August 2nd, 1979 was a typical day at that point in my life. I was 12 years old and living in Forest Hills, not too far from Shea Stadium so I was a Yankees fan living in what was basically Mets country. That day, I went to school, came home and did my homework, and then went to the playground across the street from our apartment.
A short time after I started playing with my friend, my uncle drove up the block alongside the playground to say hello. This was not unusual as it generally happened everyday since it was on his way home and he knew that I would be there. But on this day, it wasn’t a typically cheerful “Hey Peter, how’s it going?” from my Uncle Stevie.
This visit was to share some unfortunate news.
It was my uncle who informed me that Yankees catcher and captain Thurman Munson had passed away that day in a plane crash near at the Canton-Akron Airport, not far from his Ohio home. To say I was devastated would be an understatement as I was crushed. I’m not generally at a loss for words but I could hardly talk the rest of that day. Thurman was my first favorite baseball player and the first sports hero in my life.
And he was gone.
It’s been 40 years since Munson passed away and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and how much he meant to me as a Yankees fan. For me, going to a Yankees game with my dad or even just watching a game on television was all about Thurman and hoping he would get a big hit, crush a massive home run, or make a great play behind the plate. I had all of his baseball cards and had sports apparel been as big then as it is now, I would have had Munson t-shirts and jerseys too.
My father took me to the first Bat Day at the old renovated Yankee Stadium in 1976 and I was excited for weeks knowing that we were going. Back then, the Yankees distributed bats that had a player’s name inscribed on it and of course my hope was that I would be able to get a Thurman Munson bat. When you went through the turnstile, there was a security guard that pulled a bat out of a box and handed it to you.
So as we entered the stadium, I saw a Thurman Munson bat sticking out of the box and told my father but the security guard handed me a Lou Piniella bat. Nothing against Lou, but I wanted Munson and my father pleaded with the security guard and said to him there’s one sticking out of the box and he didn’t have to fish for it.
“Sorry but you don’t get to choose what bat you get,” said the mean-spirited security guard.
To this day, I’d love to have that Munson bat but I’d obviously prefer that Thurman’s life wouldn’t have been cut short.
In the years that followed, I learned a lot about the type of man that Thurman Munson was. I already knew how great of a baseball player he was, but I read a lot of stories about him and I quickly realized that this man was more than just a great baseball player…he was a great family man, just like my father and I’ve tried to emulate both of them as a father to my sons Bradley and Jared who coincidently love to play catcher themselves.
And my wife Sheryl…a Mets fan…her favorite player was another backstop…Gary Carter. So it meant a great day to me that a couple of gifts that she gave me early in our relationship were Thurman Munson bobbleheads. Also, the day before our wedding, we were shopping at a flea market on Long Island and there was a section of vendors selling sports memorabilia. One of them was selling a framed piece that included all of Munson’s Topps baseball cards that were lined up around an 8 x 10 photo of “The Captain”.
I had seen this piece a few weeks earlier and didn’t buy it because we were about to get married, so less than 24 hours before our big day, my wife urged me to “just buy it”.
So I did and it has been proudly displayed in our home for the last 15 years.
When I started covering sports for a living, it was a privilege to be able to get credentialed for Yankees games because it mean the opportunity to see Munson’s locker in the Yankees Clubhouse at the old stadium before it was transferred to the Yankees Museum in the new stadium. Being around the team also afforded me the opportunity to meet people in the organization who also shared some great stories about Thurman.
In each of the last three summers, my family and I had the opportunity to visit Canton, Ohio when we went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the last two years because Bradley was selected to play in a USA Football Middle School Bowl Game. On each trip, I paid a visit to Munson’s final resting space which was surreal for me to say the least. And during our trip earlier this summer, I had the chance, thanks to a mutual acquaintance, to meet Munson’s widow Diana who was gracious enough to tape an interview with me for my podcast.
It’s been 40 years since Thurman Munson passed away and with all due respect to the players like Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada, and Gary Sanchez, the Yankees haven’t had a catcher as good as number 15 was. I really miss him, but anytime I’m at a game or watching a game on television, I just feel like he’s there watching too. I never had the chance to meet him, but I feel like I know everything about him.
We miss you Thurman! Rest in peace and thank you for being my first sports hero.