during Ron’s run at a 30-game hitting streak. Munson came to the mound during that at-bat and told Martinez to throw him some cheese straight up the middle, see if they couldn’t help him extend that streak. As Tippy was in the moment at Yankee Stadium, he looked across to Murcer and decided he owed Bobby this one and threw a fastball down the middle. Bobby hit a liner down the left field side for the win. As Tippy walked off the mound he looked to the sky and said, “For you Thurman.” 

 

On the night of the broadcast, as Martinez and Murcer were battling it out at the plate, legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell had a special message for the Munson’s widow who had insisted the team play that night. She had said he never took a day off when he was hurting and so she knew that he would want them playing. “To Mrs. Diane Munson who I know is watching tonight. It is scant solace but if athletes are to be treated as heroes in this country, your husband deserved it. If integrity and decency and honor matter, Thurman Munson represented all of it.” 

 

In 2007 a short-lived TV show, The Bronx Is Burning, reprised the public’s interest in Thurman’s life. It was then that Appel wrote a full biography of Munson based off those same six hours of tape he first acquired during their only interview back in 1977. 

 

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