As we approach the last days of August I can’t help but think that 40 years would’ve gone by since I said my final good bye to my pal, Thurman Munson.
By now I’m sure that you have read and heard all the different, and crazy yet wonderful things about someone who was a hero to me and many others.
I first met Thurman in June of 1973 at the original Yankee Stadium. We would actually become friends during the 1974 season when I started to go on the road with the Yankees. While on the road after games, a lot of the guys would hang out in their rooms playing cards or just talking and I would go from room to room taking food orders and going out to get the food.
Many times I would go to Thurman’s room and he would just want to talk. He would always tell me about himself and his family or just talk about the team. The thing that made me really like him was that he would ask me about me. His questions about my background made me feel like I mattered. Different things in his background were somewhat like mine. Our fathers were pretty much alike in how they dealt with us, but that’s a story for another day.
During the 1974 and ‘75 seasons the Yankees were known as the “Band on the Run.” That was the very popular Paul McCartney song at the time. The reason for that was because we were playing at Shea Stadium while they were renovating Yankee Stadium.
During the 1974 season Thurman and Bobby Murcer and Lou Piniella would have me hit in their groups during batting practice because they had seen me working out during workouts and knew that I would get drafted in the upcoming baseball draft.
To say that this was the greatest thing for my confidence would be an understatement. That summer I was by far the best hitter in the youth summer baseball circuits in New York and shocked everyone when I ended up getting drafted in the 2nd round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. That would not have happened without the incredible confidence boost that I got from Thurman, Murcer and Piniella and of course Walt “No Neck” Williams, (an affectionate nickname for a player who had a physique where it looked like he did not have a neck) a utility outfielder, that was always talking hitting with Thurman.
People used to tell me to watch it with Thurman because he could get very grumpy but when he was your friend, nothing was further from the truth. I have to say that the reason that I became friendly with Thurman was because I actually idolized Gene Michael, the Yankee shortstop at that time.
Gene “Stick” (as he was known) Michael was very close to Thurman and really knew how to get through to him. Thurman really trusted “Stick.” They went to the same college in Ohio, (Kent State) however at different times. I remember one time Thurman getting angry with a reporter and like clockwork Gene was able to calm Thurman down. I would have to say that the two players that influenced Thurman the most during that era were Gene and Bobby Murcer. Bobby you could say was our matinee idol and unofficial leader.
After the 1974 season ended the Yankees released Gene Michael and traded Bobby Murcer for Bobby Bonds. Thurman and Bonds became very close friends. Bonds was actually a great influence on Munson and would always tell Thurman why he had to be a leader in his own way.
When you’re a batboy and truly, truly love baseball and the Yankees, then you get to observe things that no one else did. One time Willie Randolph asked me how did I remember everything that I did and I would tell him that since I wasn’t a player I knew that when I got into the clubhouse, I would sit down strap in and get ready to watch the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
“The Show” really became a hit when the Boss George Steinbrenner signed Reggie Jackson before the 1977 season. By the time we got back to the refurbished Yankee Stadium, Thurman became our official Captain. He led by true example, not by having a letter C on his shirt.
Let me add that no one was allowed to call him Captain and if you did he would give you the worst facial expression. You knew you screwed up. By 1978, Thurman would be flying home on a regular basis on his airplane.
I don’t remember how it happened but I became Thurman’s driver to Teterboro Airport. I loved doing it because it would give me time alone with Thurman. Time alone where we could talk about everything and anything. To this day I can honestly say that those talks have stayed right here. Diana, Thurman’s wife is probably the only person that I have ever talked to about that. From a selfish perspective, the other reason I loved driving Thurman to the airport was because after dropping him off I would have a brand new Cadillac to use.
In the 70s having a Cadillac was like having a Mercedes today. I thought I was so cool because I would show up at my games driving Thurman Munson’s “Cadi.” One time Thurman checked his odometer and saw all the extra miles on it and asked me where did I drive, to Hawaii? I told him I had games in Long Island so he asked me didn’t Reggie give you a car to use? I said yes but do you want to show up at your game in a Volkswagen Rabbit or a Thurman Munson Cadillac? He started to laugh and said you got a point there.
When I didn’t use the Cadillac, then Reggie would have me park it in the garage in his 5th Avenue apartment building. Reggie always paid for the parking but he told me not to tell Thurman that he paid. I loved the fact that Thurman and Reggie had become very good friends. Reggie even flew with Thurman on his plane. One time Reggie gave me a check to give Thurman for the gas on the plane. When I handed it to Thurman he started to laugh and said I’m gonna keep the check just for the autograph. Sometimes, Thurman would fly back to NY with his wife Diana and this is when I would get to know Diana and the wonderful and fun relationship that they had.
Sometime in July of 1979, I was supposed to drive Thurman to Teterboro Airport after the game. Because of a rain delay or extra innings the game ran late. After packing his bags I was helping him take his things to his car. At that moment Thurman turned to me and said, ‘I’m gonna drive myself to the airport.’ I asked why and he said that he didn’t want me to be driving back from New Jersey by myself. It was already midnight. He said he would really feel guilty if something happened. He said ‘and besides, you can use Reggie’s Rabbit’ and he started to laugh. So I walked him up the stairs and we crossed the street to the players’ parking lot. We said some little “chit chat” and he got into his brown Cadillac and then he started to drive out. All of a sudden he stopped the car. I thought he had changed his mind and was gonna have me take him to Teterboro. Instead he said ‘Ok silly rabbit, Trix are for kids” (mimicking the breakfast cereal’s slogan) See you when I get back. That was Thurman being funny in reference to me and Reggie’s Rabbit.
The rest is history. As you know Thurman perished in a fatal plane accident. On August 3rd, the day after Munson died, George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin would come up to me and tell me that I had to go to Teterboro to pick up Thurman’s car. I immediately said no. Billy said you have to and the Boss said this is not an option. The Boss made it a point that I was the only one that they could trust with Thurman’s car. At that moment I understood.
I got another Batboy named Hector Pagan to drive me there. When I got into the car I started it and the radio was on and the station playing was WKTU Radio, which was a popular disco station. This told me that Thurman was tired driving to the airport. The reason I say this was because Thurman was into music like Neil Diamond etc. the only time he would listen to disco would be in the clubhouse so that he would dance with Mickey Rivers, especially on Saturday mornings when the popular TV show, “Soul Train” would be on.
To say that the drive back to the Stadium was a nightmare is an understatement. I cried and I screamed and I punched the seat and the dashboard of the car until I got back to the ball park. Even right now I still cry. Thurman Munson was a friend, he was my friend, he was a good person, he was a caring person. If you would have known him, 40 years later you also would still be crying.