'Munson': New captain of the Yankees

Editor's note: This excerpt from Thurman Munson's biography by Marty Appel, "Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain," is published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc. Munson died in a small plane crash 30 years ago Sunday. This excerpt is about the early part of the 1976 season, when the catcher was named the Yankees' sixth captain and first since Lou Gehrig.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Marty Appel

The news of his being named captain was not made official until two days later, prior to the Yankees' second game in their newly refurbished stadium. (And in his first at bat that day as captain, Munson homered, making him the first Yankee to homer in the new stadium.)

So much news was being made by the reopening of the park that it was thought to withhold it until game two. Many had known about it for weeks, but the official announcement came on the seventeenth.

"What about Joe McCarthy's pledge to retire the position with Lou Gehrig?" asked Phil Pepe of the Daily News.

"If Joe McCarthy knew Thurman Munson, he'd agree this was the right guy at the right time," George Steinbrenner replied. It was a great answer. And it was probably true. Thurman did indeed have most of the characteristics that made a player a team leader. They didn't extend to media relations and fan relations, but among his peers, he was seen as the perfect man at the perfect time in the franchise's history.

The Yankees got off quickly and were enjoying a wonderful season under Billy Martin. While it was true that he didn't have a full spring training to work with, the team won five of their first six to go right to first place, and never looked back. After twelve years without a pennant, the 1976 Yankees were making this look all too easy.

On May 20 in New York, as though the rivalry needed refueling, the Yankees and Red Sox engaged in a brawl, set off by a home plate collision between Lou Piniella and Carlton Fisk. In the ensuing scuffle, pitcher Bill Lee's shoulder was seriously injured after a clobbering from Graig Nettles. This time, Munson was off to the side in a role as peacemaker, perhaps attributable to his new captaincy, but knowing Munson, probably just owing to his arriving late to the party.

There was a momentary setback on June 5, when a wild throw by Munson, no strange occurrence by now, resulted in a loss to Oakland. The fans booed and Thurman flipped them off with the well-known "gesture." Another player might have been doomed forever by the Bronx faithful. But the Yankee fans loved it, cheered him the next time up, and never got on him again.

Of giving the fans the finger, Thurman would say, "I wouldn't suggest doing that every day to win friends and influence people, but at the time, I felt I got a bum rap and did what I had to, right or wrong. It came out right, I guess."

Thurman could also be funny, especially after a drink or two after a long airport delay. In the days when the Yankees still flew on commercial flights, he was once playing his tape deck too loud. Alerted to some passenger complaints, Billy Martin sent Elston Howard back to tell Thurman to turn the music down.

"What are you, the music coach?" he said to poor Ellie. It was one of the more memorable lines on a flight that was too delayed for everyone's good.

If being captain gave Thurman a new sense of responsibility, the only way I saw it demonstrated was when I needed a favor from him, as when I asked him to pose with a sponsor before the game, accept a pregame plaque, or meet some VIP visitors.
Before being named captain, he'd snarl and tell me what I could do with the request. So I'd get another player. "I don't do that," he would say to me.

Now, as captain, his sense of responsibility took over. He'd say, "What time do you need me to be there?" I'd tell him and he wouldn't show up. So I'd scramble to get another player at the last second. I liked it better the original way.

The best example of this would come on Old-Timers' Day in 1976, when we had Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Munson all present -- a chance to take a picture of this great lineage of Yankee catching, going back to 1928. We were unable to accomplish this until now because Yogi had been coaching or managing the Mets, and hadn't been to an Old-Timers' game during Thurman's time with the Yankees. Not even in 1972, when they retired his number.

So I rounded up Dickey, Berra, and Howard with no problem. Dickey was a wonderful older gentleman. Berra and Howard, both coaches, were fine. And then I ran around looking for Thurman. He was in his underwear in the players' lounge, eating a doughnut, watching a rerun of The Three Stooges on Channel 11. I explained what we wanted to do and that he'd need to get fully dressed and meet us on the field.

"What time do you need me?" he asked. I laughed. "No, I mean it this time," I said. "I've wanted to get this picture taken for years!" He sighed, got up from the lounge chair, and walked to his locker to get dressed.

But he didn't appear on the field. I ran back into the clubhouse and Pete Sheehy told me to try the players' lounge. There he was, still in his underwear, watching TV again. It was the same Three Stooges show. I wanted to cry but I could only laugh. Dickey, Berra, and Howard were by the dugout with Michael Grossbardt, our photographer.

I finally got Munson out for the picture. I loved that picture. And when I went to Thurman's home in Canton three years later for his funeral, there was the photo, enlarged and framed, in his office. He liked it too.