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Memories of Munson's death remain strong with Narron

Brewers bench coach was backup catcher for Yankees great in August 1979 @TracyRingolsby

The moment is forever burned into Jerry Narron's memory.

A young catcher with the New York Yankees, Narron and his roommate, Ron Davis, were spending a lazy off-day at their apartment in New Jersey 35 years ago Saturday when Catfish Hunter called and told them to turn on the television.

And there it was. The reports that Thurman Munson, the first Yankee since Lou Gehrig to be given the title "Captain," had died in a private plane crash. Instead of heading back to New York from Chicago, where the Yankees had last played, Munson, who had a private pilot's license, flew home to Ohio to spend time with his family.

While practicing landings and takeoffs at the Akron-Canton Airport, Munson's Cessna Citation crashed, and he suffered a broken neck.

"Ron and I just sat there, in silence, not believing what we were seeing," said Narron. "It was unreal."

The reality set in the next night at Yankee Stadium, Aug. 3, 1979. The Yankees hosted the Baltimore Orioles. Narron, a 23-year-old rookie, was the one who had to step in behind the plate for "The Captain."

"That day at the ballpark, there had been a death in the family,'' said Narron, now a bench coach with the Milwaukee Brewers. "Solemn doesn't begin to give you a feeling for the emotions."

Back then, the players from the home team took the field and stood at their position during the playing of the national anthem. When the Yankees headed out of the dugout that night, however, Narron remained behind, standing next to Yankees great and Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.

Home plate remained vacant.

It was a mandate from owner George Steinbrenner.

"It told you how sacred Thurman was to George," said Narron.

And the reaction of the 51,151 fans who filled Yankee Stadium underscored the respect Munson had earned from the public.

"It was so emotional," said Narron, remembering the face of Munson glancing down at the crowd from the center-field scoreboard. "To have that ovation that lasted a couple of minutes made it so evident the respect people had for Thurman."

Narron was in another world.

A left-handed hitter struggling to get to .200 in his first big league season, he had to face Orioles lefty Tippy Martinez, and struck out twice before Oscar Gamble pinch-hit for him, and Gamble also struck out. The Orioles won, 1-0, but on that night, nobody seemed too concerned about the outcome -- not even Steinbrenner.

"It shook George up," said Narron. "They had that bond. They both wanted to win so badly. They were both from Ohio."

That game was so different from any other Narron ever played.

Filling in for Munson was part of Narron's job, but the finality of what happened that led to his start on this night was an emotional challenge.

"The night before [Munson's death], he played first base and I caught," said Narron. "His knees were bothering him. The game before that, he played a couple innings and then they took him out early. The plan was to give him a few days off from catching.

"But that night at Yankee Stadium, that was different than any game I ever played."

What may be the ultimate moment of Narron's career was in 2009, 30 years after Munson's death, when he was invited to participate in the Yankees Old-Timer's Day.

Munson's widow, Diana, threw out the first pitch. Narron caught it.

"The day was about Thurman's memory," said Narron. "Some of the Yankees fans had to be wondering what a career [.211] hitter was doing playing in a Yankees Old-Timer's Game. I would have, if I was a fan."

Narron, however, was more than a fan. He was a part of that memory of Munson.

"He was a leader and everybody liked him," said Narron. "He and [Yankees manager] Billy [Martin] were close. Lou [Piniella], Catfish, club officials, pitchers, position players, regulars, backups, it didn't matter. Munson was the guy everybody turned to."

Munson had his own style, gruff but caring.

"He wasn't a style master," said Narron. "He wasn't a smooth talker."

Having spent the previous season at the Class A Advanced level, Narron was brought to big league Spring Training for the first time in 1977 to help ease the catching load on the big leaguers. One day during live batting practice, Narron was catching and Munson was hitting.

"You want my job, don't you?" Munson said.

"Yeah," Narron replied.

"Well," said Munson, "I'm going to practice hitting foul balls."

Narron smiled when he recalled the moment.

"The first couple he hit went right off my mask," said Narron. "He wanted me to know. It wasn't going to be easy. I better be tough if I wanted the job."

Nothing, however, prepared Narron for dealing with a moment as tough as that first pitch he caught in that first game after Munson's death.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Thurman Munson, Jerry Narron