Five Days in August - Part I

A week of mourning our captain and leader, Thurman Munson
07/28/2009 11:48 AM ET
By Ray Negron / Special to

A portrait of Ray Negron (center) and four influential
people in his life: Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner,
Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. (Ray Negron)
Yankees senior advisor Ray Negron was the team's batboy in the 1970s. Like the players, Negron shared a unique relationship with captain Thurman Munson. When Munson was tragically killed in a plane crash on August 2, 1979, Negron lost a friend and a big-brother figure.

Also an author of a successful series of children's books, Negron wrote his first story 30 years ago — a hand-written account documenting the days when the Yankees mourned the loss of one of the most influential players and people in team history.


What you See Here
What you Hear Here
Should Always Stay Here

That little saying is the slogan used in the locker rooms all around Major League Baseball and probably in other sports as well. It isn't like it's written on a sign or anything. It doesn't have to be. You just know it and live by it. Usually, it's taken very seriously, and almost every player and every person who has ever walked into a big-league locker room tries to follow that simple rule. There have been a few exceptions. It's a matter of respect. Some very private moments are shared inside a locker room. There are moments of joy and moments of sorrow, and there are times when it's really hard to leave what you see and what you hear inside, but your respect for others makes you do it.

  • Munson still loved and respected
  • Reflections on Thurman: 30 years later
  • Munson's death still tough
  • Girardi Q&A: Catcher to catcher
  • Five Days in August - Part I
  • Five Days in August - Part II
  • Five Days in August - Part III
  • Five Days in August - Part IV
  • Five Days in August - Part V
  • Giangrande: Munson's death left a void
  • Lane: No. 15 for the Hall
  • Lane: Book pays homage to Munson
  • Lane: Lidle another Yankee gone way too soon
  • Family remembers Munson
  • Ed Lucas talks with Diana Munson
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part I
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part II
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part III
  • Remembering Thurman Munson

Sometimes bad things come out of a locker room. Emotions run high when 25 guys, a bunch of coaches and batboys, a manager and an owner practically live together from when Spring Training starts in February through the end of the season in September and hopefully on into the playoffs in October. One player will get upset and say something that usually ends up getting blown out of proportion and makes headlines in the morning papers.

You try to avoid those things. Usually the rule is go take a shower or kick a locker or just get into the other guy's face and yell it out until it's settled behind closed doors, but you keep it there. When the reporters come in, you try to smile politely and keep your comments focused on the game. The personal stuff stays personal. Nobody says you have to like every guy on the team, and I doubt a team exists where that's the case. But we try and remember the rule and respect each other. The guys who write the tell-all locker room books don't get much respect from the other players, and they don't get much respect from the fans, either. Nobody likes somebody who tells tales after school to line their own pockets.

Sometimes, good things come out of a locker room. Sometimes there is something magical or amazing that happens and people should know about it. Baseball players do a lot of things behind the scenes that people seldom ever get to know about. The majority are very genuine and charitable people and use their celebrity to do a lot of good for others. Most of the time, they do it silently and without any fanfare, and that's exactly how they want it. You have to have a lot of esteem for a guy for that. Sometimes, we have to think long and hard before we decide to tell the story of the player behind the uniform. This is one of those times when I had to do just that. This is a story about a very special man who played the game. His name was Thurman Munson and I was blessed to have known him for a very short but extraordinary time.

In 1973, a very amazing thing happened to me. I was lucky enough to cross paths with George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, and he made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He took a kid in trouble off the city streets and made him a Yankee batboy. It was the chance of a lifetime - like something out of a fairy tale. Only this time it was for real. It literally changed my life overnight, and I will never forget him for it.

Like every kid, I think I always dreamed about sitting on the bench at Yankee Stadium. I pictured myself running up the steps and leaning forward when someone hit a ball that went sailing out of the park while the crowd went wild. I could see myself waiting for them at home plate with a high five. I imagined the locker room after a World Series victory, filled with whistles and cheers, and the spray of champagne stinging your eyes and soaking you to the skin. And George Steinbrenner, The Boss, gave me the chance to live out all those fantasies for real. I was a part of the greatest franchise in sports history, and I still am. As The Boss likes to say, "Once a Yankee always a Yankee."

Since that day, I've worked for the New York Yankees off and on for the past 35 years. I have done everything from being a batboy to videotaping games for players to watch later with a cheap Betamax camera — all we had at the time. I have been an agent and now I work as a special assistant to The Boss. Before that, I played in the Minor Leagues for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization for a while.

Baseball has always been an important part of my life. As a young kid, I played on the sandlots everywhere from Brooklyn to Queens to the Bronx. Anyplace I could find a game, I was there. I ended up involved in a PAL League — my first real organized baseball team. There, a scout named Eugene Gall saw me play and took me to see Warren Almond, who was coaching a team called the Flushing Tigers. The problem was that the Flushing Tigers didn't exactly play in Flushing. They played a lot out on Long Island, so I had to get to games any way I could. I bummed rides, used the buses and the subways — anything I could — because I wanted to play ball. In my years playing sandlot, I made a lot of friends for life. People like Omar Minaya, general manager of the New York Mets and Donnie Cooper, pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox. If I need them, I call and there are there for me. It doesn't matter that they work for opposing teams. They are lifelong friends because we grew up together.

When I came to the Yankees as a batboy, I found a true family for probably the first time in my life. My stepfather was working seven days a week, and my mother was working and going to school to get a teaching degree. They never got to see me play, because they never had a lot of time for things like baseball. They were doing the best they could to raise a family and hold it together. When I came to the Yankees, I suddenly found I was around people who understood me and cared about me. One of my best friends was, and still is, Reggie Jackson, who happens to be like a big brother to me. He's always looked out for me since he joined the Yankees in 1977.

When a superstar joins a team, he kind of takes on a particular batboy to be his right-hand man. It means you open his fan mail, take special care of his bats and other equipment, and run special errands for him. Reggie and I gravitated to each other instantly and I ended up doing all those things and a lot more. I even looked after his apartment when he was out of town. He trusted me, and that meant a lot to me. It still does.

But that doesn't excuse a bat boy from doing things for anybody else on the team, and to be honest, I never did anything for Reggie that I wouldn't have done for anybody else. For instance, I always made sure Graig Nettles had a cup of hot coffee waiting for him on the bench during games — just the way he liked it. Once I drove all the way to New Jersey just to deliver a beautiful coat to Ron Guidry's wife for her birthday. Batboys do a lot more than just pick up bats, clean spikes after the game and wash uniforms. After a while, you just know what your players want and you make sure they have it.

Reggie came to New York and didn't exactly fit in with the team right away. In fact, at first only Fran Healy could say he was really a friend of Reggie's. Just like Fran, Reggie and I took to each other immediately. We both spoke Spanish and Reggie knew from the beginning that I was someone who believed in baseball's unwritten rule. That was important to him. While he was having a lot of trouble finding his own way and fitting in with the Yankees, Fran and I formed a special bond with him. I like to think that bond made things easier for Reggie to eventually be accepted by the team. Underneath that brash "Hollywood" exterior Reggie brought to New York beat a heart of gold, and I am proud to say I was one of the first to find that out. Eventually, he became an important part of the team, and a friend to all, and I like to think I had a little something to do with helping him pave the way.

Another one of my best friends was Yankees manager Billy Martin, who was always like a father to me. On more than one occasion he told me he couldn't love me anymore, even if I were Italian. Billy could be a really explosive guy out on the field. He got thrown out of his share of games and The Boss fired him more than once. But he also had a sensitive and funny side, a side I was proud to know up until his death in 1989. I couldn't have asked for a better father figure than Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin, and not a day of my life goes by that I don't think of him and miss him.

Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin: Two people who played big roles in Thurman Munson's life.

Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson first came together in 1977 when George Steinbrenner personally went after Reggie and eventually signed him. More than anything, George wanted a World Series win and he believed Reggie could help the Yankees do that. At first, Billy was against it. He had another player in mind for the spot and he and George argued over it. It was a hard season for the Yankees and everybody could feel the tension. Reggie, the Yankees' first genuine superstar since Mickey Mantle, came to New York from the Oakland A's. He came to New York with three consecutive World Series rings on his fingers, and his cocky attitude and bold personality immediately clashed with many on the Yankees, starting with the manager, Billy Martin.

It was a long and turbulent season, and for a while nobody thought we would make it, but we ended up winning the World Series against the Dodgers on the strength of Reggie's three consecutive home runs in Game 6. It felt great to be a winner. There is nothing in the world like being in a Yankee locker room after winning the World Series. It is pure magic.

Afterwards, I was offered $20,000 by a sports writer who wanted me to give my accounts of that season. The author felt since I was so close to both Billy and Reggie and to a lot of the other guys on the team, I could really tell a good story of the season from the inside. I knew what he really wanted. He wanted the secret stuff — the things that are supposed to stay inside the clubhouse. After a lot of thought, I decided against it because I loved being a part of the Yankee organization and felt I would be putting my job in jeopardy doing it. Twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money for a kid my age to have all at one time, but I knew I owed it to my team to follow the words of that unspoken locker room rule.

What you See Here, What you Hear Here, Should Always Stay Here.

I still stand by that, and there are things about that team and that season that will stay with me forever. I owe that to both of them.

Back then, Reggie and Billy were the big story in New York, but then there was Thurman Munson. Thurman was a tremendous talent on the field, but off the field, he and Reggie were like night and day. Where Reggie was a self-assured West Coast kind of guy, Thurman was a down home Midwesterner. I loved him like a brother just like I love Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss and a lot of the guys who have been here since my early days as a Yankee. I have seen these guys up close and personal, the good and the bad of them, and I want the fans of the game to realize baseball players are human and have feelings.

I learned a lot from Thurman, things I will never forget. He was a funny guy, who loved The Three Stooges and could do the best impression of Curly I have ever heard. On the other hand, he was a man who loved his family and had a soft spot in his heart for kids with problems like autism and mental illness. I once saw him chase away a bunch of older kids harassing a retarded boy playing in the playground at the McDonald's across from Yankee Stadium.

He was tough as nails on the ball field, but behind the scenes, he was one of the greatest guys I have ever known to have in your corner as a friend. I remember when he told me he liked my Afro haircut and decided to grow one of his own. It looked pretty funny on him (I bought him a pick to take care of it). Then there was the time that he decided to challenge Mr. Steinbrenner's rule on not allowing players to have facial hair. "I like beards," he said and he proceeded to grow one — even though it wasn't a very good one. Eventually, he proved his point and shaved it off. Guys like Rich "Goose" Gossage were really grateful that their captain stuck up for them like that. Not many captains would.

"This is a story about a very special man who played the game. His name was Thurman Munson and I was blessed to have known him for a very short but extraordinary time."
— Ray Negron

I've been through it all in professional baseball — from the frustration of being involved with a last place team, all the way to the exhilaration of seeing the Yankees win a World Championship right from the bench, the best seat in Yankee Stadium. I was involved in the 1977 All-Star game, was there for many Old Timers' Games when the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle came home to the Stadium, and I even worked as an extra in a couple of commercials filmed there. I have a lot of pretty amazing memories locked inside my head, things I will never forget. Some of them will stay there, because I respect that rule.

But this one time, I am going to break it, or bend it just a little. And I don't think Thurman would mind one bit. Out of everything that I did and saw with the New York Yankees, the event that will always hold the biggest spot in my mind will be the day we lost Thurman Munson and the four days after. Nothing will ever come close to five agonizing days in August of 1979. I think everyone should know of the love and devotion we felt then as a team, and how much we needed each other as the Yankees learned the terrible news and went through those first agonizing and traumatic days trying to cope without our catcher and captain, Thurman. The guy who usually held us together was suddenly gone, right in the middle of the season, and the rest of us were lost without him.

Thurman Munson joined the Yankees as a catcher in 1968 and played for 11 years. He was a sensation almost immediately,becoming their starting catcher a year later when he won the 1970 Rookie of the Year Award in the American League. George Steinbrenner, who became owner of the Yankees in 1973, recognized Thurman's leadership qualities and honored him by making him the first team captain since Lou Gehrig.

Thurman was the guy George respected the most. Thurman could come into George's office to chat, sit down in a chair and put his bare feet up on the desk while cleaning dirt from underneath his fingernails and The Boss wouldn't say a word. He just knew that was how Thurman was — a natural guy from Ohio who didn't put on airs for anybody. He treated everybody just the same; from the owner of the team right down to me, a lowly bat boy. And everybody loved that about him.

During his career, Thurman won three Gold Gloves, the 1976 Most Valuable Player Award for the American League, three American League pennants and two World Championship rings. He was known in the clubhouse as a great friend to all and one of the funniest guys I ever knew. He was a dedicated family man and was known for his philanthropic work in his home state of Ohio with underprivileged kids — particularly kids with autism and forms of mental retardation. To this day, Major League Baseball annually gives out Thurman Munson Awards to players who work within their own communities. He was a great man, and every winner of that award is proud to own it.

That's why even though the clubhouse slogan says: "What you see here, What you hear here, should always stay here," I just couldn't stay silent anymore. Thurman Munson died way too young and way too soon, and after all these years, I have decided to tell his story to a new generation of baseball fans.

On August 2, 1979, Thurman Munson was killed when his small plane crashed during practice landings in an airport near his home in Canton, Ohio. It began to occur to me recently that kids who idolize the baseball players of today weren't even born when Thurman died, so I decided to break that clubhouse rule, or at least stretch it a bit. I wanted everyone to know how very hard it was for the players to lose someone close to them and how very human they really are.

Ray Negron has worked for George Steinbrenner and the Yankees organization for 35 years. comments