Thurman Munson: Image is nothing, and once we were cool with that

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. … Thurman Munson made it a virtue to be uncool, winning over the young and the hip with his decidedly unhip approach to his profession.

—Marty Appel, Munson: The Life and Death of
a Yankee Captain
, Doubleday, 2009

Off the field, Thurman Munson was everything I would despise today, at least politically — a gun-collector with “antihippie” sensibilities in the shadow of the Vietnam War, a budding real-estate developer investing in sprawl malls, a jock with a bullying sense of humor (one of his favorite “jokes” was to punch his own team’s official photographer in the ribs) who had little sense of the importance of newspaper coverage to the fans of a baseball team (and thus, the team itself).

And you know what? I still love Thurman Munson. Hypocrite, me? Guilty. But perhaps Yankee fans (and embittered sort-of ex-Yankee fans like myself) loved him because he was all blue-collar dirt and grit, perhaps because he wasn’t one to be misled by others and instead charted his own course, perhaps, as Jeff Pearlman hints, he wasn’t one to be overly concerned about image.

Sad and devastating as it was, it may be somehow appropriate that Thurman Munson’s life ended at the end of the Seventies. It was almost as if he was the last in a line of athletes playing for Old New York. He certainly was the last of the polyester decade. Meanwhile, a new era was just getting underway where image-making and image-maintaining meant everything.

Marty Appel has written an insightful new book about his friend and one-time collaborator, Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain. While the book is certainly not an unauthorized tell-all, Munson’s widow and his children choose not to actively participate in its creation, and perhaps the book is better for it. Appel worked with Munson as the Yankees’ PR guy for much of the Seventies, and he seems fond enough of Munson that there is at least the hint of perception, whether accurate or not, that there might be even more to the great story the author tells, that perhaps there are a few warts he chose not to expose. The family cooperation might have made this seem more of a flaw in the finished book, as if the endorsement of the family would make it seem that all of the man’s rough edges had been scrubbed entirely away, and that all that remained standing was a proud saint cast in granite — towering, but unknowable.

But without the family’s active participation, the book somehow seems better balanced — respectful, at times perhaps a little too close to the subject, but also truthful and willing to look at the man’s life and circumstances of his plane-crash death on Aug. 2, 1979 more honestly. The 30 years of perspective surely helped with that, too.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Munson, the man, comes off as a bit of an asshole, but he’s our kind (and my kind) of asshole — you love and respect him as a player, competitor, and captain and for bringing the Yankees two World Series championships through pain, never once going on the disabled list in his career at the most physically demanding position. He played 152 games in his 1976 MVP season (catching 121 of them). Three decades later, guys go on the DL for having an itchy hamstring (though not if you’re on the Mets, apparently, until it’s too late). You love Munson more for his bluntness and his complete lack of pretension and artifice.

Appel makes that point better than I can with an enlightening anecdote — he tells the story (told before, but worth repeating) of how Munson once gave the New York fans the finger after they booed him. Far from enraging them further, the fans loved it, giving him a rousing ovation the next time he went to bat.

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RIP The Bird

I was a tad too young to fully appreciate Mark Fidrych’s magical 1976 rookie season, but I remember being taken by the loose-limbed pitcher named after Big Bird, as (the likely apocryphal) legend has it. To a kid growing up in the late Seventies and taken with baseball as practiced by the colorful, bickering and triumphant Yankees of the Reggie Jackson-Thurman Munson “Bronx is Burning” era, The Bird was a nice counterweight, a good guy for the kids who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Big Bird, a pitcher who talked to baseballs, groomed the mound with his hands while kneeling, and whose curly blonde hair bounced from underneath his Detroit Tigers cap while thrilling a generation of future baseball fans still in the first decade of their lives.

So it was sad to see the news that he died earlier this week at age 54 while working on his Massachusetts farm.

For a kid born into a Watergate world and raised on a cocktail of Star Wars, Sesame Street and Son-of-Sam tabloid wars, The Bird was very much part of our youth.