By Charlene Giannetti
Thirty years ago, on August 2, 1979, Thurman Munson, Yankee catcher and captain, died in an airplane crash. This year, the Yankees moved to a new stadium and Munson’s locker, the one that remained untouched all those years in the old stadium, has a place in the new stadium’s museum. Of course, the Yankees have no shortage of legends. The team’s spring facility in Tampa was, until recently, called Legends Field. Yet Munson continues to fascinate. His number 15 was retired after his death and his plaque rests in the Yankees’ Monument Park alongside those of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. What was it about this gruff upstart from the Midwest that he is beloved by Yankee fans who watched him play and many who never had that pleasure?
Marty Appel’s Thurman Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain, reminds us why Munson remains a Yankee icon. “He represented something genuine and beautiful about baseball, and maybe something bigger–a respect for the profession, a pride in performance,” said Appel. “Oh, how he played the game!”
Munson played the game hard and clean. Each day we learn about another star player whose statistics are now tainted because of steroid use. We long for a time when players respected themselves, the game, and the fans. Munson gave the game everything he had, often playing with painful injuries. Kneeling behind home plate, ducking bats and balls, and putting strain on the knees is grueling work. Appel once figured out that Munson caught more than 20,000 pitches a year for ten years, plus what he caught in spring training and during warm-ups, adding up to more than 200,000 squats. “No wonder his knees were breaking down,” Appel said. Yet he never spent any time on the disabled list. He just kept going.
His achievements included being named the Rookie of the Year in 1970, the MVP in 1976, two World Series, seven All Star teams, and three Gold Gloves. Yet his success on the field tells only part of the story, and Appel does a wonderful job giving us a full picture of Munson’s personal life. Munson’s father, Darrell, was a bitter man who resented his son’s success. (Darrell himself had a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father and a mother who ran off with another man). When Munson signed with the Yankees, his living room in Canton, Ohio, was filled with team executives, relatives and friends celebrating. Darrell, the polar opposite of a helicopter parent, sat in the other room and sulked, at one point shouting to the Yankee execs: “He ain’t too good on pop fouls, you know.”
Fortunately, the father-from-hell legacy would stop with Thurman. He married, Diana, his childhood sweetheart, and they had three children. Diana’s father, Big Tony “Tote” Dominick would become Munson’s surrogate father. Ironically, Munson’s desire to be close to his family ultimately led to his death. He learned to pilot a plane so that he could fly home to be with his family whenever the Yankee schedule permitted. While his family and Yankee executives worried about Munson’s flying, he continued to trade up to faster planes, ultimately buying a Cessna Citation I/SP jet. A riveting section of Appel’s book recounts an ESPN interview with Jerry Anderson, one of two passengers who survived the airplane crash. The final report from the National Transportation Safety Bureau cited “startling mistakes” by Thurman that led to the accident.
Munson wasn’t perfect as a pilot and he wasn’t perfect as a ballplayer. Appel (left), who helped Munson write his autobiography in 1977, knew the Yankee captain well and doesn’t gloss over his shortcomings. He never got along with the media, often insulting and intimidating reporters. Even after he was made captain, he could be surly and uncooperative. (Contrast that with the current Yankee captain, Derek Jeter, who, even after the worse loss, stands at his locker to face the press).
For every person who talks about the difficult Munson, there are dozens who extol his dedication and loyalty to his family, his friends, and his team. And beneath that gruff exterior, we always suspected, and Appel confirms, was Munson’s softer side. One incident tells it all. During Old Timer’s Day, 1976, Appel finally had assembled Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, and Elston Howard. All he needed to complete a photograph of this “great lineage of Yankee catching going back to 1928,” was Thurman Munson. Twice Appel went to the Yankee locker room to coax Munson out, both times finding him watching an episode of The Three Stooges. Finally Munson made an appearance and the picture was taken.