One of the greatest things about being a father is that after hearing your elders start sentences with“when I was your age” for much of your early life, you finally get to start sentences the same way with your kids. Wednesday night was one of those moments. While watching the Yankee game with my younger son, it was mentioned that June 7 would have been Thurman Munson’s 70th birthday. And as the broadcast deviated from the game for a moment to talk about the former Captain, he asked “who was Thurman Munson?”
“When I was your age,” I said, as if I’ve been waiting 40 years for this moment “Thurman Munson was the catcher for the Yankees…”. I went on how he was a gritty, humble, unassuming type of guy. I realized that I was probably speaking about him in a way that suggested that I grew up next door to the guy; where we sold candy together door-to-door to raise money for our annual class trip to Washington DC. But like I said, I’ve waited 40 years for these kinds of conversations, and when you have them, they’re often told through a romantic prism without even knowing it. I mentioned that Munson could sometimes be prickly, and more often than not had an adversarial relationship with the press. But most importantly, I said, he was a leader at a time with the Yankees were most volatile, at a time when the city they played for was most volatile. I went on for a bit more about this until the story reached its inevitable conclusion.
|Billy Martin with Munson in the background. We thought this was normal.|
|Munson to Billy Martin: Stay out of this.|
So August 2, 1979 seemed like any other summer day in the woodsy, northern Westchester town of Pound Ridge, New York. I was nine years old, and I was going into fifth grade in the fall. For a suburb of New York City, Pound Ridge did much to hold on to its bucolic charm. Old stone walls built two or three hundred years prior by the original settlers were found throughout. All the street signs were in the shape of a pointing finger with a white background and black lettering. There was no police department, just a resident state trooper that was sometimes there. And even in 2017 there are still no traffic lights. The Cold War was also alive and well at the time, and I remember our fears of nuclear annihilation were assuaged when my fifth-grade teacher assured us that if New York City was struck by a Soviet warhead, Pound Ridge was just far enough away to not get any fallout. “Besides,” she added. “The winds tend to blow east towards Long Island anyway.”
A typical Pound Ridge summer was attending the free day camp at the town park (either Ultimate Frisbee or Capture the Flag - take your pick - with a cookout afterwards), and then we all headed to the public pool for the balance of the afternoon. There was a snack bar by the pool called Vons, where they had a small, but rather loud playing portable radio. To this day whenever I hear songs like “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner or “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty, I think of that place. It was the late afternoon and I was home from my typical Pound Ridge summer routine of day camp/pool when the rotary phone attached to the kitchen wall rang. It was my neighbor Peter Welsh, who lived two houses down. I remember probably not wanting to talk to him, I’ve always hated phone calls, and there was always this competitive underpinning in my relationship with Peter, since he and I were both the same age, and had moved to Pound Ridge within a very short time of each other. Sometimes we were good friends, sometimes not.
“Geoff, it’s Peter”. Peter’s voice was easy to spot, it was raspy, throaty; like Froggy from The Little Rascals.
“Did you hear the news?”
“Thurman Munson died.”
“Get out of here,” I thought he was joking. Besides, I specifically remember him saying that he died which to me suggested that he succumbed to natural causes. How could the catcher of the New York Yankees just…die?
And so I ran to the TV, turned on the local news, and there it was, the indelible image of Munson’s incinerated Cessna along some runway in Ohio. This was my “where were you when…” moment for when I learned that Thurman Munson was dead; talking to Peter Welsh on the phone from my kitchen in Pound Ridge, New York. What’s interesting about this, is that when you speak to people who were around at the time, they all say the same thing; which is, of all the colossal events that have happened in the nearly four decades since, there’s something about Thurman Munson’s death that stands out above almost anything else. Nobody is saying that Munson’s death is on par with the historical significance of, say, 9/11, or the scores of other jarring headlines since 1979. However, the clarity of the moment, and the barrage of shrapnel that one took to their central nervous system as a result of Munson’s passing is on par with that of 9/11 for so many. You might need an extra second or two to recall what you were doing when Ronald Reagan was shot, but you can rattle right off your tongue what you were doing when Thurman Munson was killed. For what reason is anyone’s guess, but damned if isn’t the case.
|Daily News' Front Page Story of Munson's Death.|
No doubt old #15 would have been content.