Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain

munsonbook_275.jpgBy Jon Lane
I just finished reading a great new book by Marty Appel, the Yankees’ PR director in the mid-1970s. Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain, hits bookstores today and is available for purchase on-line. As fate had it, Appel completed an autobiography on the Yankees’ first captain since Lou Gehrig in 1979.

On August 2 it’ll be 30 years since Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, a tragedy that to this day is remembered by Yankees players, executives and fans. I was six years old and the memory of that afternoon – the televised image of that burning airplane and my mother staring at the screen in disbelief – still resonates.

When I received my copy of the book, I showed it to my parents and casually mentioned that this August will be 30 years gone by. My mom immediately let out a short breath and a stunned look of disbelief. She was never a hardcore baseball fan, but Munson was her favorite. He was the right player for those who don’t know the game, but admire when anyone puts their heart and soul into their chosen endeavor and performs both beyond their potential and physical limitations. That, folks, is part of being a role model.

There were a lot of things fans loved about Munson, many of which are highlighted in the book based on Appel’s unique and intimate experiences inside the clubhouse. Munson was never friendly with the print media, choosing to cherish his privacy and offended each time his words were taken out of context. He wasn’t a publicity hound – a sharp contrast to many who walk around with an attitude that screams, “Look at me, I’m cool” whether others like it or not. In fact, Appel recalled a few times when Munson either refused posing with sponsors or meeting VIP guests.

The best was Old Timer’s Day, 1976. Appel was determined to take a picture of a great lineage of Yankees catching: Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Munson. All parties were rounded up; Munson was in the players’ lounge, in his underwear, watching The Three Stooges. Appel pleaded his case before Munson begrudgingly agreed, got up in a huff and walked to his locker. When it was time to take the picture, Munson was still in front of the tube in his Fruit of the Looms.

Somehow, the photo was taken. Three years later Appel was in Munson’s home for the funeral. In an office was the picture, enlarged and framed. He neither accepted recognition nor payback, but Munson loved his teammates and his fans, and went out of his way to do anything for them. Countless and classic examples are portrayed in the book.

From a baseball perspective, this quote from Munson sums up why he was the favorite of so many:

“Look, I like hitting fourth and I like the good batting average. But, what I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people and so many aspects of the game. Thurman Munson, 8/25/75.”

Jorge Posada, who grew up a fan of George Brett and Don Mattingly, found a picture of Munson on the wall of Fenway Park’s weight room with the inscription. He took it and hung it in his locker at the old Yankee Stadium.

Job well done by Marty, a big help to YESNetwork.com last year during our coverage of Bobby Murcer’s book signing in New York. Incidentally, Sunday will be the one-year anniversary of Murcer’s passing. Something tells me the two best friends are sitting beside each other, drenched in sweat and wearing the pinstripes, watching Larry, Curly and Moe put on a live performance.

2 Comments

I did not grow up a Yankee fan, I grew up a Munson fan! I was 6 when I started watching baseball on WPIX. The first hit I remember was Munson hitting a home run! I used to collect baseball cards until I got all the Munson cards in the set. I was 13 when his plane went down, I remember the special report that interrupted my cartoons, I was shocked and even devastated. I didn’t even bother to buy 1 pack of baseball cards in 1980, because they did not make a Thurman Munson card that year. I tell my son about him now, how he would get knocked over at home and hold onto the ball and drag himself upright after a while. He was a truly inspirational player, as evidenced by the fact everyone on my little league team in 1976 wanted to be a catcher and wear the number 15. He will live forever in my memories.

August 2, 1979 will always have a special place in my heart. The death of Thurman Munson, my idol, came the day before my 9th birthday. I remember as if it were yesterday. The television programs were interrupted as the steady rain fell. What I had wanted for my birthday after that day was for the news report to not be true.

Thurman’s demeanor on the playing field was awesome, warriorlike. He was a leader.
Not many players I find today play baseball with grit and determination. The Yankees have always had true leaders. He played through pain and guided the Yankees on the field. The great honor the Yankees showed on August 6th by leaving home plate empty when they took the field was a true testiment to the organization.

Thurman Munson… Idol, hero, role model, teammate, leader, Captain,… FOREVER A YANKEE!

One does not have to be over 40 years of age (Mr. Kay) to realize the true nature of Number 15! You just have to be a true pinstripe Yankee fan.

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