Boss Steinbrenner's 25-Year Reign over the New York Yankees
by Maury Allen
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Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street was not modeled after Thurman Munson of the Yankees. He easily could have been.
"He's not moody," relief pitcher Sparky Lyle, a good pal of Munson's, once said of him. "Moody means you're nice some of the time."
"When he gets on a waitress in a restaurant," his biographer Marty Appel (Bob Fishel's successor under George Steinbrenner as Yankees PR director) once said, "Diane spends the rest of the night making up for him."
Diane Munson was an attractive woman, a grade-school sweetheart, a devoted wife, and the mother of their two daughters and a hyperactive four-year-old son.
Munson had joined the Yankees out of Kent State University, scene of a bloody anti-Vietnam War demonstration between students and the Ohio National Guard. He had played outstanding baseball in the Cape Cod League for college students in 1968, been drafted by the Yankees, assigned to Binghamton where he hit .301 in seventy-one games, moved up to the Syracuse club in 1969, and brought up to the Yankees after only ninety-nine professional games.
Bill Clinton was not the only youngster in the late 1960s to dance around his military obligations. Major League baseball teams constantly changed the military status of their players and moved them from one reserve unit out of the area to one in the area with a few quick phone calls and enough tickets left for the officers at the big league will-call windows.
Shortly after he came to the Yankees, Munson's reserve unit was moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey. That meant he could fulfill his military obligations in the reserve and stay out of the Vietnam draft. It also meant he would be available for the Yankees for most of their home games.
Munson was unique when he first walked into the Yankee clubhouse. He had none of the awe most players carried when they first appeared at the Stadium - the House That Ruth Built, and DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, and Mantle had brought so much glory to. He seemed incredibly self-confident, as if great success in the Cape Cod League made for an easy transition to big league baseball. There was an intensity about his manner and a total lack of humor. It was as if the mission he was on, success in baseball, was not for a career but for survival. What manner of goblins were marching through the head of this guy?
Yogi Berra had been an odd-shaped Yankee catcher, destined for the baseball Hall of Fame. Munson immediately attracted that same kind of special notice. He was a husky right-handed hitting catcher with a very strong arm. He was a line drive hitter who could smack baseballs to the deepest part of the field. Unlike most catchers, he ran well and would often surprise the opposition by taking an extra base or stealing a base. Manager Ralph Houk, a backup catcher behind Berra in his playing time, drooled over Munson. He saw him as his monument to Yankee lore, as Casey Stengel had always envisioned Mantle. Houk, careful with praise, puffed hard on his cigars, blew smoke through his managerial office, and bragged about Munson. It was as if Houk had admired him the way he admired the guys he fought with in World War II. Instinctively, Houk knew that Munson, if the cause was just, would take a bullet for him or climb a rocky hill as Army Rangers did.
Munson's physique was odd for a professional athlete. He was not tall, trim, and graceful on the field. He appeared shorter than his full height of five feet eleven inches, heavier than his 195 pounds, and wider than a bread basket. Players are notorious for immediately capturing any physical irregularity and using it against a player for comic relief.
A World War II player named Pete Gray batted .218 for the 1945 St. Louis Browns a year after the team had actually won the 1944 American league pennant. Gray had lost his right arm in a childhood accident. Instead of admiring the grit it took to play ball and actually make the big leagues with one arm, his teammates rode Gray mercilessly about his handicap. They called him every rotten name one could imagine for a man with one arm, sort of the white Jackie Robinson, abused for a condition he could not control. Gray had one characteristic in common with Munson. They were both angry, crusty men.
What allowed Munson to deal with the riding was simply the fact that he soon proved to be an exceptional player, and his teammates publicly admired him for that. "I'd play Adolf Hitler," Billy Martin once said, "if he would help us win." Reggie Jackson was about the only player I could recall who, although an exceptional performer, was still detested by most of his teammates.
Fritz Peterson, my pal, was the quickest with the quips about Munson. He tagged him Tugboat, Squatty Body, and Burly Boy after his large girth. Peterson would scout the stores around the Stadium and on the road for postcards of fat men and women. He would send these cards to Munson at the Stadium where Pete Sheehy, subtle and quiet, would manage to put them on top of Munson's fan mail. Peterson once saw a comic book filled with drawings of a fat character named Humphrey Pennyworth. He cut out several of the pictures, pasted them in Munson's locker, and waited for his reaction. Munson, grown used to this ribbing by now, ignored the pictures. If Peterson couldn't get a rise out of Munson for these fat pictures, why bother?
From All Roads Lead to October by Maury Allen.
Copyright © 2000 by Maury Allen. Reprinted with permission.