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Five Days in August - Part II

A week of mourning our captain and leader, Thurman Munson
07/29/2009 9:44 AM ET
By Ray Negron / Special to YESNetwork.com

In this August 2, 1979 file photo, rescue workers inspect the wreckage of a Cessna Citation airplane in Akron, Ohio. Thurman Munson was killed in the plane crash in which two other passengers survived. (AP)
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.

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Way back then, feeling a tremendous sense of frustration and loss, I found myself feeling the need to sit down and write about the things I was feeling and the things I was seeing around me. I was just a kid who didn't know any other way to let my emotions out. For the first time in my life, I sat down and wrote. I put the words I wrote away, and didn't look at them until this year. And it got me to thinking about young kids who deal with terrible tragedies every day and how they react. At the time, I found sitting down and putting these words on paper was a great release for me. They were my secret feelings and observations. I guess a part of me never wanted to forget Thurman or what happened those five days in August. I wanted to keep them for myself forever. But now, I think it's time to share them.

  FEATURES
  • 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
  BLOGS
  • 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
  VIDEOS
  • Family remembers Munson
  • Ed Lucas talks with Diana Munson
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part I
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part II
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part III
  PHOTOS
  • Remembering Thurman Munson

What follows are the words of a hurt kid, a batboy with the New York Yankees who one day found himself facing a terrible tragedy, mixed in with words of his teammates as they reflect and remember. And if these words help one kid deal with a tragedy in their own lives, I know Thurman will forgive me and the rest of the guys for breaking the rules just a little.

August 2, 1979
Tears, Anguish, Sadness, Love, Want, Need ... What else can I say? That's the kind of season it was. I'm one of the lucky ones because I got to know and understand Thurman Munson.

He died today, in Ohio at approximately 3 p.m. when his plane, which he loved so much, crashed and burned in Ohio while he was practicing taking off and landing. I still can't believe it. It can't really be happening.

My buddy, Hector Pagan, the other Yankee batboy, and I used to drive Thurman to Teterboro Airport and pick him up upon his return when the Yankees had days off. He loved Ohio and being home with his family. Some guys bring their families to New York for the summer, but the Munson family stayed in Ohio. Thurman got homesick a lot. Having his own Cessna Citation I/SP plane was a dream come true for him. He loved flying that airplane almost as much as he loved playing baseball. When we drove him there, he just couldn't wait to take off and fly away home to his wife and kids.

A lot of the Yankee players were worried about Thurman flying and they talked about it when he left. I guess some of their fear rubbed off on me because one day in particular as I was watching Thurman land, I told Hector someday that plane would go down. Today, Hector reminded me of those words. Those words keep going through my mind now, over and over. He should have listened to the players who told him it wasn't safe.

The thing that bothers me the most is how his wife Diane must be. I got to know Diane quite well, along with the other players' wives, and I know Thurman and Diane were both very much in love. I can't help but think about her and the kids. I'm worried about them.

Today's an off day so everybody took the news at home. I called Reggie Jackson, who is at home in his apartment in Manhattan. He's in complete shock. He's very hurt, and with good reason because he and Thurman got off to a rough start when Reggie first came to the Yankees. There was all that bad press came out about Reggie told a SPORT magazine reporter that he was "the straw that stirs the drink" when he first came to the team. Thurman resented him because he thought Reggie was making it sound like he was better than everybody else. It took a while, but after that, they became pretty good friends. When we would be on the road, they would occasionally go hang out together. With the passing of time they really got to understand and respect each other.

I remember one night when Reggie and Thurman took me out to a sports bar after a game. The place was really crowded and they had to share a bar stool. I couldn't get over it — the great Reggie Jackson and the great Thurman Munson sharing the same bar stool! But there was more. Neither one of them was real hungry that night, so they shared a hamburger, too. I remember figuring they would cut it in half and each one would eat half.

Five Days in August

Log on to YESNetwork.com to read Ray Negron's diary.

Part I: What you see here, stays here
Part III: Feeling Thurman's spirit
Part IV: Friday, July 31
Part V: Saturday, August 1

But they didn't. Reggie took a bite and passed it over to Thurman. Thurman took a bite and passed it back to Reggie. I remember him saying, "You know something Reggie? This burger doesn't taste too bad after you've eaten off of it." I can see myself sitting at that bar and smiling. That seemed like true friendship to me. It made me happy to see them so close.

Reggie was alone in his apartment when he heard, and he took the news really hard. He was crying. I knew the other players probably were crying, too. I would have called every player on that team and talked to each one of them that night, but Reggie's was the only number I had. I wished I could have talked to them all.

Other players got the news in many different ways. Some heard it on TV or the radio. Some called other players and passed the word around. Since it was a day off, Billy Martin, our manager, was out fishing with his son. He was sitting in a fishing boat in a lake when suddenly a police car pulled up. A policeman got out and called his name on a bullhorn, telling him there was an emergency.

Billy brought the boat in and went into the boathouse. Somebody patched a phone call through to him. It was Diane Munson calling from Ohio. She wanted to tell Billy the news herself before he heard it on the TV. Billy broke down and cried. It was as though he lost a son, and in a way he had. I guess somebody had to drive him back home.

I was at my friend Arthur Rubenstein's house taking some batting practice in the batting cage he has in his backyard when his mother came running out yelling Thurman was dead. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I just dropped the bat and ran as fast as I could into his house to where the television was. When I turned it on, there it was. There were so many reports.

We switched from station to station hoping for more information. I sat there staring at the TV set long after the news ended. I was emotionally mixed up because a good friend just died and there was nothing that could be done even though your feelings ask you to do something. I looked at my friend and his mother who were sitting there feeling just as bad as I was. Finally, I said, "Let's go back out and hit because I know that's what Thurman Munson would have wanted us to do." I can't explain it, but suddenly hitting a baseball was the most important thing in my life. I just wanted to grab a bat and hit a ball so long and so far it never came back. I ran all the way outside.

When I got into the cage, I looked at Arthur and said, 'Isn't life really funny?' All of a sudden the tears just ran down my face uncontrollably. It felt like a part of me was dead, too. Arthur pitched and through my tears I just kept hitting, taking all of my anger and emotion out on the ball. With each swing, I hit it harder and harder, but the anger and the tears just wouldn't go away.

From when I started at Yankee Stadium in 1973, Thurman Munson always liked me a lot and he treated me just like one of the guys. Hanging around with the team, I did numerous favors for him around the clubhouse and he always appreciated it. He was always really good to me and that really meant a lot.

The only rough time I went through with Thurman was when I first started working for Reggie Jackson in 1977. Then, when Thurman would see me, he would always say, 'Hi Reggie, I mean Ray!' Sometimes he would be talking to another ball player and I would be standing there and he would say, 'I remember when Ray used to be a nice guy. Now he just likes to hang out with 44 and drive around in his Rolls Royce.' It never really bothered me because in a strange way, it made me feel kind of proud of the fact Thurman seemed a little jealous of me and Reggie. I knew Thurman was only kidding around with me.

I also knew Thurman would need me to do some favors for him sooner or later and I'd be there to do them. Billy Martin was glad that I was friends with Reggie and he told me that he would just let me work it out with the rest of the guys on the team. I guess he figured Thurman wouldn't stay mad forever. He wasn't that kind of guy. Before you knew it, everything was as good as always between us.

You could always tell if Thurman liked you because if he did, he would make jokes and goof around with you. Some guys would come into the clubhouse after a loss and be really upset, kicking stuff and slamming doors. Thurman was never like that. He kind of took everything as it came. If we lost today, we would win tomorrow. He didn't see losing a ballgame as a good reason for being mad. He didn't dwell on things. I guess that's why he was a good captain, because he always brought the team spirit up. He never was one to let things like lost ballgames get to him. He was above all that.

Another thing about Thurman was the fact he really trusted me. He knew he could say things in front of me and it wouldn't get out — not even if it dealt with Reggie Jackson. Sometimes he would say funny things about Reggie's fancy clothes and mink coats to the other guys. Thurman was just a plain old country guy and he thought those fancy things Reggie had were funny. Even though I was Reggie's friend, I would laugh along with the others because Thurman was so funny.

But he knew I respected that clubhouse rule every bit as much as the next guy. I also knew how important it was to keep those guys as peaceful as possible. The Yankees needed them — both of them. There was no way I was going to go off and start a fight between the two of them just because they dressed differently or liked different things. I just realized they were very different people and I loved them both for who they were.

One really great thing about Thurman Munson was the fact that he looked after the younger players — not just the young Yankee players but even young players on other teams around the league. Thurman got a lot of nice new equipment for free from sporting goods companies to use. He had more things than he could possibly ever use. There were always stacks of stuff at his locker that were brand new. On numerous occasions, he told me to bring shoes and gloves to young opposing players because he saw they were just up from the Minor Leagues and wearing spikes or gloves that were old and worn. Rookie players weren't making much money, so they wore their equipment until it fell apart.

The last recipient of Thurman's generosity was Lynn Jones, a rookie outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. Thurman called me over before a game and asked me to take a new pair of spikes over to Lynn. When I delivered them, Lynn could hardly believe what he was seeing. A big star like Thurman Munson was giving him a brand new pair of spikes? He was really grateful to Thurman. And who knows? It might have saved him a really bad injury wearing shoes that were falling apart. Thurman was like that. He always put other people's needs first.

Thurman Munson was the captain of the Yankees and that was a very special title to have. Lou Gehrig was the Yankee captain for six years. Babe Ruth held the title once for only five days. Nobody else in the history of the team had ever been named captain. Being the captain of the New York Yankees was a tremendous honor, and Thurman knew it, but he didn't like to be called 'Captain' by the other players. He just wanted to be one of the guys. He never wore a 'C' on his uniform like they do on other teams. With Thurman, it was just something you knew.

I remember times when our designated hitter Cliff Johnson would be talking to Thurman and refer to him as "Captain." Thurman would say, "What's with this 'Captain' [stuff]?" One time I remember he picked Cliff up and threw him onto a couch. Cliff stopped saying it after that. Once, I made the mistake of saying, "Hi Captain." Thurman said, "Come on. You know my name, Ray." I told him I was sorry and I never made that mistake again. I learned something important from that. I learned that the best way to be a leader is not to act like one. The less Thurman acted like the captain, the more his teammates respected him as their leader. Everybody held Thurman in high regard. Even when he and Reggie weren't exactly getting along, Reggie still treated him with dignity and knew he was the team's captain.

I remember whenever we played in Boston I used to drive up for the games. Boston was our biggest rivalry and games between the Yankees and the Red Sox were always great. After the last game we were headed home for an off day, Thurman would drive back to New York with me in my car. It was great having alone time with Thurman. He was a terrific guy just to talk to.

The reason for this drive was so we could drop Thurman off at Teterboro and he could fly his plane home and be with his family. Those would usually be four very fun hours in the car with the very fun loving Mr. Munson. He knew he could really be himself. We listened to music on the radio and danced and sang along. He told us jokes and great baseball stories. One of the players he loved to talk about was our pitcher Luis Tiant. He always thought Luis reminded him of a comical cartoon character. Roller skating was really popular and Luis loved to put on this funny looking roller derby outfit and roller-skate around the halls underneath the stadium. Thurman would make up funny stories about Luis the roller skater that cracked us up.


"A lot of the Yankee players were worried about Thurman flying and they talked about it when he left. I guess some of their fear rubbed off on me because one day in particular as I was watching Thurman land, I told Hector someday that plane would go down. Today, Hector reminded me of those words. Those words keep going through my mind now, over and over. He should have listened to the players who told him it wasn't safe."
— Ray Negron

We would laugh and it always made the rides go faster. He always mentioned his wife Diane and the kids and talked about Ohio. There was no doubt in anybody's mind that he really loved his family and missed them a lot during the season. Once in a while, they would come to New York to see a couple games, and I got to meet them. He had one son and two daughters, and Diane was terrific. It was easy to see why he missed them.

My friend Hector usually did most of the driving because I can't stand night driving. I remember when I first asked Thurman if his son's name was Thurman, too. He said, "Heck no!" Then he turned to Hector because he was laughing and said, "And it isn't 'Heck-tor' either!" The three of us broke up with laughter. Then we learned his son's name was Mike. I thought about Mike a lot after I heard the news.

There was also the time I fell asleep behind the wheel and started to go off the road. Just like he was on the ball field, quick-thinking Thurman grabbed the wheel and steered us back onto the road. Then he made me pull the car over to the side of the road and get out. He kept saying "No. no, you are not driving this car!" He wasn't mad at me or anything, but he got behind the wheel and drove the rest of the way himself while I fell asleep in the back seat. I guess I owe him a lot for that. I might have wrecked the car that night.

Thurman was as much a team man as I had ever seen in the big leagues. Every player on the team counted, and he did everything he could to help every one of them. He loved and respected Jim "Catfish" Hunter. It really hurt Thurman to see Catfish go through the pain that he went through in 1978. Catfish was really suffering from shoulder problems. He was in a lot of pain and he was losing a lot of games. But he refused to give in to it — even when the Boston Red Sox beat him so bad that everybody on the team felt sorry for him.

Catfish ended up having hypnosis treatments so the doctors could fix his shoulder using some manipulation therapy. Thurman never gave up on him. The reason was pure and simple — that Thurman felt Catfish Hunter had more class than any other athlete he had ever known. Thurman understood what it meant to play hurt, and he knew that Catfish could have just given up and quit if he wanted to, but he never did. With Thurman, things like that always mattered.

Log on to YESNetwork.com this week for Parts III-V of "Five Days in August."

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