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Card Corner--Thurman Munson
2008-03-14 09:20
by Bruce Markusen
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.
 

This is the second of a two-part series.

 

August 2, 1979. I remember that day too well.

In the midst of one of my bad habits, I was staring at the television while eating dinner. I was watching "Gilligan’s Island," of all things, a show that I wouldn’t watch today if you paid me at a rate of $10 a hour. Suddenly, Metromedia Television in New York (Channel Five, for those who grew up in or near the city) interrupted the program with a news update. (I used to hate those updates, especially when they happened to interrupt one of the funniest scenes in a show.)

Within a few moments, the annoyance turned to disbelief. The announcer—I believe it was veteran newscaster John Roland—described a plane crash. I assumed that it involved a politician or someone like that. It didn’t. This crash had killed Thurman Munson.

I had trouble finishing that dinner. Each gulp became more difficult than the last. The meal just didn’t seem to matter. All that seemed important was the real tragedy of a Yankee hero lost. My favorite Yankee, no less.

I remember telling my father when he came from work a little bit later that night. I couldn’t even wait until he had entered the house; I shouted the news from a window that overlooked our driveway. I don’t think my father heard me at first. Maybe he thought I was making it up, but I’ve never had that kind of sense of humor. Or maybe he just couldn’t believe what had happened

I couldn’t believe it for days. Munson’s death—that’s all I thought about for the next three days. It still didn’t sink in—not even in those three obsession-filled days.

Most of the summer, my father and I watched baseball games together on TV. Back then, it was pretty much WPIX, with a few nationally televised games on Saturday afternoons and Monday nights. We might attend a game or two at the Stadium per season, usually not more than that. Simply by happenstance, my dad had bought two tickets several weeks earlier to the game scheduled for the night of Friday, August 3. That happened to be the first game the Yankees played after Munson’s death.

Prior to the game, the Yankees honored Munson by showing a video tribute on the old black-and-white replay scoreboard at the Stadium. As images of Munson flashed by, the fans cheered, then stood, then cheered more and more loudly. The cheers came in waves, medium and then large, becoming less and then rising in volume again. At first, my father and I remained seated. But it just didn’t seem right for us to do that, so we stood up and joined the rest of the Stadium in paying homage to the fallen Yankee.

Even when the video on the scoreboard came to an end, the fans continued to stand and cheer. Standing as part of that Yankee Stadium crowd, I couldn’t believe the length of that applause. That standing ovation lasted for at least ten minutes, maybe 12. It lasted so long, it was hard to keep track.

The length of that cheer—along with the energy and the intensity that sustained throughout—reflected the admiration we had for Munson. He was no longer the best player on the Yankees—he had long since given up that title to Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage—but he was still the most beloved. That was partly because he had played so well for so long, bridging the gap to those years of mediocrity in the early seventies. More importantly, it was because of the way that he played, often racked with pain in his knees, yet never failing to make his best effort at blocking a pitch and never—not once that I can remember—failing to hustle his way on the basepaths. To this day, Munson remains one of the main reasons I get mad watching a healthy ballplayer fail to run hard on a groundball or a pop-up.

Moments before that Friday night game, I remember seeing Reggie Jackson crouched over in right field, crying openly. He and Munson had clashed badly at first, just two seasons earlier, but by now they had reconciled. Make no mistake about it, they weren’t friends, but they respected each other as teammates. Given how Jackson felt the loss of Munson, the other Yankees, the ones who had played with him much longer, must have endured nothing short of devastation.

I remember Luis Tiant pitching beautifully that night, but losing to the Orioles, 1-0. Ordinarily, I might have lost my temper watching a frustrating game like that. Not this night. It was heartbreaking to lose that game, but not as heartbreaking as losing Thurman Munson.

 

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com.

Comments
2008-03-14 09:46:35
1.   joe in boston
Great writeup. Really great. I was a teenager then - just starting to drive, have a parttime job, a little taste of freedom. Such a happy time, but that news brought ALL Yankee fans down.

Best line ever:
"To this day, Munson remains one of the main reasons I get mad watching a healthy ballplayer fail to run hard on a groundball or a pop-up"

So true

2008-03-14 10:09:55
2.   Sliced Bread
Damn.
Brings back so many memories, Bruce.
As I mentioned afer you posted Part 1, I broke the news to my friends who were getting ready to play soccer that evening. One of them, an intense Yanks fan even as a 12-13 year old (whose favorite player was, and probably still is Nettles) shoved my chest, and quickly accused me of making it up. I've always been a wiseass, but make something like that up? My friend quickly realized I wasn't kidding. To this day he remembers that moment. He reminded me of it a few years ago.

If it was Roland anchoring that cut-in, I imagine he did it with a tear in his eye. Even if he wasn't a fan (I don't know if he was), Roland broke news like that as if he was comforting a new widow at a funeral parlor. Whether it was an act or not, he was very good delivering the sad stuff. He was good at righteous NY outrage, too. Kept him on the air in NY for 30 something years.

Last weekend (Sunday?) YES showed the '77 and '78 World Series clinchers. I was sick with the flu, and caught parts of each game with my sons. During one of the clubhouse celebrations (can't remember which) Munson and Jackson were interviewed side-by-side. If you didn't know the back-story you'd think they'd been friends. They weren't hugging or high fiving or anything like that. They kept their distance, but they looked at, and listened to each other with what appeared to be great respect, even bordering on friendship. You got that right, Bruce. Good work as always.

2008-03-14 11:44:31
3.   Josh Wilker
Excellent piece, Bruce.

Who caught that night? Was Cerone there yet?

2008-03-14 11:49:22
4.   rbj
I was 14 at the time, we were living near Otisville, NY at the time but we got tne NY stations. I think we were watching WABC news then. Very sad, like losing a member of the family, even though I had never yet been to the Stadium
2008-03-14 12:00:06
5.   bp1
Munson's death is one of the few "where were you" moments of my life. I was in the front seat of my Dad's Mercury station wagon (the kind with the wood panels on the side) riding along Commercial Drive when the news came on the radio. AM station - probably 1480 out of Remsen as that was what my Dad liked to listen to. Like everyone - I was stunned to silence. I just didn't know what to do or feel. Pretty upsetting for a not-yet-14-year-old. It didn't seem real.

One of the few comparables in life was when Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed. I remember that moment as well, although I was obviously quite a bit older.

Funny how we get connected to these people we've never met. Thurman was, and remains in hearts and minds everywhere, one of the good guys. People will be wearing Munson t-shirts to Yankee Stadium forever. Gone but never ever forgotten.

2008-03-14 12:28:18
6.   Raf
3 Jerry Narron caught that game, Cerrone was acquired during the '79-'80 offseason.
2008-03-14 17:13:46
7.   Sonny Mooks
Actually, I think Munson and Reggie did become friends.

I know that after '77, either 78 or '79 before he died, he had taken to flying reggie back home to cali every now and then.

You don't fly with someone, for that long, if you don't like them. It may be only a few hours, but the fact that Munson did that for Reggie, kind of shows they had, by that point, become friends.

2008-03-14 17:43:52
8.   Bruce Markusen
When the Yankees first took the field that night, they kept the catcher's position vacant. Then, I believe after the National Anthem was finished, Narron took his place behind the plate.

Narron put up some pretty good power numbers in the Yankees' minor league system, but he had a slow bat and never became the next Johnny Blanchard, as some had hoped.

The other Yankee catcher on the roster was Brad Gulden, who like Narron, never did much in the major leagues. He was a good defensive catcher who didn't hit much.

I probably shouldn't change the subject of my own post, but I find Bob Watson's rulings today pretty ludicrous. I can understand Shelley Duncan getting a three-game suspension, but where did the Cabrera ban come from? I never even heard his name mentioned as part of the brawl. And how does he get three games, while Jonny Gomes, who ran all the way in from right field and tried to jump Duncan, receives only two games. The Yankees should be livid about that.

2008-03-14 18:52:52
9.   wsporter
August 2, 1979 was a beautiful summer day in upstate New York. I remember thinking that the neighbor's kid who came running up the street to tell me must have heard it wrong. The little toad thought he was a Sawx fan and he was laughing about it. I went inside and turned the TV on and found he wasn't. I was between jobs and had some time off. I decided it was best if I didn't see any more Sawx fans for a couple of days so I grabbed my fishing gear and a tent and headed to the woods. My player was broken at the time so I had to listen to the radio and of all things American Pie came on. I decided at that point I wasn't a kid anymore. I still remember that like it was yesterday. So I turned around and went back to the house and did the adult thing: I got shit faced. It didn't help
2008-03-14 19:49:06
10.   jalexei
I was 10 - I remember the day.

I used to sponsor the Munson page on baseball-reference.com, as my wife's birthday is August 2nd.

2008-03-14 20:18:31
11.   Yankee Fan in Chicago
I remember hearing about in the afternoon, playing wiffleball in the street in Brooklyn.

Kid from up the block said Thurman's dead. I said bullshit, then ran into my house and called Sportsphone, 976-1313, and confirmed the awful news.

I was 9. Folks of an older generation talk about where they were when they heard Kennedy had been shot, but for me it's Thurman. Even other momentous events -- Challenger, Reagan getting shot, John Paul II, etc. -- are much less clear in my mind than 2 August 1979.

2008-03-14 20:22:01
12.   Raf
8 Allegedly there is video of Melky punching Longoria. I think he got 3 games because it was after the Gomes-Duncan tango.

Since Gomes reacted to Duncan's hard slide, Duncan's the "instigator," for lack of a better word. Could be the reason he got one less game.

Not sure where the Yanks should be livid.

2008-03-15 07:19:39
13.   Jeb
Bruce -- thank you for that wonderful write up. My eyes are tearing up. I guess all of us 40 somethings have memories of that night wherever we were.

For me, suddenly it's August 4, 1979. I'm 12 years old again and I'm wearing the Blue polyester uniforms of my Pres Brown little league team (they looked like the Rangers uni's--this was before teams got to use MLB hats and shirts). It's been a long hot summer in Virginia. I was a pitcher that year and my fastest pitch was the change-up. I specialized in having no control and hitting batters, who would laugh as they ran to first. My WHIP and ERA would probaby make people prefer someone like Ed Whitson or Jaret Wright.

I'll never forget that day though because I was probably 0-14 with the bat with a couple of walks (maybe). I walked up to the plate and Brian Stubblefield was pitching for McCrumb's Drug Store (whose team had wool flannel uni's like the old days -- very cool). My teammate, Troy, yelled at me, "gotta do it for Thurman!", as he clapped his hands. I got a weak single up the middle that bounced off the base and I was standing on first base tearing up like I am now.

Corny story I know, but that was the only hit I ever got in little league and it was for Thurman.

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