NOTE: This is a Mets-oriented blog, but I sometimes venture into New York baseball and baseball in general. Today is the sad anniversary of the tragic death of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson. A long time ago, I interviewed Munson’s widow, Diana, about that day a long time ago, It’s not about the Mets, but of a New York baseball icon. I hope you’ll enjoy.
It was one of those bitter cold days. The kind where the wind whips your face, where your fingers ache and even your eyelashes hurt.
Diana Munson doesn’t remember the year but recalls the afternoon when she and her husband, Thurman Munson, the captain catcher of the New York Yankees, were running errands in Manhattan and drove into a gas station.
“The guy wouldn’t come out, so Thurman got out and started pumping the gas,” Diana said. “He was wearing jeans and a flannel jacket and boots – kind of a typical Ohio guy out of place in New York at the time.”
Diana sat in the car as her husband pumped the gas and a car pulled in behind theirs.
“I remember, the guy said, `Hey buddy, when you’re done with that fill this one up,’ ” Diana said. “If he only knew who he was talking to – he never would have believed it. The cutest thing about this story is he filled it up for him.”
Diana Munson’s voice paused, it softened, it became reflective.
“Those are the things about him that I just loved,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite stories about him. I think about that a lot.”
Her memories are more frequent now as she is reminded of the cruelest day of her life – on August 2, 1979, her husband was killed in a plane accident near their offseason Canton, Ohio, home. It was a Thursday, an off day for the Yankees, and Munson was practicing take-offs and landings in his twin-engine Cessna Citation.
Later that day, he was to meet her at an office to sign papers dedicating “Munson Street” in a nearby housing development. However, Munson was always busy and for him to be running late wasn’t unusual. Diana dismissed it and went to the grocery store and continued home.
“I was unloading the groceries and the people from the airport came to my house,” Diana said, her voice trailing to a whisper.
“Nothing has ever compared to it in my life,” she said of the chill – far more numbing than the one she experienced that day in New York – that ran down her spine.
“I’ve lost lots of people in my life, but it was the way that it happened. You’re not supposed to lose someone who is that young. You’re not supposed to lose someone on a beautiful day … not in the middle of baseball season. Thurman was the best father that I had ever watched. Looking at those little kids and knowing what they were about to go through just about killed me.”
Within minutes, the news was on the wire.
Yankees reliever Goose Gossage was getting dressed for a night on the town when he got the call from owner George Steinbrenner. Bobby Murcer was “stunned when I heard the news … I cried a lot at that time.” Yankees first baseman Chris Chambliss was driving with his wife when he heard the news on the radio.
Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, then the manager of the Mets, was in the dugout when the message flashed on the scoreboard.
“It was up on the board,” Torre said. “Just shock. Lee Mazzilli was in the batter’s box. He got out of the box and looked at me, `What do I do?’ It was such an eerie sensation.”
That sensation has never left Diana Munson, but, “it took me a long time to come to peace with this.” Her memories of Munson and the life they shared have softened. Some – like the one at the gas station – have aged like a fine wine.
She remembers a thoughtful husband and loving father to Tracy, Kelly and Michael. Sometimes, she remembers that Munson considered quitting flying. That’s not so pleasant … it gnaws at her. She remembers when she first knew she was going to marry him: “I was 10 years old at the time and I wrote Mrs. Thurman Munson on my notebook.”
Murcer and Gossage recalled Munson’s work ethic, and Diana remembered him getting up at 6 in the morning to caddy at a golf course, then cut lawns before going to baseball practice. She recalls the three-sport star at Canton’s Lehman High School, and that he loved real estate and listening to Neil Diamond.
“My poor children knew every Neil Diamond song before they knew their nursery rhymes,” she said.
She remembers his laugh – “always the loudest one in the room,” she said – and the time he drove to a Brooklyn church from Canton in a snowstorm for a Christmas party to distribute toys to underprivileged children. Munson brought with him the Yankees’ fine money for that season, nearly $5,000.
She remembers for months after his death receiving letters from charities, thanking her for Munson’s generosity. “Believe it or not, there were many that I had never heard of,” she said. “But, that was like him. He never did it for the recognition, he did it for right reasons.”
Sometimes, her memories, like at Old Timer’s Games, drift to the days when Munson was a special baseball player.
The public memories of Munson are of a gruff, grouchy, squat catcher. They are of his feuds with Reggie Jackson – “The straw that stirs the drink” – and Carlton Fisk, the taller, thinner, chiseled catcher for the Boston Red Sox.
The Yankee championship teams of 1977 and 1978 were loaded with stars – Jackson, Chambliss, Graig Nettles and Lou Piniella – but Munson was captain. He was a six-time All-Star and the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1976. He hit .512, .320 and .320 again in his three World Series appearances. He was the 1970 Rookie of the Year and hit over .300 five times.
Nothing meant more to him than being a Yankee captain.
“He loved the Yankees. His heart was a true Yankee heart,” Diana said. “He didn’t want to be captain because whenever you single yourself out like that you feel like you’re not as much a part of the team. He was uncomfortable with that, but at the same time he was so proud of that.”
Munson was the real straw in the drink.
“He was the leader on those teams and everybody knew it,” Murcer said. “We all looked up to him because of his toughness and his ability to produce in the clutch. He had such an uncanny ability to come through when the pressure was on.”
Twenty years later, Yankees catcher Joe Girardi – now the team’s manager – saw for himself when he was channel surfing when on his screen popped the unmistakable image of Yankee Stadium.
“It was Classic Sports, and they were showing the Kansas City game,” Girardi said of the pivotal Game 3 of the 1978 American League Championship Series.
“I’ve heard a lot about that game and what he did. I wanted to see how he played so I kept watching.”
The series was tied 1-1 and the Yankees trailed 5-4 in the eighth inning when Munson – not normally known as a power hitter – crushed a line-drive, two-run homer off Royals reliever Doug Bird to give the Yankees a 6-5 victory.
Munson was named Most Valuable Player in the series and the Yankees went on to beat Los Angeles in six games in the World Series.
Hall of Famer George Brett played in that game. His Royals and the Yankees were one of baseball’s hottest rivalries in the 1970s.
“We hated the Yankees,” Brett said. “But we also respected them – and we all respected Thurman. He was so tough in the clutch and we feared him because he usually came through. However, the thing I’ll remember most about Thurman wasn’t that home run, but of something that happened in a fight we had against them.
“I slid hard into third base and Nettles and I started shoving each other. The benches cleared and it got real ugly. I remember being on the ground and Thurman was on top of me. I thought, `Uh, oh, he’s going to crush me,’ but all he did was whisper in my ear, `Don’t worry George, I won’t let anything happen to you.’ ”
Diana Munson said she gets sad when she returns to Yankee Stadium because it’s a reminder of what was and what could have been. It will be emotional for her tomorrow when she returns as the Yankees honor Munson on the anniversary of his death. The feelings will be a mix of pain and pride when she goes into the clubhouse and sees Munson’s locker that remains intact in his honor.
When the fans cheer her, they will be cheering their memories of her husband as a Yankee. But, if she hears it, she’ll love the Brett story, because it’s an appreciation of the man she loved – and always will.
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