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Baseball wasn't cool in the 1960s.
During the "Summer of Love" not many young people were talking about Carl Yastrzemski. No one at Woodstock wondered whether the Mets could really go all the way. Few among my friends were particularly impressed when I took a summer job answering Mickey Mantle's fan mail for the Yankees in 1968. And it was the same when I was offered, and accepted, a full-time position in the public relations department midway through my senior year in 1970.
I was one of two people in my college who subscribed to The Sporting News (my roommate was the other)--but I couldn't watch baseball on Sundays in the fall when the one TV in the dorm was tuned to the NFL--even during the World Series!
As Mantle, Banks, Clemente, Mays, Aaron, Mathews, Maris, Killebrew, Koufax, Drysdale, and Colavito moved toward the twilight of their careers, few stars appeared to replace them. The mid- to late sixties gave us Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, and Tom Seaver, but not many other attention-getters.
But then, in the midst of this decidedly uncool period of baseball, the once proud Yankees, now mediocre and dull, found a player named Thurman Lee Munson to proudly take them to their tomorrows.
Thurman was a throwback; a lunch-bucket kind of guy who was all jock and no rock. He wasn't going to win over New York by being Joe Namath or Clyde Frazier. He liked Wayne Newton music and, in what was arguably the worst-dressed decade of the twentieth century, the 1970s, he was the worst of the worst. His wardrobe featured clashing plaids and checks made of the finest polyester. Socks were optional.
It was an everyman look that went with his regular-guy demeanor. He liked to pump his own gas, even in New Jersey, where you weren't allowed to, and even when he became famous. On occasion, thinking he was the attendant, someone would pull up next to him and say, "Fill 'er up"--and he would! He'd pump the guy's gas, collect payment, and hand it to the station manager. I was with him one day when he even washed a guy's windshield while filling up his gas tank. I suspect the guy drove away thinking, That gas station guy looked a lot like Thurman Munson.
No, cool wasn't his game. He was going to win them over the old-fashioned way--with gritty determination and a focus on respecting the game and playing it with heart. He would honor the tradition of the Yankees and wear the uniform dirty and proud, and would not tolerate mediocrity from his teammates. He would restore the Yankees to their prominence in the sports universe, the place they occupied when all seemed right in the world.
We would fall in love with his game and realize, watching him, that cool didn't have to count in baseball. Thurman Munson made it a virtue to be uncool, winning over the young and the hip with his decidedly unhip approach to his profession.
He wasn't Mickey Mantle--he wasn't born with those looks or that body, or that particular style that made "the Mick" a pinup boy for baby boomers. But he was Mantle's heir. Mickey retired in spring training of 1969. Munson made his debut later that season, giving the Yankees continuity in their ongoing parade of stars.
By 1970, my first year as assistant public relations director, New York had begun to latch on to his Ohio grit and guts. And since my career began along with his, he would become "my guy," the player I would grow up with in the Yankee organization, the one I'd write about and collaborate with.
I loved watching Thurman Munson play baseball. He just knew how to play the game, knew how to win the game, knew how to lead. He was grumpy but he had a great sense of humor and a magnificent sense of self. He was the kind of guy you wanted to be friends with.
As kids we had the same glove. His first glove was made by Hutch, as was mine. When I asked him whose model it was, the coincidence broadened--we both used the same model, a Billy Goodman infielder's glove. I remembered mine as a pancake that didn't really fold to trap the ball; he remembered his as a "good old mitt." Clearly, he made better use of his than I did of mine.
I was there when he made his first appearance at Yankee Stadium in August 1968, when the Yankees brought the Binghamton team to the stadium to play Waterbury, Connecticut. While some of his Binghamton Triplet teammates like Steve Kline and Frank Tepedino walked out to the monuments in center field for a look, Thurman was detained near the infield for some media interviews and photographs. He was clearly the guy everyone wanted to see.
At one point, he just decided to walk over to the Yankee clubhouse and say hello to Mickey Mantle. What the hell. The other guys could look at monuments to dead guys. Thurman would say hello to a future monument, still living.
Mantle, in the final weeks of his eighteen-year career, was seated on his stool by his corner locker, dressed in his baseball underwear, wrapping his legs in long Ace bandages, as was his custom.
"Mickey, I'm Thurman Munson," he said, his voice perhaps revealing that he was nervous but determined just the same. Since he was wearing his Binghamton uniform, he didn't think it was necessary to say who he was other than his name. Mick responded with a firm handshake and asked, "How ya doin'?"--hardly the stuff of highlight reels, but enough to make Munson's day.
Mantle had heard of him. Everyone in the organization had. He had been an elite high school athlete in three sports, and then went to Kent State, where he was the consensus All-American college catcher in his junior year. The Yankees felt fortunate that he was still available in the first round when they made him the overall fourth selection in the amateur draft. He was "_fast-tracked" by the scouting department for a ticket to the majors.
Michael Grossbardt, a Kramer-like character in the Seinfield vein, was the Yankee photographer. He was under orders from PR chief Bob Fishel to get some good "posed action" pictures of Thurman, which could be used as publicity stills. Grossbardt would go on to photograph most of Thurman's career, shooting thousands of pictures of him at bat and behind the plate, as well as baseball card photos for the Topps Company, family pictures for his personal use, and magazine covers.
I walked behind Fishel, his assistant Bill Guilfoile, and Michael, out to the area behind home plate for the photos. We took turns shaking his hand, and I was flattered that Bob took the trouble to introduce me. Munson had a chubby look, almost unathletic, and he wasn't much taller than I was, but he had those big forearms you always see on baseball players. His flannel hand-me-down Yankee uniform, converted to a Triplets uniform, was baggy and unflattering. The schedule called this a Waterbury home game, so he was in the drab gray road uniform. He seemed to know how to pose, and there was a confidence to him that I would seldom see among rookies, as it grew to be part of my job over the years to get them all photographed in spring training. Amazingly, you can always tell a rookie photo from a veteran photo by the poise or lack of poise on display. Thurman had some poise.
I had asked Bob if we were going to call him "Thurm" going forward in our press notices. Remembering that, he asked Munson if he went by any nicknames.
"None that you'd want to print," he laughed, a typical ballplayer answer. And indeed, he never really developed one that stuck with the public.
Howard Berk, our vice president for administration, had come down onto the field as well. "We really needed someone to capture the fans' imagination," he said later. "We were so hoping this would be the guy. And we liked him from the start. He was always very cooperative with me; always went on our Winter Warm-Up radio shows to help boost off-season ticket sales for us."
He did all that and more in the decade he played for the Yankees until his untimely death in 1979. By the time I wrote his autobiography in 1977, he had accomplished enough to fill up a plaque in Cooperstown. The book was a traditional baseball life story with little controversy, particularly given his place in the turmoil of the so-called Bronx Zoo. He offered an equally small amount of personal insight. "Does it have to get personal?" he asked, when I approached him with the idea.
What a strange question, I thought, from a man considering an autobiography.
The book sold a lot more copies after he died than before. I've received a lot of compliments on it over the years, particularly from Munson fans. His wife, Diana Munson, was especially admiring. "Thank you for writing it, thank God we have this," she said to me on the eve of his funeral in her home in Canton.
But as I have reread that book over the years, I've always felt that Thurman held back too much, skirting over personal matters, as was his right. The publisher was pleased with the final product, so I felt I had met my obligation to give them both the book they wanted. But I was never really satisfied with it.
I was also perplexed. Why were his comments so unenlightening? For example, there was the matter of his ancestry. I wrote he was of German stock. His sister told me later that the family was mostly English-Welsh, and only part German on both sides. Why didn't he correct me? Why didn't he care about getting his life right? Why did he have so little to say about his childhood?
Diana had asked me whether he brought up much about his childhood. She hadn't been in the room when we were doing the tapings. I told her I had brought up the subject but the conversation didn't go very far. I think she was just curious to know how much he had opened up.
Obviously, he hadn't. In the three decades since Thurman's death, I have wondered why a man who gave so much of himself on the field would withhold so much off of it. This book is an attempt to fill in the gaps that Thurman left in telling his own story to me in 1977-78. In the course of revisiting the details of his life and his death, of visiting his family and friends, I have thought back to the way he presented himself in the Yankee clubhouse in the last years of his career.
He had pretty much stopped talking to the media. Still, there were times when the glare of the Bronx Zoo fell squarely on his thickset body. Maybe it was something the Boss, George Steinbrenner, said. Maybe it was something Reggie Jackson said. Maybe it was something Billy Martin had done. Thurman was the captain, the go-to guy for the press, the steadying influence, the voice of reason. And so they had to ask him about it.
Munson would lower his gaze, refusing to make eye contact, walk through them all, and say, "I'm just happy to be here."
It was as though he were Mr. Magoo, walking blindly through the turmoil, oblivious to it all. Of course, Thurman wasn't oblivious at all. He was well aware that his home wasn't like the homes of his classmates and teammates. He didn't want his coach to drop him off at home and see it. He didn't want readers to see inside those walls. And he certainly wasn't going to reveal himself to the media. No, he would pretend everything was fine, and that life would go on--la de da--no matter what chaos surrounded him.
The story Munson didn't tell is how his childhood had in fact prepared him for the Bronx Zoo. I see him now walking through the tensions of the Munson home and saying, in his own way, "I'm just happy to be here."
Thurman Lee Munson was born on June 7, 1947, in Akron, Ohio, the tire and rubber capital of the United States.
He was the youngest of four children. Darla, the oldest, was born in 1941, and Janice came along eleven months later. Duane, the oldest son, was born fourteen months after Janice. After those three children in twenty-five months, there was a four-year gap between Duane and Thurman.
When Thurman was four, the Munsons moved as tenants to a farm in Randolph, a half hour east. When he was eight, they moved to the city of Canton, a half hour south. When Thurman was in second grade, the family moved to 2015 Frazer Avenue NW, between Nineteenth and Twenty-first streets. Canton, the state's eighth largest city, would always remain Thurman's hometown, even after fame and fortune would come his way. He was comfortable and well respected there, partly from his Yankee fame but also from his schoolboy fame, when he was one of the best athletes the town would ever see.
The Frazer Avenue home was a modest two-story home (plus an attic) with a gable roof and bevel siding, and a homey, brick-bordered front porch. There was a side entrance, and about thirty feet of front lawn along the modestly trafficked street. The houses on the block were set close to one another, and represented a comfortable standard of living for a working-class family.
"We moved around quite a bit," Duane Munson recalls. "Thurm was probably too young to remember much of those years, and sometimes they're pretty vague on me too. We were very active kids and got into our share of trouble, but nothing very serious. When Dad did find out that we were bad, he let us know it with his leather belt.
"We lived on Ido Avenue in Akron, and that would have been where Thurm was born. I vaguely remember my grandfather and my mother having polio or having had polio, but beyond that, Akron is a blur."
"When I finished my chores, I'd play ball mostly," said Thurman. "I loved to play and I'd come home at night where my collie, Fritzy, was waiting for me.
"I started playing as a kid and I was 'littler' than most. This may sound corny, but I remember seeing a lot of horses back in Ohio and baseball reminded me of a stallion just running free. There was a freedom to the game. No matter what your problems were and what you had on your mind, when you played baseball you forgot about it."
From the Hardcover edition.