Thurman Munson’s war and peace

2019-08-02 ThurmanMunson
Thurman Munson, whose bull-in-the-china-shop style in and around baseball masked a tender man of peace off the field and away from the ballpark.

Among the roll of Yankees who leave enduring impressions for better or worse, Thurman Munson may have been the single least understood by those outside his clubhouse. And even inside that sanctuary, at the conjoined height and depth of the Bronx Zoo-era Yankees, there seemed times when even those few to whom Munson allowed access to even a portion of his inside self didn’t quite understand.

Today is forty years to the day since Munson died in the crash of his Cessna Citation jet, while landing at the Akron-Canton (Ohio) Airport. The loss still stings teammates and fans deeply. “Thurman Munson was a blue-collar criminal behind the plate, the kind of player who would exploit any edge to win a ballgame,” writes a one-time Munson teammate, designated hitter Ron Blomberg. “But away from the ballpark, he was a teddy bear. He was also the best and most loyal friend I ever had in baseball.”

Two decades ago, Esquire writer Michael Paterniti revealed to the world at large just what kind of teddy bear Munson really was. The piece remains required reading for anyone who saw Munson the street-hustling catcher and scourge of sportswriters but never got to know the young man whose most valuable lesson learned from his own upbringing was what not to do and how not to do it.

“Bastard or not, the man cares,” Paternini wrote. “Thurman Munson cares. Never backed down from anyone in his life—not his father, not another man, not another team, let alone fifty thousand fans calling for his head. And they love him for it. See part of themselves in him. To this day they hang photographs of him in barbershops and delis and restaurants all over the five boroughs—all over the country. A Thurman Munson cult. Tens of thousands of people who bawled the day he died. Including me.”

Like Ted Williams before him, Munson was one of those men who couldn’t bear to let people see the tender side of a man who impressed too many people in opposing ballparks or even his own team’s press box as a kind of spoiled brat. Munson seemed self-confident only in public, in the heat of a baseball game, when he could try being the immovable force through whom the other team had to go at the plate.

“There was an intensity about his manner and a total lack of humour,” remembered the late sportswriter Maury Allen, in due course, in All Roads Lead to October. “It was as if the mission he was on, success in baseball, was not for a career but for survival. What manner of goblins were marching through the head of this guy?”

Munson could misunderstand as deeply as he was misunderstood himself. He dismissed his Red Sox rival Carlton Fisk as a pretty boy who never had a hair out of place, unwilling to acknowledge that Fisk, the Hall of Famer of stolid New England stock, worked as hard and even as bull-headedly as Munson did behind or at the plate.

The late Jim Bouton worked as a sportscaster on New York WCBS-TV’s evening news when Munson died. Asked about Munson, Bouton remembered an earlier incident, when he was with WABC-TV, in which he sought an interview with Munson only to have the bristling catcher instruct him “to perform an anatomical impossibility” upon himself with his microphone.

Bouton recalled the incident plainly and added that he respected Munson as a hustling ballplayer while regretting that their only contact together had been so unpleasant. Based on the switchboards going nutshit, you would have thought Bouton’s comparatively benign recollection and regret equaled calling for a president’s assassination.

Munson was such a deliberate chore to the writers who covered the Yankees and their opponents that Allen couldn’t help remembering Newsday writer Jack Mann’s reaction to Ty Cobb’s death, in an era in which Cobb’s reputation as a crusty bigot had yet to be debunked: “The only difference now is that he’s a dead prick.”

This oddly constructed catcher (Yankee pitcher Fritz Peterson bestowed upon Munson his two best-remembered nicknames, Tugboat and Squatty Body) could be unconscionably rude to non-writers and non-players with a few drinks in him on team flights, too. Bill Madden and Moss Klein in Damned Yankees recorded that, when a passenger complained about the excessive volume of his cassette player, Munson’s kindly reply was, “Mind your own business, [fornicate]face.”

But he’d also visit children in hospitals frequently, even though he was loathe to let even his wife, Diana, know when he was doing it. He feared she might let the press in on it. (If you know the myth of Babe Ruth promising to hit home runs for sick children, be aware that, according to Blomberg, Munson—who had an excellent throwing arm—would promise to throw would-be base stealers out at second for them.)

Munson also habitually held her close while saying “I love you” in his family’s ancestral German when coming home, wrote her poetry, and played slightly crazy but amusing games with his young children. Even more telling, he refused to treat his children’s fears the way his father had treated his own fears and, concurrently, his own self.

Paternini learned of that when he visited Munson’s widow and children for his piece. Munson’s youngest son, Michael, had the same fear of the dark that his father knew as a child. But Michael’s father refused to persecute or humiliate him for it. Munson “would sit with his own boy in the wee hours—at two, three, four, five A.M,” Paternini wrote.

Often he couldn’t sleep himself, lying heavily next to Diana, his body half black and blue, his swollen knees and inflamed shoulders and staph infections hounding him awake. So he’d just go down the hall and be with Michael awhile. Just stretch out in the boy’s bed. It’s all right, he’d say. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

At Munson’s funeral, his father, Darrell, a truck driver, held what Paternini called an impromptu press conference at which he disparaged his son as never a really great ballplayer, “that it was really him, Darrell, who was the talent, just didn’t get the break.” Then, Darrell Munson stood before his son’s casket and, his daughter-in-law swore, said, “You always thought you were too big for this world. Well, look who’s still standing, you son of a bitch.”

Diana Munson’s father, who’d become her husband’s best friend, had to be kept by police from tearing his son-in-law’s father apart on the spot. If Darrell Munson’s grotesquery accomplished anything positive it revealed the depth of his son’s contradiction. Thurman Munson played baseball as total war because he’d grown up learning it in total war with an embittered father, and he fought it on the field and among those writing about the game alike.

But he married and raised his children as deep in a world of peace as he could fashion. The house that Munson built was a home through which nothing of the war he waged in and around baseball would be permitted if he had anything to say about it. Perhaps in order to keep that peace, Munson needed desperately to keep it hidden from even the fans who admired his refusal to take prisoners on the field. Maybe even from teammates who loved him otherwise.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson told Paternini he wished he could have taken back the infamous article in which he called himself “the straw that stirs the drink” and Munson the one who might stir it bad. Jackson admitted that he and Munson began getting along well enough by the time of Munson’s death but that he wished above all that he could have cultivated a real friendship with the catcher.

“If Thurman had played five more years,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter, whose own father died a week before Munson, and who was stricken by then with Lou Gehrig’s disease, “he’d own half the Yankees. Everybody liked the guy. The whites, the blacks, the Hispanics.”

“It was just, God damn,” Hall of Fame relief pitcher Goose Gossage told Paternini about learning of Munson’s death. “We all felt bulletproof, and then you see such a strong man, a man’s man, die . . . Then it’s like we’re not shit on this earth, we’re just little bitty matter.”

The last Yankee to see Munson alive, Paternini wrote, was outfielder Bobby Murcer, who’d turned down Munson’s invitation to fly from Chicago to Canton with him that day. Murcer watched Munson “barrel down the runway in this most powerful machine, then disappearing in the dark. Remembers him up there in all that night, afraid for the man.”

A decade and a half before Munson died, Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs died when his single-engine plane crashed over the mountains of Utah. The heartbreaking irony was that Hubbs took up flying to conquer his fear of it. Munson bought the Citation to better facilitate returning home to his wife and children during Yankee homestands and certain road trip stops.

He’d hit his decline phase as a player by the time the Citation crashed; he may have chosen beyond his competence when he bought the complex jet. But until Hall of Famer in waiting Derek Jeter, no Yankee wore the rank of captain after Munson died.

Munson’s testiness with the press probably kept him from being elected to the Hall of Fame, but it’s entirely possible that a future confab of the Modern Era Committee will review his career and his case. When sabermetrician Jay Jaffe wrote The Cooperstown Casebook, he rated Munson the twelfth best catcher who ever played major league baseball; Munson’s peak value should make his case the proverbial no-brainer at last.

“What happens when your hero suddenly stands up from behind home plate, crosses some fold in time, and vanishes into thin air?” Paternini concluded. “You go after him.”

So I give you Thurman Munson, rounding third in the half-light of the ninth inning and gently combing out the hair of his daughters. I give you Thurman Munson, flying over America, looking down at the same roads his father drives, and returning home to his wife, speaking the words ich liebe dich. I give you Thurman Munson shooting at shadows and leaping into the arms of his teammates. I give you Thurman Munson beaned in the head and sleeping next to his son again.

I give you the man on his own two feet.

Hubbs, Munson, Nestor Chavez (a Giants pitcher), Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, Tom Gastall (briefly an Orioles catcher), Marv Goodwin (a Reds pitcher), Cory Lidle (a Yankee pitcher when he died in 2006), and Charlie Peete (a Cardinals outfielder) are the other major league players who lost their lives in plane crashes while still active players. Except possibly for Clemente’s death on a humanitarian hurricane relief mission, none touched as deeply as Munson’s.

Aside from his wife losing a husband, lover, and best friend, and his children losing their father, it seems a shame only that we lost a man who couldn’t bear to let the world see his sweet side until decades passed after his death. The side that wrote love poetry to his wife, spent entire nights comforting his children when they needed it most, and built a home where nothing was allowed but loving peace.

The side we might have loved far more than Yankee fans loved and even his most outraged opponents respected his play.

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