Friday, August 02, 2013

Good Night, Captain

I headed down the street on the afternoon of August 2, 1979 to hang out with my friends, as I would do pretty much every day during the summer. At this time of year, the primary activity would be a two-on-two game of baseball—or maybe I should call it tennis ball—in the street.

On this particular day, I showed up at the home of my friend Victor, who broke the news to me Thurman Munson had just died in a plane crash. At first, I didn't believe him, for a couple of reasons. For one, he was not a Yankees fan, and secondly, this was the type of joke that was not beneath him to tell. I may have been considered an easy target as well, I'll admit.

I went inside his house to ask his mother and turn on the television. Both sources confirmed the devastating news. This was far from the saddest news I'd ever heard—both my grandmothers died when I was nine—but, as a 12-year old not wanting to cry in front of my friend, I struggled to hold back tears.

Just prior to the 1976 season, Munson was named the first captain of the Yankees since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939. As much as Derek Jeter currently embodies the qualities that make him stand out as one who is truly worthy of the honor, so did Munson. In fact, although a few of my favorite players—Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry—also held that role, in my opinion there are only four men in history worthy of the Yankee captaincy: Gehrig, Munson, Jeter and Don Mattingly.

In considering the previous statement, I asked my dad who would have been the most likely candidate to hold such a post between the Gehrig and Munson years. His feeling was either Yogi Berra or Phil Rizzuto would have been the top choices, but neither seemed to possess quite the leadership ability as the aforementioned four.

Until Darryl Kile died of a coronary blockage during the 2002 season, Munson remained the last active player to lose his life during the regular season, so the moving tributes paid to him in the games that followed still stand as indelible memories to me.

On August 3, in the first game following his death, the Yankees starters took the field to begin the game. All of them, except catcher Jerry Narron, that is. Following a prayer, a moment of silence, and Robert Merrill's rendition of "America the Beautiful," the Yankee Stadium crowd burst into a ten-minute standing ovation. Narron remained in the dugout for the entire time, as television cameras focused on his teammates' reactions, and his empty position—or, should I say, the spot vacated by Munson—behind home plate.

Three days later, the entire team attended Munson's funeral in Canton, Ohio, then flew back to New York to play in that night's game. Bobby Murcer, after delivering a eulogy that afternoon, drove in all five runs—including a three-run homer and walk-off two-run single in the 9th—in a 5-4 Yankees victory.

Coming off back-to-back World Series victories, the Yankees' 1979 performance had come back down to earth even prior to Munson's death, although at 58-48 (.547), the season was hardly a lost cause. It may be coincidence the team would have to wait until 1996—Jeter’s rookie season—to climb back atop the baseball world. But, then again, it might not be.

Regardless, 34 years later, Thurman is still deeply missed.

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