June 26, 2010

When I lived in New York City in the 1970′s, I rooted for the New York Yankees.  (Go ahead and hate me if you want.)  My favorite Yankee

Thurman Munson

by far was catcher Thurman Munson.

These were the Yankee teams that came to be known as “The Bronx Zoo.”  Owner George Steinbrenner hired, fired, and rehired manager Billy Martin five times.

Martin got into a fistfight with Reggie Jackson in the dugout on national TV.

And Munson and Jackson had a famous rivalry.  All the friction played out in the media, who did not need to exaggerate anything for once\

Despite the chaos, these Yankees won three division titles and two World Series in 1976, ’77, and ’78.  1977 was the year Reggie Jackson hit four home runs on four consecutive pitches in the World Series.

1978 was the year the Yankees were 14 games behind the Red Sox in mid-August,. They won more than 70 percent their games in August and September, and forced a one-game playoff for the pennant,. I don’t need to remind New Englanders who got the winning hit for the Yankees.  His last name rhymes with “rent.”

By then, my body had moved to New Hampshire, but it would be many years before I bonded with the Red Sox. Munson had died August 2, 1978,  at 32, flying “touch-and-go” circles around an airport in his private jet.

Touch and go means you land your plane and take off again as soon as your wheels hit the runway.  All of baseball and Yankeedom went into shock.  Manager Billy Martin, the notorious alcoholic, was so upset that he ignored a fresh scotch and soda his son had just made for him.

Munson was my favorite on those teams because he was a workhorse surrounded by show horses, a blue collar guy by nature as well as birth. A new biography of Munson, his third, just appeared in paperback and validated all the reasons I liked him so much. (The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain, by Marty Appel, Anchor Books, 2010, 355 pp. Appel was Yankee PR director when Munson played, and a close personal friend. They co-authored Munson’s autobiography in early ’78.)

It seems Appel wrote this book to show the generosity, humanity, and devotion to family Munson never allowed the press to see.  Appel says the media picture of a gruff, mean Munson is a bum rap.

The Plane Crash

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates all plane crashes, concluded Munson’s was caused by pilot error.  He got too little sleep the night before, and did not have enough experience flying jets to get out of trouble when he saw he was landing short of the runway — because he was coming down too fast and steep, because his flaps and landing gear were set wrong.

Munson apparently forgot that, when you speed up, a jet engine hesitates a few seconds after you step on the gas   A propoeller plane, which he flew expertly, responds immediately.

Two passengers survived the crash with burns.  Munson survived with a broken neck, but the two could not get him out of his seat.  Munson died in the fire.  He would have been paralyzed for life if he’d survived.

Munson and Fisk

Munson was a very sensitive, insecure man, who was easily offended, and held grudges.  Appel traces those demons back to an abusive father.  One of his first baseball rivalries was with Carlton Fisk, who came up to the Red Sox about the time Munson made the Yankees.

Fisk was everything Munson was not:  tall, with the body of a Greek god, handsome, and comfortable with the media. They wrote about what a great person Fisk was, not just a great player.  He was elected to more All-Star teams than Munson, when the elections measured popularity among the fans as much as performance.

Munson was short, dumpy, with long unkempt hair and a shaggy moustache. He wore tee shirts and jeans.  His uniform was always dirty, a sign of hard-nosed, gritty play.  He was too shy to show reporters his good side.  He either hid from them in the trainer’s room, gave short, sarcastic answers, pr refused to talk at all He held long grudges against reporters who wrote a story he didn’t like — and he didn’t like most of the stories about him.

This was a special problem for Appel, who adored Munson, and whose job as Yankee PR director was to project favorable images of players in the media.  He tells a story of an Old Timers Game where he leaned on his friendship, then practically had to threaten Munson, before he posed for a picture with great Yankee catchers Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, and Elston Howard.

How would Munson have felt if he lived long enough to know that Fisk was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and the closest he ever came was 21 percent of the vote, when he needed 75 percent to get in?

Bill Madden, a baseball writer and member of the Hall selection committee, said Munson’s career statistics paled compared to Fisk, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, or Mickey Cochrane, the other catchers in the Hall of Fame.  What he might have done had he lived does not count, Madden told Appel.

But when Munson died, Linda Fisk (Carlton’s wife) sent a handwritten note to Diana Munson, saying Carlton felt like he lost a family member.  He deeply respected Munson, despite the rivalry. Munson did not respect Fisk because, in his first few years at least, he thought Fisk spent too much time on the disabled list.  This was before Fisk caught more than 300 games in two straight 162-game seasons. 1978, Munson’s 9th year, would have been his last as an everyday catcher. His knees were too bad, and he was already experimenting at first base.  Fisk caught for 24 years.

Munson and Reggie Jackson

Munson’s other great rivalry, a few years later, started when Reggie Jackson became the second multi-million-dollar free agent George Steinbrenner signed.  (The first was Catfish Hunter.)  Munson believed he had a verbal commitment from Steinbrenner that he would always be the highest paid Yankee except for Hunter.  But Steinbrenner turned him down when he asked for a new contract paying him $1 more than Jackson. It got worse a few months later when Munson learned The Boss had also given Jackson a Rolls Royce.

Munson, who had been Steinbrenner’s friend, never trusted him again.

Then Reggie told a reporter, “I’m the straw that stirs the drink,” meaning he alone is responsible for the Yankees’ success.  Munson, who had been the team’s best player for eight years, took that personally. He was still a very good hitter, and he was the best defensive catcher in the league.  He paced and calmed the pitchers, advised them which pitch to throw, cut down base runners, and quarterbacked the infield.  He was involved in every play.  His Gold Glove defense contributed far more to the team’s success than Jackson’s indifferent defense in right field.

I remember one incident that was typical of what went on between them.  Jackson was preening, giving an interview, while Munson was taking batting practice.  He overheard Jackson say his name, and assumed it was a put-down.  He shouted to the group, “Some of us have to work for a living, Jackson.”

The Most Written-About Baseball Team

Other Yankees from Munson’s era with book-length biographies or ghost-written autobiographies, are Reggie Jackson, Ed Figueroa, Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter, Lee MacPhail, Billy Martin, Bobby Murcer, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Mickey Rivers, and George Steinbrenner.  Hall of Fame baseball writers Ed Linn, Maury Allen, and Roger Kahn, wrote books about these teams as a whole, along with Steve Jacobson, and Ettie Ward. Christopher Devine wrote the third Munson biography in 2001. That must be a baseball record.

Diana Munson still comes to Yankee Old Timers Days, where she’s greeted the way Mrs. Lou Gehrig and Mrs. Babe Ruth used to be.  In fact, Mrs. Gehrig reached out warmly to the Munsons when Thurman became the first Yankee captain since her husband.

Current Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, who never met Munson, adopted him as a hero based on videotape and stories told by Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage, and Lou Piniella.  In the weight room of Fenway Park (of all places), Posada found a photo of Munson on the wall with the inscription: “I like batting fourth and the high batting average. But what I do every day behind the plate is much more important because it touches so many more people and so many aspects of the game.”  It’s signed “Thurman Munson, 8/25/75.  Posada hung it in his locker.

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