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Thurman Munson

October 5, 2006

Finding a Yankee in a pack of cards was like finding a mold-blackened orange in your trick-or-treat bag. I valued the never realized (nor even approached) goal of completing the year’s collection too much to throw the offending cardboard in the garbage, as I would the orange, but I tried to get the Yankee cards away from the others as soon as possible and out of sight so I could engage in my time-dissolving card-aided daydreams without the sharp sliver of festering resentment in my nostrils. Some of the cards were less offensive than others, the mushroom-cloud hair of Oscar Gamble, the innocuousness of Roy White, the hilarious storytelling ability of Sparky Lyle, and the mere name of Mickey Klutts among the few effective truce-making offerings from the world of my enemies. On the other hand, some Yankees were capable of making the whole pack they came in feel tainted, including perennial asshole-of-the-year Reggie Jackson, simian brawl-instigator Lou Piniella, the bat-corking duo of shoulder-maimer Graig Nettles and sucker-puncher Mickey Rivers, and a certain weak-hitting prettyboy shortstop whom I’m not quite ready to mention by name.

I counted Thurman Munson in that latter group. Yankee captain, leader of the bullies, picker of fights with Carlton Fisk. Here he was, befouling my pack with his smile. This smile, as incongruous on Thurman Munson as a note-for-note cover of a James Taylor ballad on a Ramones record, was probably interpreted by me as connoting the fact that the Yankees had just won the 1976 pennant, their first since I had been paying attention. I had already begun my lifelong search for answers in the baseball encyclopedia and knew that this turn of events was a return to the status quo, and so this smile struck me as that of a wealthy unshowered aristocrat learning that his prodigious fortune had just been doubled by sheer chance. Things only got worse. In 1977, the Yankees beat out the Red Sox in a close division race on their way to their 21st World Series championship, then in 1978 humiliated the Red Sox by obliterating a gigantic late-season deficit and thumping them in a one-game playoff before tallying championship number 22. What can I say? It hurt. The following winter, I looked to my baseball encyclopedia for solace and studied freakishly similar failures stretching into the past as far as the eye could bear to see.

All this is merely to explain that by the summer of 1979, when I was 11, I hated Thurman Munson. Now, without further delay, a short ugly story: one day in the summer of 1979 my brother and I were travelling from Vermont on a Greyhound bus to see our dad, who lived in New York City. It must have been crowded because I wasn’t sitting with Ian but with a short, mustachioed guy in his early 20s. He looked a little like Thurman Munson, actually, and he was even a Yankees fan. He was friendly, though, and we talked about baseball all through the first few hours of the ride, before the mid-trip 15-minute break in Springfield, Mass. During that break, everybody got off the bus. I don’t know where the guy sitting next to me went, but my brother and I hit the vending machine that sold the big boxes of M&Ms our dad always showed up with on his Greyhound visits to Vermont. I was back in my seat shoving fistfulls of the candy in my mouth when the guy with the mustache reboarded looking glum. I swung my knees out to let him into his window seat. He lowered himself down and whispered that Thurman Munson had just died.

“Crashed his plane,” the guy explained, but I was already turning and rising to relay the news to my brother, M&Ms clicking against the inside of smile-bared teeth, my voice like a recess bell. When I sat back down my seatmate was staring at me. I offered him some M&Ms, my smile congealing.

“No thank you,” he said. He turned and looked out the window. The bus pulled out of the station. He kept on looking out the window, for hours, all the way to Port Authority.

4 comments

  1. 1.  2 comments from old CG site:

    es said…
    Glory not in the death of heroes, foes tho’ they may be.

    Do not drag the corpse of thine enemy around the walls – of Springfield, Mass. or anywhere else – lest you and your team be like Achilles, curséd by the gods and later played by a steroidal Brad Pitt in a laughable Hollywood epic.

    well, lest you be cursed by the gods, anyway.

    11:52 AM

    one who knows said…
    I recall a bit more detail to this anecdote –

    something about you and your brother slapping five, screaming “Yaaaaaay!!! Thurman MUNSON is Dead!!!!” and erupting into girlish peals of laughter before doing a childish little dance, disembarking in Vermont, and skipping down an unpaved road, holding hands and trailing your little Red Sox lunchboxes behind you…

    5:51 PM


  2. That was a very sad day for me. I recall coming home in IL and hearing the news from my brother. I could not believe it. After two recent world championships, our captain was dead. We had one incredible fearless leader, whom Cafish Hunter wrote in his autobiography, that if he were to ever to start any street-played ballteam his first pick would always be Thurman Munson, no questions asked. He was gritty. He was tough. He was an awesome hitter and catcher. I read that another person in his plane escaped, but Thurman was trapped within the plane and he burned in it as the plane engulfed. What a loss. He had a tough facade, but Catfish spoke about him as a person, and it made Thurman appear very much human and very likable. Whether hanging out, playing ball or if I’m in an alley, I would want Thurman to have my back. Like Bench, Munson defined the position of catcher.


  3. There’s something poignant about this post. I’m sure a lot of young Sox fans were fairly pleased to learn of Munson’s passing, which is unfortunate but true.

    The Yankees did not reign over baseball when I was kid, and I even liked a few of their players. Mattingly for one. Randolph as well. It was like, okay, but as long as the team doesn’t win. I even remember opening a pack of Topps and discovering a Kevin Maas rookie card. When I saw it, all I could do was think, “Oboy, oboy, look at this gold!”

    A little later though, the bona fide prospects of Edgar Renteria, Nomar Garciappara, and Derek Jeter broke into the league. I can recall detesting latter. New York was coming around, and for me watching Derek play was like eating a wad of mud. But even as a rookie there was a subtle but definite difference between him and the other two. Like Munson, he was a true sportsman, and knew how to lead. Still is and still does. Although it would have made a nice day in Sox Nation if he were placed on the dl, I felt an ambivalent sensation whenever I saw him play.

    I don’t know exactly where this is going, except to say class ballplayers are few and far between. So I root for them. Even if they wear pinstripes.


  4. When I read this Munson passage in your book, I felt a nauseating chill, because I had the same reaction you did.
    I grew up in CT and all my brothers and my best friend were all Yankee fans—-I was a Phillies fan and violently hated the Yankees, especially at that date and time in 1979, with the Yankees being the clutch team of winners for the past 3 years and my team, the Phillies, being the collosal choke artists in the past 3 seasons.
    I was 12 years old at the time, old enough to know to try to conceal my joy when I heard of Munson’s death, but it definitely was not concealed well. My best friend and his family would go to about a half dozen Yankee games each season and always took me with them—–except for the game after Munson died—which they went to without telling me.
    Obviously, they felt that I wouldnt behave appropriately. Obviously, they knew that I was an asshole who was happy that a human being had died.
    It is scary to think back and realize that baseball was so important to me that I took joy in Munson’s death. Especially since I haven’t cared about who wins a baseball game in about 20 years.



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