Thurman MunsonOctober 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.