Thurman Munson would have been sixty-five years old this week. He should be showing up to Old Timer’s Day with the requisite paunch and the for-the-fans mutton chops still in place – frozen from the 1970s – laughing behind the batting cage with Sparky and Bucky, burying the hatchet with Reggie “Not the Straw that Stirs the Drink” Jackson. The number fifteen would still be retired, the monument erected out behind the centerfield wall, but not posthumously.
Baseball, really more than any other professional sport, teaches its fans a great life lesson: you can’t win them all. A team can lose sixty games in a season and it would be regarded as a great season; a hitter can fail seventy percent of the time and still make the Hall of Fame. His career cut short, Thurman Munson is not enshrined in baseball’s great museum, but his plaque is etched in the minds of those Yankee fans who got to see him play the game: always the right way and always hard.
His gruff manner belied the heart of a gentleman; when he was dying in the plane crash that took his life his final words to his companions were to ask if they were okay. His defiant stance was embodied in the beard that he wore beneath the tools of ignorance despite being against George Steinbrenner’s team policies toward player appearance.
Speaking of “The Boss,” one has to imagine that the Captain would have worn out his welcome at some point. The banishments of the stars of those great, Bronx Zoo-era teams such as Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage probably would have reached Munson, too. But just as clear is the eventual return of the prodigal son to the pinstripes. Munson as the Yankee manager doesn’t seem so farfetched as we see a string of catchers becoming prized skippers.
Thurman Munson, like many icons, went out in his prime. Bringing up the likes of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe does not feel like a stretch. The generation before mine know where they were and what they were doing when JFK was shot; Yankee fans who grew up in the 1970s, like me, remember vividly the events of August 2, 1979.
Last year on that day as I blogged about my experiences and remembrances of that fateful day, the kid with whom I had been playing Wiffleball (and with whom I hadn’t spoken it in about thirty years) somehow came across my blog and commented that he had been telling his friends about that day and our interrupted Whiffleball game.
I can still see Thurman, his stocky body clad in Yankee pinstripes, the only uniform he would wear, the baseball clutched in his right hand showing the umpire that he held on after a violent collision at home plate: the very picture of what we are talking about when we mention Yankee pride. Yeah, Thurman Munson would have been an old man – officially – this week; AARP and all, but to those of fortunate to see him play, he still embodies everything that is great about baseball and the New York Yankees.