Negron: Thurman Munson – “I Am, I Said”

The other night, I was surfing through the channels and landed on an old documentary on the amazing singer, Neil Diamond. He was singing a song that I recalled hearing  so many times in the 70s but it wasn’t Mr. Diamond’s voice I remember hearing. It was the legendary ,Thurman Munson, singing a song called ‘I am, I said’.

Thurman literally knew every word of every song that Diamond did in that era.

I remember thinking how cool it was that Thurman would  alter the words of the songs to represent his own life. It always brought a smile to my face.

For instance in ‘I am, I said,’ the song says, “L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more.” So Thurman would sing, New York’s fine but it ain’t home, Canton’s home and it’ll be mine some more.

In the 70s there were no such thing as cellphones. People used to call the switch board and the secretary would take a message and write it down on those pink message pads. Every day when I got to Yankee Stadium, my first stop was to go see Mr. Steinbrenner. We would talk for a few minutes or until he threw me out of his office. Then I would pass the secretary’s desk where Doris Walden or Pearl Davis manned the phones. They would hand me the messages and I would take them to the Yankee clubhouse. I would put them in the player’s lockers. One day I noticed that Thurman had a message from Neil Diamond. I thought that was the most sensational thing in the world. I held on to it until Thurman walked into the clubhouse. If I remember correctly, he wanted me to run a cross the street to get him a couple of cheeseburgers. I ,of course, said I would oblige and then I handed him the message. He looked at it and smiled. I asked him if that was the real Neil Diamond and he laughed and said, “No, it’s the fake one!” Then he laughed louder. Then he said of course it’s the real one. I said, “No way you are lying.” He smiled and started walking towards the trainer’s room.

He was holding the message in his hand, so I followed him. The only phone in the clubhouse that the players would use was in Gene Monohan’s office located in the back of the trainer’s room. If he was going to call Neil Diamond, I wanted to hear him talking to him. The thought of hearing this conversation was thrilling. I was still just a kid living an incredible fantasy. In my mind, these great entertainers were still surreal. When we won our first pennant during the Steinbrenner Era (1976), The Boss brought the legendary actor, Cary Grant down to the clubhouse to celebrate with the players. Every one was jumping up and down including Mr. Grant. It was then I realized celebrities were just every day people too. I remember just standing and watching what was happening in complete amazement. The players started chanting, “JUDY, JUDY, JUDY.” which was a famous Cary Grant phrase from his movie days. All of a sudden, I reached for Grant’s arm just to see if he felt real. Mr. Grant turned to me and said, “Yes, I’m real,” with a chuckle.

Some of the most famous stars walked through that clubhouse, people like Kirk Douglas and James Cagney. Cagney actually got out of a wheelchair and started dancing with Mickey Rivers. The feeling I had was completely euphoric. The Yankee Doodle Dandy himself dancing like he did in his most famous movie of the same name. In those days all these people were gods to me.

I was completely blown away listening to Thurman talking to Neil Diamond. I could only hear Thurman’s side of the conversation but quickly surmised what the conversation was about. At one point, Thurman said that he knew that the season would be over by November but that he didn’t know if he could get away from his family to go on tour with Diamond for a couple of weeks.

Thurman finally said we will talk about it some more at the end of the season. Diane will tell me to go but I miss them too much as it is. We will see. After he hung up, I said, “Damn you got to go” He looked at me with a very serious look that almost scared me.( if you knew Thurman you know what I mean) then he said, “Were are my Cheeses (cheeseburgers)?” I laughed and ran across the street to McDonald’s. However, I never forgot that wonderful moment with Thurman and no matter how much he loved Neil Diamond. I learned that family came first. If you know his wife, Diane Munson, then you know that after that season she would have made Thurman go on the road with Diamond. I would learn later that Neil Diamond was the only hero that Thurman ever had.

Through the years, I had always hoped to  run into Diamond in my travels and talk with him about Thurman, unfortunately,that would never come to fruition. I know Mr. Diamond is  dealing with Parkinson’s and not traveling much anymore, I don’t know if that chance meeting will ever happen. However, the way my life has always been, anything is possible.

This Sunday, Baseball will be conducting a Hall of Fame vote for players like Thurman that were overlooked for one reason or another. Thurman’s numbers statiscally make the grade. The analytics say that Thurman is a Hall of Famer. Most reporters didn’t get to know him because he didn’t want the publicity. Sometimes a reporter would go up to him and as they would start to ask the question, Thurman would say no then ask, “How is your family doing?”

One time we went to a hospital to see a sick child and when we got to the lobby there were some reporters there. He would not permit the writers to come up because he didn’t want the attention taken away from the child. There were the times that I would drive him back from the airport and we would stop at McDonald’s and he would buy the neighborhood kids hamburgers. He was one of the kindest and most humble players I ever had the pleasure of being around.

One of my favorite memories was when  when Derek Jeter asked me to tell him about the first Yankee Captain after Lou Gehrig. I told him about the greatness of the man then I walked him to a storage room where Gehrig used to sit in and pray when he needed privacy after he got sick. That was where I had the great sports artist, James Farentino, paint the caricatures of Gehrig, Munson and Derek Jeter on a pillar. Jeter was in complete shock and awe. I could see goose bumps on his arms . He was in the company of greatness and he knew it.

Jeter said that someone had told him that this was back here but he didn’t believe it. He literally thanked me at least five times for bringing him to the room. Before we left the room he took one more look at the caricatures, pointed at Thurman and asked, “Ray, was he all that?” I said, “More than you will ever know.”

I have spent over 46 years around the Yankee scene. I have met them all. Murcer, Catfish , Piniella, Guidry, Goose, Nettles, Mick the Quick, Randolph, Bucky. Oh, and Mr. October(coined by Thurman himself), Reggie Jackson. I witnessed the new moniker for Mr. Jackson myself after Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.

I never wanted anything more than to see Thurman enshrined in Cooperstown, because the incredible number of Munson fans deserve it. I have visions of a little kid visiting the Hall of Fame and asking his grandfather all about Munson and his grandfather explaining that Munson was not only a great ball player but an extrordinary human being. I want our next generation to be able to hear about his legacy. Above all of the reasons, I want Thurman inducted is his family and his love for his family. Diane and the kids made the ultimate sacrifice and shared Thurman with the world and grieved Thurman with the world. I remember his son, Michael once staring at the display of his dad at the Yankee museum. I was probably standing ten feet away but I saw the tears streaming  down his face. I thought to myself if had Thurman lived he would have been an amazing father in spite of his lack of a father figure in his own life. It saddens me to the core. I hope the Veteran’s committee sees fit to inducting Thurman into the Hall for both his merits athletically and professionalism on and off the field. Thurman was one of the greatest human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

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