EDITOR’S NOTE: He – Thurman Munson – will always be my favorite. The story that follows ran on this website 10 years ago – in July of 2009. I was fortunate enough to sit with author Marty Appel and pick his brains – one on one – for more than two hours at a book signing. Thurman Munson has two Union County connections that I can think of off the top of my head. One of his teammates for three years was Elliott Maddox, Union High School Class of 1966, while one player he competed against for his final two years as a player was the speedy Willie Wilson, Summit High School Class of 1974. When the Yankees made it back to the World Series in 1976 their right fielder for Game 1 in Cincinnati was Maddox. When Munson produced the game-winning home run in Game 3 of the 1978 ALCS at Yankee Stadium it was Wilson in left field running back and watching the ball travel to the Yankee Monuments. Maddox and Wilson were two of the best players to ever come out of New Jersey. Munson’s final home run at Yankee Stadium was off a pitcher with the last name Bird – Doug Bird on Friday, Oct. 6, 1978 – and it won the game – the blast that Wilson kept on watching go. This Friday – Aug. 2 – will be the 40th anniversary of Munson’s passing. Here’s what I wrote a decade ago about Appel’s biography – Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain.
EAST HANOVER – Thurman Munson was to catching what Don Rickles is to comedy.
He might have been an SOB at times, but if you really got to know him, you loved him and admired him.
And like Rickles he was good, very good.
At times he was even the best.
Why was the highly-competitive and sometimes tough to get along with Munson – the first New York Yankee named team captain since Lou Gehrig – thought of so highly by Yankee fans who saw him bust his butt behind the plate and deliver clutch hits time and time again during the course of the 1970s?
Why is Munson still very much adored by Yankee fans, even those that were too young to see him play, still to this day, coming on 30 years after his untimely death?
Those questions are best answered in Marty Appel’s biography titled Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain.
The book, which is receiving rave reviews, was released by Doubleday on July 7.
In less than a month – Aug. 2 to be exact – it will be an even 30 years since Munson’s tragic death, at age 32, when the private plane he was piloting crashed in his native Canton, Ohio.
The only team Munson ever played for was the New York Yankees, despite his desire at times to play closer to home for the Cleveland Indians.
The only number Munson wore as a Yankee was No. 15, which was immediately retired following his death. Tom Tresh wore No. 15 before Munson, but was traded to Detroit in 1969 before Munson came up to the Yankees for good in August of that year. The No. 15 uniform jersey was then provided to Munson by longtime equipment manager Pete Sheehy.
Appel, who began his career with the Yankees in their public relations department the year before Munson came aboard for good in August of 1969, initially wrote Munson’s autobiography that was published in 1978. An epilogue was added to the book after Munson died in 1979.
The present work is an insider’s account of the days surrounding Munson’s accident and the extraordinary and shrouded life he left behind.
This triumphant, energetic and tragic baseball biography captures the young man from Canton and his meteoric rise to stardom in baseball’s most storied franchise.
“All these years since his passing people would occasionally come up and say they really enjoyed that first book, his autobiography,” Appel said at a book-signing Saturday.
One of Appel’s upcoming signings is Aug. 2 from 3-5 p.m. at Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls. Appel hosted an event there on Aug. 2, 1999, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of Munson’s passing. Also in attendance that day was Munson’s widow Diane and former Yankee teammates Bobby Murcer and Gene Michael. Murcer passed away one year ago at the age of 62 from complications related to brain cancer.
“In my heart I knew it was not the full story, that there was so much more to tell,” Appel said. “It was a very uplifting story too, of how he broke a cycle of really unhappy, loveless homes, from his father’s to his own as a child.
“The way he turned that around with his life was a terrific story all by itself, even apart from the baseball. So, in my mind, I always felt there was still another book to be written here.
“With the 30th anniversary approaching and interest in him revived with “The Bronx is Burning” on ESPN (which came out in the summer of 2007) being a factor, Doubleday said, ‘you know what, this is a good time for the book.’”
At Saturday’s book signing, the third Appel has done, he found a long line at the start of the two-hour session, with one person at the beginning buying nine copies. It was well-received to say the least.
One gentleman, who had already read the book, came up to Appel to explain to him his favorite passage. Many fans initiated brief conversations with the author by recanting where they were the day Munson died and how grief stricken they were by the Yankee legend’s passing.
“The book was actually ready last winter, but they (Doubleday) wanted to wait until closer to the anniversary to issue it,” Appel said.
Actor Erik Jensen, who was born and raised in northern Minnesota, won critical praise for his performance as Munson in “The Bronx is Burning.”
Appel agreed wholeheartedly that Jensen’s portrayal was right on the money.
“He’s become a friend,” Appel said of Jensen, whose biography on The Internet Movie Database does not list his age. “He’s a great guy, he’s a very talented actor and always working. He’s not a famous name, but always employed.”
“We just had lunch two days ago, in fact. He portrayed Thurman as such an interesting guy that you really wanted to know more about him and that helped a lot.”
Following his years as the Yankees’ head PR director, Appel became an Emmy Award-winning television producer and coauthored a number of other sports books. Because of his role with the Yankees in 1976 and 1977, he was also brought in to assist the production of “The Bronx is Burning.”
“As a consulting producer I’m a little prejudiced, but I think it was great,” Appel said. “People would say to me sometimes that surely they exaggerated (manager) Billy Martin’s ears on (actor) John Tuturro That’s not true. I have a picture where Billy looks exactly like that. I show the picture and people go,’oh, I guess they were right.’”
Munson died six days after my 16th birthday on the first Thursday in August of 1979 – one month before my junior year in high school was about to begin.
I was fortunate enough to have seen him play in two games at the old Yankee Stadium, with my grandfather – a Nutley resident for more than 30 years – taking me both times. My grandfather would tell me stories of, as a teenager, seeing Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play in their heyday in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The first time my eyes opened widely in delight when I first walked into the old Yankee Stadium was on Saturday, Sept. 2, 1972, which was a 2-1 Yankee win over the Chicago White Sox bolstered by a Munson RBI-single. I incorrectly remembered the hit as a solo home run and was corrected by the best baseball site on the web called, www.baseballreference.com, which has the boxscore of the game and many others.
The second and last game I went to at the old Stadium came exactly 15 days after my 10th birthday – Saturday, Aug. 11, 1973 – and was the last Old-Timers’ Day there on the 50th anniversary of Yankee Stadium. Mickey Mantle hit a home run batting right handed over the left field fence off Whitey Ford in the Old-Timer’s Game. The A’s then beat the Yankees 7-3. The Yankees went from first place that day to finish fourth for the third straight year, while the A’s were about to win their second of three straight championships by beating the Mets in the World Series that October. The Mets went from last place the last day of August to winning the National League East for the second time one month later and then, with 82 victories, knocked off a 99-win Cincinnati Reds team in five games in the NLCS.
What I saw in Munson was a player who wasn’t afraid to get dirty to get the job done, a true leader. He made sure that nobody on the field hustled more than him and he played hurt the way that other famous New York superstar athletes Mickey Mantle and Joe Namath did before him.
Then when the Yankees made the post-season three years in a row during the latter stages of his 11-year career, he came through in the clutch time and time again with big hits and stellar defensive plays, much like the way present captain Derek Jeter used to and like the way Yankee fans today hope that Alex Rodriguez will one day if the Yankees ever get back to the post season.
“He played the game hard and true every single day and never cheated the fans out of their money,” Appel said. “You could see this guy was a leader on the field even before they named him captain.”
Munson was officially named captain prior to the 1976 season, a year in which he went on to be named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Still to this day he is the only Yankee to have been named Rookie of the Year (1970) and MVP.
When Gehrig could not play anymore because of the disease he was suffering from – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – present Yankee manager Joe McCarthy declared the position of captaincy retired.
George Steinbrenner felt that the Yankees needed a leader and said that he thought that if McCarthy knew Munson that he wouldn’t have a problem with him being named the next Yankee captain some 40 years after Gehrig was first chosen.
Gehrig’s No. 4 was the first number in sports history to be retired. The 70-year anniversary of his famous, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech was July 4 of this year.
Like Munson, he died in his 30s, 17 days shy of his 38th birthday.
“He was an obvious choice to be the first captain since Lou Gehrig because of the way he carried himself,” Appel said of Munson’s on the field and off the field presence.
When you attend a game at the new Yankee Stadium you see just as many younger and older men and women and even some children wearing No. 15 jerseys as you see other jersey numbers worn, include Gehrig’s No. 4, Babe Ruth’s No. 3 and Don Mattingly’s No. 23. That is also a big part of Munson’s legacy.
“I was aware of that, so I started taking pictures of all the people with 15s and we made that like a film strip at the beginning of the book on the title page,” Appel said.
Much was written about the day Munson died five years ago on the 25th anniversary of his passing. There were new details about the plane crash and how the other two men that were aboard the jet air craft were able to walk away with minimal-at best injuries.
“Actually, that’s one of the things that’s coming out in this book that people sort of remember that Munson died in a plane crash, pilot error,” Appel said. “There was a lot more to the story because in his final moments there was heroism there too.
“He saved the lives of his two passengers with his quick thinking at the end after they could no longer come out of the crash inevitability and saved his own life as well. Had they not hit a tree stump, all three of them would have walked out of that plane.”
On page 72 of the biography – in Chapter 7 – you will read that Jack Danzis ran a trophy and gift business in New Jersey and provided the Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day gifts for years.
Danzis, who has a grandson who played on Livingston High School’s first state championship football team last fall, was present at the book signing. He made it a point to come tell me that Munson was truly a special man and not to believe that he was just a moody ball player.
“You know how everybody said how grumpy and how nasty Thurman was,” Danzis said. “Well he was the greatest, nicest person. Not only was he a great player, but he did many nice things behind the scenes to be there for people.”
Some of what you learn from reading the book is that the position of catcher was not his primary high school position and that it was another sport where he had many more offers to play in college.
Appel said that his favorite Munson moment was getting Thurman to pose with three great Yankee catchers before him – Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard – for a photo of all four.
However, it was a photo opportunity that almost never came to be realized. In the book Appel explains what he had to do to get Munson to be a part of that photo.
Two positive Munson anniversaries – both 40-year ones from the 1969 season – will take place in August. On the 8th will be the anniversary of his first major league hit – a single off Catfish Hunter, a Hall of Fame pitcher who he would go on to catch as a Yankee teammate. On the 10th will be the anniversary of his first major league home run, which was part of a back-to-back-to-back solo homer sequence in which Murcer hit one, Munson hit his first and Michael hit one in an eventual 5-1 win over the A’s.
Even if you are not a Munson or Yankee fan, the book is an entertaining and informative read on what baseball was like in the late 1960s and 1970s. Appel was there and through countless interviews with Munson family members, teammates and opposing players, you find yourself learning things about the game and about Munson and the Yankees that you did not know before.
“Finding his brother and sister was huge,” Appel said. “You really got the full picture of his childhood from them. Even Bobby Murcer said, ‘Thurman had a brother?’ He didn’t even know. That was a great find for me.
“His athleticism, in general, was sort of that he could play golf, bowling, billiards and handball. He would try it once, master it, and never lose. It’s like anything that came his way he could master.”
Appel was no longer the Yankees’ PR director in 1979. He was working for MLB at the time.
Here is his recollection of the day of Munson’s funeral in Canton, Ohio, which took place on Monday, Aug. 6, 1979: “It was an unforgettable day. All of us got up about 5 in the morning. I was working in the baseball commissioner’s office at the time.
“I went to the funeral as a friend of Thurman’s and in no official capacity. Because I was there, I did have a little role in picking up the commissioner (Bowie Kuhn at the time) at the airport, which I messed up.
“We all landed at the Cleveland airport at the same time. I had a rental car because I needed to pick up the commissioner the next morning. I drove with Lou Piniella and Murcer to Diane’s house. Their wives were there too.
“They were working on their eulogies in the car, comparing notes and making sure they weren’t going to say the same thing. It was really an interesting time, looking back on it.
“At the moment we were all so grief stricken, thinking about it. We were all saying that we couldn’t believe that we were here. We were just with the guy a short time ago.”
From a flying standpoint, was it too much too fast for Munson?
“We all thought that,” Appel said. “But none of us really knew that he was actually flying home every single day after the game.
“It was too much too fast. This came out at the trial, subsequently, that the manufacturer of the airplane were the ones that train you and license you, so they were pushing it along too because they were looking to sell a jet.”
At times Munson thought he was invincible. He said he loved to fly in order to spend more time with his family and get away from the daily pressures of being a Yankee, finding a needed kind of solitude in the air.
He will always be remembered by Yankee fans as No. 15 and as a one-time captain of two Yankee World Series championship teams.
In reading, Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain, you learn much more about an athlete who left us way too long before his time.