LADY AT THE BAT: Remembering Thurman Munson & An Incredible Week in New York

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Remembering Thurman Munson & An Incredible Week in New York

We all have done it at one time or another. We go through a box or a drawer filled with old family photos and mementoes.  A few years ago I found a post card I had sent to my parents from Washington DC back in 1979. And it stopped me in my tracks. I remembered actually writing this card all these years ago, because as I was writing, the news came on the television in my hotel room that every Yankees fan of a certain age remembers vividly.

All star catcher and captain of the New York Yankees, Thurman Munson was dead.

Munson died practicing takeoffs and landings of his plane at the Canton-Akron airport in Ohio. The Yankees had an off day August 2, 1979  and were scheduled to start a home stand  the next night, So Munson was home in Ohio and wanted to check some things on his plane, Two friends, one a flight instructor, were on board. When the plane landed short of the runway, the two passengers survived, but Munson, paralyzed from the impact of a large tree stump, was trapped and perished.

I was also scheduled to be at the upcoming home stand.

Not knowing whether there would be baseball at Yankee Stadium Friday night, I boarded the train from DC headed for New York that afternoon. I had purchased a New York newspaper at Union Station in DC, but it gave little details regarding the crash beyond what I already knew. Upon arriving at Penn Station, I learned that night's game was indeed on, so I headed up to the Bronx.

The tarp was on the field when I arrived at Yankee Stadium. A light drizzle prevented pre-game batting practice and a few players from the Yankees and Orioles came out to run some sprints. I noticed some other players from both teams gathered in the outfield beyond the tarp engaged in a conversation. The bullpens were busy with the starters warming up, as usual. Beyond that, there were no other sightings of players until they all lined up in front of the Yankees and Orioles dugouts. It was to be a brief pre-game  ceremony, an invocation from Terence Cardinal Cooke of the New York Archdiocese and the singing of America the Beautiful by Robert Merrill. Eight of the Yankees starting nine were on the field, as the catcher position was vacated, symbolically reminiscent of the "rider-less horse" which was used nearly sixteen years earlier in President Kennedy's funeral procession in 1963. It was a simple but stunning sight to see.

And it turned out to be much more.

You have likely seen videos of that night which showed home made banners honoring Thurman hanging over railings and lots of tears. You might also know there was a moment of silence followed by one of the most lengthy ovations ever heard in a baseball stadium, or anywhere, for that matter. Images of Thurman flashed on the screen beyond right center-field, The image was taken down, put back up and taken down again and the ovation continued. It seemed as if the crowd was waiting for Thurman to make a curtain call and come out of the dugout, and they weren't about to stop cheering until then. Of course, it was a passing irrational thought, but there was something spirited and maybe even spiritual in that crowd that night.  Soon I settled on the notion that the crowd was making sure Thurman heard the cheers. And maybe he did. Who am I to say? It was a sendoff for the ages. At the very least it showed me what New Yorkers,Yankees fans in particular, were made of. Years later, following 9-11, I think that same spirit showed once more, so the night of August 3, 1979 might have been an early preview of sorts.

People have asked me about my experiences that night and I have always answered that I went to a funeral and a baseball game broke out. The comment was not an attempt to be snide or dismissive or disrespectful. It is pretty much what happened.  Thurman was gone, which was difficult to accept, but there was still baseball to be played. The Yankees lost 1-0 that night on a John Lowenstein home run  despite the gem pitched by Yankees starter Luis Tiant. It didn't seem that the Yankees were much into baseball, but that would change by the end of the series.

Saturday night's game was a come from behind win by the Orioles following a six inning gem pitched by Catfish Hunter, who would retire following the season, I recall Orioles manager Earl Weaver carrying on a lengthy argument with umpires as Catfish stood on the mound. I always thought Catfish's bad shoulder tightened during the delay, and the next inning Catfish did not return, as the bullpen gave up the lead and the game. It might have been the last great outing in the career of Catfish Hunter. Just another sad farewell to a Yankees legend.  

Sunday brought better news as a Graig Nettles home run helped the Yankees win, which set up the Monday night game, which for all intents and purposes should have been a washout for the Yankees. Instead, this game was another moment  for the ages. The entire team would fly the morning of the game to attend Thurman Munson's funeral, then fly back to face the Orioles one more time that night. Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer gave stirring eulogies and as told later, Manager Billy Martin approached Murcer on the plane back from the funeral  to tell him he would sit out that night, thinking Murcer was in no emotional condition to play. Murcer  told Martin that he felt like he could play, so there was Bobby Murcer batting second behind Willie Randolph, playing left field.

The game didn't start well for the Yankees as  starter Ron Guidry found himself trailing 4-0 in the seventh inning. I pretty much was witnessing that washout game I had expected. But Murcer, who could have opted out of that night's lineup, delivered a home run to the lower right field seats down the line, with Bucky Dent and Randolph scoring ahead of him. The Yankees now trailed 4-3. With Tippy Martinez on the mound in the 9th and Dent on first and no outs, Randolph, attempting to sacrifice, bunted toward the mound. Martinez promptly threw toward first but sailed the ball down the right field line putting runners on 2nd and 3rd. Then Murcer drilled a liner into the left field corner, not far from where  I was seated, scoring the two winning runs. I still have the scorecard from that night, showing Murcer 5 AB, 1 run 2 hits, 5 RBI, Yankees win 5-4. I have never witnessed a sporting event as intense and inspiring as that, and I've seen walk off home runs, buzzer beaters, game winning field goals, and I was in the stands for Notre Dame's 31-30  upset of Miami in 1988. 

The home stand  continued with the White Sox in town and it seemed the more days passed the more it was back to baseball as usual. Simply one of life's lessons, that we must move on, despite our losses and tragedies. I do remember going to a day game at Shea Stadium on August 8th where Munson was remembered by the Mets in a scoreboard announcement about an upcoming program in Munson's honor, to be shown on their broadcast station. I was back in Yankee Stadium that same night watching the Yankees beat the White Sox on a late home run by Chris Chambliss. Despite all the tragedy, baseball was still fun to watch. Two games in two stadiums in one day was a nice temporary distraction, but the events of that week in New York, and the memories of Thurman's great Yankees career was always close to top of mind. The Yankees announced Munson's number 15 would be immediately retired.

I left New York a couple days later with a new appreciation for the spirit of the city, and Yankees fans in particular, The experience was a lesson in properly honoring those who have died, and persevering in the days that followed.
Well done, New York.

It is very cliché, but it rings true. This is how Thurman would have wanted it. 

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