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Yankees Magazine: Munson's legacy lives on

The oral accounts, not the tangible shrines, best foster memories of Thurman Munson
August 1, 2019

Canton, Ohio, is a city practically built on immortality. Rolling south down I-77, your first glimpse that you might be somewhere comes from the power lines suspended over the highway, supported by towers in the shape and iconic yellow of football goalposts. To your right, there’s the temple to the

Canton, Ohio, is a city practically built on immortality. Rolling south down I-77, your first glimpse that you might be somewhere comes from the power lines suspended over the highway, supported by towers in the shape and iconic yellow of football goalposts. To your right, there’s the temple to the gods of the sport, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with its familiar dome.

President William McKinley is buried here, in a Renaissance-inspired mausoleum on a 26-acre site, but it’s somehow an afterthought; we know who butters the bread around Canton. “It’s so much a football town,” says the owner of Tugboat’s Pub at Canton’s Meadowlake Golf Course. “You learn that real quick. It’s all football, all the time.”

When you’re a football player, getting to Canton is the dream. It’s what makes you live forever. If only the same could be said for Thurman Munson. The irony smacks you in the face throughout this city that deifies professional athletes.

Forty years after his tragic and stunning death just north of here, when the twin-engine Cessna Citation he was piloting crashed short of a runway, there are, indeed, monuments to Thurman Munson. You can find them around town, in the beautiful grave marker at Sunset Hills Burial Park, hard by Munson Street, which meanders along Belden Village. There’s the baseball stadium that bears his name just south of town; teamless and little-used, it’s not much to look at these days. There is, of course, the house on Frazer Avenue NW where he grew up unhappily, and, a few miles away, the one he years later joyfully poured himself into building for his wife, Diana, and their children, Tracy, Kelly and Michael. Five acres and 6,000 square feet of warmth and tenderness, emotions Munson was so keen to hide from the public during his Yankees years.

But the truest shrines move, and they can also move you. They are spoken, passed down through generations. They are worn. Baseball builds great monuments, and the Yankees especially so, but 40 years later, it’s the oral history, methodically and painfully maintained by his loving wife, that has helped Thurman Munson’s memory endure. “The reason why I love going to New York so much is because we still share that love and that bond with Thurman,” Diana says. “When I go to the Stadium, and people have the No. 15 jersey on, I go up and hug the people now. Mike said, ‘Mom, you’ve become somewhat of a stalker.’ He said, ‘You have to stop hugging everybody.’”

And that’s life for the woman who looked at the landscape in her moment of greatest grief and vowed never to become a professional widow. Diana lives a life of joy and value and worth, surrounded by family and grandchildren and happy memories. But her public-facing side remains the yang to Thurman’s yin. As she sits in the Canton pub that her son owns -- bearing the nickname of a father who died when he was just 4 years old -- Diana continues her foundational effort not so much to soften her late husband’s sharp edges, as to contextualize them. She remembers a great man, one Yankees fans, even those not yet born in 1979, still adore. And much as any professional athlete’s career can swallow his spouse’s life, Diana works to ensure that her positivity, her drive and her devotion can absorb Thurman’s untimely death.

***

Munson's wife, Diana. New York Yankees

When Lou Gehrig died in 1941, his wife, Eleanor, kept up appearances at Yankee Stadium, regularly showing up for Old-Timers’ Day to represent the team’s beloved fallen captain. But the less public moments were fraught. As she wrote in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1952, “They say that the person who has lost an arm can feel the ache right down to the gone fingers. When we have lost our love we can feel the pain even when we talk and laugh and eat and dress and walk with the crowds. But the amputee learns to function independently and to live a full useful life.” Conversely, she added: “The widow of a national hero has an uneasy public sorrow; I was, and am, the girl Lou Gehrig loved.”

Munson was the first Yankees captain since Gehrig. Beloved by fans and teammates and remarkable on the field, both captains were nonetheless overshadowed by the flashier forces around them. Gehrig played alongside Babe Ruth; for Munson, there was Reggie Jackson, to say nothing of Carlton Fisk or Johnny Bench, astonishingly good players that Munson felt were unduly held in higher regard than he was.

Because the tragedy of Munson’s death has managed to obscure all that came before it, to many fans -- whether of the Yankees or just baseball in general -- he’ll always be the player who died while practicing takeoffs and landings on an off-day. Not as the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year, who netted 23 of 24 first-place votes. Not as the 1976 AL MVP, who hit .529 in that year’s World Series loss. Not as the heart and soul of the next two world championship teams, the guy who went 8-for-16 during the tide-turning Boston Massacre in 1978.

“I think he’s a legacy-type player,” says Ken Singleton, the YES Network broadcaster and former Orioles outfielder who played his share of games against Munson’s Yankees. “He was one of those players that fathers would talk to their sons about, even when the sons never saw him play, or grandfathers would talk to their grandsons about, even though the kids might not have seen him play. What a competitor he was.”

Part of Munson’s legacy, and the way it has endured, is rooted in the totality of the connection fans felt with him. Parents would tell their kids about his blue-collar appeal, and now some of those kids’ kids are wearing No. 15 shirseys and receiving hugs from Diana. “It’s amazing how many younger people have it on,” she says. “And I go, ‘I don’t understand …’ They say, ‘Well, my dad …’ ‘My grandpa …’ ‘My grandmother ….” A lot of grandmothers loved Thurman. And these people, they get overwhelmed. Then they start to cry.”

Inside the clubhouse, it wasn’t much different. For years after Munson’s death, teammates would tell stories. Reverent. Bawdy. Funny. Touching. Don Mattingly was an 18-year-old who had reported to the Yankees’ farm club in Oneonta, New York, just a few months before the tragedy. By the time he made it up to the Bronx in 1982, he says, there wasn’t necessarily the sense of an open wound. Just an idea that there was something missing. It permeated so many of the teammates’ conversations. “I remember thinking that I would have loved to have played with Thurman, just because of the way those guys talked,” Mattingly recalls. “You would have loved to gain the respect of Thurman for the way you played. Goose [Gossage] and all those guys, I loved playing with them and learning from them. But that’s the one guy that I was like, ‘Man, I would have loved to have played with Thurman.’”

What Mattingly could see was an empty, almost anti-monument, the way that white isn’t a color, but rather an absence of color, or that silence is an absence of noise.

Thurman’s locker, forever preserved, screams out its lack of utility or necessity. Until 2009, it was a large scar in a too-small room, where Minor Leaguers would double-up on lockers every September even as a perfectly good space sat vacant. It wasn’t encased in glass, it wasn’t roped off; it was just there, open, less touched up over time than the lockers around it. It was a monument that took no time to build; that was, indeed, unbuilt. Clubhouse manager Lou Cucuzza boxed up its contents the day after the crash, before the players reported. He sent everything to Diana.

Mike Munson played for a spell in the Yankees’ Minor League system, but never got anywhere close to the Bronx. So one day, he asked Ron Guidry to take him inside the clubhouse so that he could see his old man’s locker. His mother never could do it, though. Finally, before they closed The House That Ruth Built in 2008 (and moved the locker to the new Stadium’s museum, where it would be properly glassed off), Diana visited during an offseason afternoon, alone. She asked a clubbie to let her in, so she could experience it by herself.

“I don’t think I can talk about it,” she says, stifling a tear. “It was hard.”

***

Munson's locker on display. New York Yankees

Diana knows what people -- even those who loved Thurman -- think. That he was also a bully. That he could be mean and petty and say things the wrong way. It’s not so much that she disagrees with them fully, she just sees it as a bigger part of the puzzle. “If you got his love and respect,” she says, “it was an achievement.”

The Thurman she knew? The one who wanted her to wait to give their daughter her first bath until he was back from a road trip because he had to be there for it? The tender father -- yes, she insists, Thurman Munson was tender -- who would comb the girls’ hair and grill for them (terribly, she laughs, but insistently and lovingly) and read to them? She cherishes that man, while also noting the demons he carried from living with a mean and unfit father, one who created a home 180 degrees from the loving cradle in which she grew up. “He protected himself how he needed to protect himself,” Diana says. She would let him vent when it was necessary, and when he went too far, she would push back. “That’s one of the things that he liked about me, though,” she says. “Or maybe loved about me. He always said I was a firecracker. I wasn’t a yes girl. If I thought he was wrong, I wouldn’t keep that to myself. I would say, ‘Totally wrong. You are totally wrong.’

“When he was made MVP, he said, ‘This was not a popularity contest, because they don’t like me.’ And that’s true -- they didn’t like him. Thurman sometimes could make you feel small. And I never liked that. I like when a person stands up for themselves, but I don’t like when you make a person feel small. He could make you feel small. We used to talk about that. I’d say, ‘You shouldn’t do that!’ And he said, ‘Then he shouldn’t have been a … you know.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but he’ll get you in the paper.’ And he said, ‘Let him do what he has to do.’”

Munson didn’t fully care because he was always planning his next stage in life, for when his knees finally gave out (and it’s worth noting that in the last game he would ever play, he had manager Billy Martin pull him midway through, his knees in too much pain). There was the flying, sure, the better to be able to make time for his wife and kids during the season, but there was also the real estate obsession, his incessant work with plans and numbers to build a portfolio that would be able to support them long after baseball. On the day of the crash, Diana went downtown to sign papers rechristening a street in her family’s name around some property that he owned in Belden Village, in northwest Canton. Thurman was planning to head there from the airport.

Munson Street these days is mostly a collection of banks, office buildings and fast-food restaurants. It doesn’t look like much, but it serves its purpose (and how fitting, that). It ends at Everhard Road, some 300 feet from the stunning gravesite of the road’s namesake.

Dan Dierdorf is both a Canton native and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He never knew Thurman all that well, just time spent on a few shared daises, and one wedding when they were randomly both groomsmen. He grew up differently in Canton than Munson had -- happily and warmly -- but he eventually made his home elsewhere. To Dierdorf, it says so much that Munson remained committed to the place he had every reason to flee. “I don’t know that Canton’s ever had anyone pay it a higher compliment than Thurman Munson wanting to make it his year-round home,” Dierdorf says. “I don’t know how much more of a pat on the back you can give your hometown than to say, ‘I’d rather live in Canton, Ohio, than New York City.’”

And here, not far from where Thurman Munson lived, Thurman Munson rests, in Sunset Hills Burial Park, a marker sitting under the comfortable cover of maple trees. Fans visit and leave balls, Yankees hats, even flowers in a plastic foam cup from a fast-food joint. Etched into the marble is an image of Thurman holding a bat, slouching somewhat. Like the man himself, the image -- be-scowled and lifelike enough that you almost hear his knees creaking -- is frozen in time. Thurman was the oldest young man. Yet today, whether in images around Yankee Stadium, all black-and-white or sepia, or here, shadowed under a lush canopy of trees, he is the youngest old man, forever 32 years old. His fans and worshipers might have moved along the path of life, but none has moved on. The epitaph couldn’t be more precise:

THURMAN LEE MUNSON

CAPTAIN OF THE NEW YORK YANKEES

1976–1979

Diana chose to focus on those specific years. They say so much. He fought George Steinbrenner over the honor, saying that the team had plenty of captains. But The Boss insisted: Everyone took their marching orders from Thurman. Everyone followed his example. “It took him a long time to even accept that he was the captain,” Diana says. But she goes back to a special, private moment that helped her understand her husband. After the 1978 World Series, Munson told Steinbrenner that he didn’t want a ring; he wanted a trophy. “George sent him the trophy,” Diana says, “and it wasn’t the little one that kids have. It was the real deal. And it said, ‘Thurman Munson, Captain of the New York Yankees.’ That was a moment. He broke down. It all came forward for him. All of the hard work, all of the naysayers, all of the people that didn’t think he could do it.”

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Munson was a seven-time All-Star and the 1976 AL MVP. Louis Requena/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As a more-or-less lifelong resident and owner of a local pub, Mike Munson has chatted with a lot of people in Canton. But when the conversation inevitably steers toward his famous father, the stories are often the opposite of what you might expect. “One time I said to my mom, ‘I don’t know how Dad got a scholarship to college hitting .000, striking out every time,’” Mike says. “Everyone would introduce themselves to me, ‘My dad struck your dad out once.’ I said, ‘So did everyone else’s! I don’t know how he got a scholarship!’”

Thurman often wore the barbs, tending not just to the scabs, but to the weapons themselves. He was unable to ignore the people that said the wrong thing, wrote the wrong thing, felt the wrong thing. When the Bronx fans were getting on their beloved captain in June of 1976, booing him after a ninth-inning strikeout that followed a game-turning error, he flipped them off on the way back to the dugout. “I mean, I lost my mind,” Diana says. “But after that, the fans, it’s like they turned around and said, ‘What are we doing?’ They asked him about it, and he said, ‘I’m busting my ass every day to win, to make this team better. And they’re going to boo me?’ He said, ‘I won’t take that.’”

And as for the next day, after both sides maybe cooled off a bit? “They cheered for him,” she says. “They went out of their minds. He put them in their place and said, ‘I’m not going to take it.’ And he didn’t.”

Baseball fans boo. It’s a celebrated fact of playing in the Bronx, mythologized perhaps too much. But something in that moment crafted a lasting detente, one that has endured into the afterlife, from the first moments through the next 40 years.

The night after the tragedy, the Yankees held a pregame ceremony. Eight players took the field, the spot behind home plate empty. Terence Cardinal Cooke led a prayer, then Robert Merrill sang “America the Beautiful.” When Merrill finished singing, the real moment began: a nine-minute ovation, not a second too long. The small video board at the old Stadium switched between a Munson headshot and the epitaph, composed by Steinbrenner, that would appear on his Monument Park plaque some 13 months later:

“Our captain and leader has

not left us–today, tomorrow,

this year, next … Our

endeavors will reflect our

love and admiration for him.”

The players on the field wept as one minute passed to the next, the moment refusing to stop. “What crossed my mind a lot was going out and winning the game,” says Willie Randolph, who stood at second base all nine minutes and played all nine innings of the Yankees’ 1-0 loss. “Because we knew that Thurman would have wanted us to play. That’s what Bobby [Murcer] conveyed to us. There was no way that we were not going to play that night. I was just thinking about the hurt of losing him, but also, we’ve got to win this game. For Thurman. We’ve got to win this game tonight. We have to set the tone. Not just the players, but the fans were struggling, too. You could hear a pin drop in the stands, and see people in tears.”

The ceremony ended finally when Bob Sheppard thanked the fans, and Jerry Narron had the gut-wrenching task of walking out to the plate to catch that night’s game.

Three nights later, after the team flew to Canton for the funeral then back to New York in time for the series finale, Murcer followed up his heartfelt eulogy by knocking in all five Yankees runs, the last two winning the game in walk-off fashion. It was a horror show of a week, and the win couldn’t make anything better. Mattingly saw it years later, when the Marlins team he managed lost José Fernández in a tragic boat accident, how the pain held; he was just grateful it was late in September, that there weren’t many games left. After Munson’s death, the Yankees still had to play nearly two months of baseball. “It was as if the Stadium, itself, was ready to shed tears,” Singleton recalls. “It was really a morbid feeling.”

It’s the work Diana did in the year after the crash, to say nothing of the care Thurman showed in life, that has created a bond between mother, children and grandchildren that remains strong to this day. “A tragedy like we went through can sometimes blow you apart,” Diana says while sitting next to Mike, “because people lose their minds. And I probably did lose my mind for a little while. But I did it with some dignity and style.”

She nurtured all of their children’s interests, was a homeroom mother, went to every single one of Mike’s games (in three different sports, no less), never missed a daughter’s softball game. “They say when you lose a parent and you’re young, a lot of times you lose both parents,” Diana says. “I never wanted that to be the case.”

Diana eventually sold all of the memorabilia, including the bat Murcer used on the day of the funeral, and those proceeds, along with some of the settlements from after the accident, have kept the family comfortable. She wishes she had the strength to sell the house; it’s too big for her now, but it’s also too personal, and it’s a gathering place for her family. Even this afternoon, she apologizes over and over in a manner totally out of proportion to the five minutes she was late; a pipe had burst in the house. But the grandkids love the pool. “This was his dream,” she says. “This is the manifestation of all that he was and all that he had worked so hard for. It meant so much to him, that then I started feeling like, ‘I can’t leave it.’”

Munson is survived by his wife, Diana, and three children: Tracy, Kelly and Michael. New York Yankees

The family doesn’t talk about Dad much. It’s hard, even 40 years later. “They got cheated,” Diana says. “I at least had him when he was a young buck, and I had him for 11 years. They didn’t. So when we talk about him, I think the pain and the hurt of what they missed out on -- the graduations, the weddings -- they have all of that.” What they also have, though, is love, not just within the family, but also outside. People loved their father. They still love him, even if they never knew him, never saw him. There’s a group working to get him inducted into the Hall of Fame, an honor that some say should have come years ago, and an effort that Thurman almost certainly would have despised. (You can almost hear him spitting, “Those SOBs should have put me in decades ago.”) Statistically and emotionally, the argument is convincing; thousands of people -- plenty of them much younger than 40 -- have signed a petition supporting the campaign.

Whatever her preliminary concerns about life as a professional widow, Diana will do anything to see Thurman’s legacy protected. Besides the Old-Timers’ Day appearances, where she always receives one of the loudest ovations, she makes annual stops at the Yankees’ fantasy camp, and of course the annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner that has, over the past 39 years, raised some $18 million for the AHRC NYC Foundation. The charity supports thousands of individuals with intellectual and developmental disorders, another way of merging two goals: remembering the man by remembering what he actually cared about, not all that he didn’t.

It’s not easy; she acknowledges that it’s work to wade through memories of the worst moment of her life. In each of the last few years, she has appeared on Ed Randall’s “Talking Baseball” radio program. He opens the phone lines, and gives listeners an apt preview of what’s to come: “Men will call to speak with her, and some may cry.” And they do. One caller after another, for some reason, feels a need to tell Diana Munson how much her husband meant to them. Some weep, and Diana comforts them.

She smiles and says the right things, then spends the next few hours or days trying to recover from a scab ripped open once more. Still, she continues to do it (including, it must be said, on this specific day, at her son’s bar, with a writer she has never met who wasn’t yet born when her husband played). She doesn’t seek the attention, and she doesn’t want it.

But her stories -- and her willingness to listen to others’ recollections -- form the truest shrine to her husband, and she says that she sees it as her responsibility to endure a bit of pain to protect his legacy. “It’s part of the deal,” she says. “People still wear his uniform, and people still write me fan letters and talk about the day he died, how they felt, and how it changed their life forever, and grown men on the phone burst into tears. I do fantasy camp for the Yankees, and if I told you how many men broke down in tears … I hold them. I’m trying to make them OK. I’m the closest thing they’re ever going to get to Thurman Munson.”

It’s a living tribute, a careful and impassioned effort to create the legacy Thurman Munson deserves from the woman who knew him best. “I represent him,” she says. “It’s important to me that he not be just a little CliffsNote. Yeah, he was a Yankee player. I want people to know that this man was phenomenal. This man came in and changed the Yankees. He came in and became the captain. He played with heart and soul and integrity, never lost his little-boy baseball heart. I loved that about him. I want people to know, he wasn’t just a baseball player. He was a great man. If he never played for the New York Yankees, and we were doing an interview about this man that I lost, I would still tell you the heart of this man, the integrity of this man, is unparalleled in my eyes.”

Whether in Canton, in the Bronx, or maybe someday in Cooperstown, we can still access Thurman Munson. He’s been gone 40 years, but he’s still with us, a result of a sorry/grateful, regretful/happy effort by a baseball wife who fights off a title she hates by keeping her husband’s memory alive.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep at yankees.com/publications.