Five Days in August - Part IIIA week of mourning our captain and leader, Thurman Munson
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.
Bobby Murcer was a big favorite of Thurman's. But then, how can you not like Bobby Murcer with that great personality and Oklahoma accent? When we didn't have a superstar, we had Bobby Murcer, who was going to be the next Mickey Mantle. He never exactly made it, but he sure tried hard and the fans loved him. After Bobby was traded away in 1975, Thurman missed him a lot. I knew that if a friend of his got traded, Thurman always made it a point to stay in touch, so I used to ask Thurman about Bobby and he would tell me that he had recently talked to him or was going to call him. Even when he played elsewhere, Bobby Murcer was always a Yankee in his heart, and there was nobody prouder than Bobby when he came back in 1979, and nobody was happier than Thurman to have him back where he belonged in New York.
Thurman was also very close to Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles. These guys were like true brothers to him. His love for them was purely and sincerely there. Standing there, hitting baseballs as hard as I could to try and take away some of my pain and anger, I wondered where they all were and how they were taking the news. They were all together only the day before in Comiskey Park. We beat the White Sox 9-1. Thurman got a single. Reggie hit a home run and so did Piniella. Thurman came out of the game early and the backup catcher Jerry Narron hit a home run, too. The team flew home to New York and Thurman went to Ohio to spend the day at home with his wife and kids. I was supposed to pick him up at Teterboro Airport when he flew back in the Cessna. Now everyone was sitting somewhere thinking about him, knowing they would never see him again. I wondered if they were all crying, like I was. Somehow, I knew they were.
Friday August 3 Team Meeting
I got up Friday, and for a second, it didn't seem like it was real to me. It seemed like any other Friday morning getting ready to go to the ballpark. It took a minute or two for it to sink in. This was anything but an ordinary Friday morning. Everything had changed, and I really didn't have any idea what I would find when I got to Yankee Stadium. I was a little nervous. How were his teammates reacting to the terrible news?
The clubhouse man, Pete Sheehy, and I were the first ones to arrive in the clubhouse. I was crying pretty hard by then. I think I must have cried all the way there. Mostly I guess I was feeling sorry for myself. I felt like a kid who just lost an uncle or an older brother and wanted them back really bad. The first thing I did was to remove Thurman's bats from the bat bag and hid them. I knew how important his final bat would be and I wasn't really sure what I was going to do with it then. I am ashamed to say that part of me wanted to keep it forever, but another part of me knew that would be selfish. Who knows? Maybe I really didn't care if it was selfish. I just wanted something that belonged to Thurman, a way of keeping him close to me forever.
Pete and I began to get things ready and the clubhouse was very silent until the players began to enter one by one. Everybody was crying. They looked terrible, like they had been crying all night long. Everyone looked like they were in shock. They were all saying the same thing. 'I can't believe it!' What else could anybody say? Lou Piniella entered looking very tired. I could tell he hadn't slept all night. Graig Nettles came in and he was in pretty much the same condition. His eyes were very red and swollen. These were Thurman's closest friends, and I figured they were going to take it the hardest.
I tried not to, but I couldn't help but stare at Thurman's locker. His locker was right next to the trainer's room, so everybody was passing by. The team kept a valuables box in the trainer's room, and everybody was going in and out to put their stuff away or get taped up for the game. You couldn't help but pause for a second and look at it as you walked by. It was there, all alone. No other lockers were near it, and as I walked by, I swore I could feel his spirit sitting there.
It was as though you could see that No. 15 on his back as he bent over to tie his shoelaces, his chest protector hanging loose on him, his hat turned around backwards, ready to go out and catch. It was a strange feeling, and I am sure I'm not the only one who felt it. Everybody was kind of stopping a second as they walked by, resisting the urge to reach out and touch it. It kept crossing my mind that it was all just a prank. Any second now, Thurman was going to come bouncing through the door laughing with that crazy Three Stooges laugh of his. Sparky Lyle must be involved somehow. That was just like something he and Thurman would cook up together. This had to be one of their tricks, it just had to be. Thurman couldn't really be dead.
I found Bobby Murcer was in lounge sleeping on a couch because he was with Diane Munson all night. When he heard the news, he immediately caught a flight to Ohio and spent the night with her, flying back early in the morning to be with the team. He was totally exhausted. He hadn't slept all night, but he knew Thurman would have wanted him to go there and be with Diane and the kids. Someone from the Yankees had to be there. The team couldn't just leave them alone to go through this. He was our brother.
All conversation throughout clubhouse centered around our tragic loss. Billy Martin, our manager, was truly very upset when he arrived. His face was very red, and he had on sunglasses on to cover tearing eyes. That was just like Billy. He was our leader, our manager. He wanted to be strong for the rest of us, but the dark glasses weren't working. We knew what was underneath them. He was just as heartbroken as the rest of us. Billy has this reputation for being a real tough guy on the field, but on the inside, he is a very gentle man, and he was taking it hard.
Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse manager, had very blank look on his face. Pete's gone through this before in his many long years with the Yankees. He had lost a lot of people he was very close to starting with the tragic loss of our first captain, Lou Gehrig. Some people were saying Pete was probably used to it because of his age. He'd been with the Yankees like forever. Knowing Pete, I don't believe that, but if it's true than I don't want to get old.
To contradict what some of the players said about Pete, he told me Thurman used to pick him up sometimes to go to the ballpark. That morning, he found himself at home looking for Thurman and waiting for him, even though he knew he wasn't going to be there. I thought about how that must have felt, standing there waiting for a ride that was never coming. Everybody deals with pain in their own way. You definitely see that when you are on the inside of a baseball team. Pete's way might have looked a little stronger than the rest of us from the outside, but I knew he was crying on the inside. To a clubhouse manager, every player who walks into your locker room is one of your kids and you take care of them all. One of Pete's kids was dead.
The Boss, George Steinbrenner, walked through the door and into Billy Martin's office. He didn't say anything to any of us as he walked past, and I was a little bit surprised by that. It was almost as though he didn't even notice that the entire team was standing there weeping like children. It was hard to tell if he looked angry or upset, but he looked different somehow. His face was definitely red. We all watched as he closed Billy's door behind him. They were in there alone for a little while. We all kind of stood and watched the door, waiting for them to come out. Then they came out together and gathered everybody in the center of the clubhouse. Everybody sort of just turned around to listen to him from wherever they were. George stood in the center of the room.
George started by talking about the accident and how it happened. He gave us information from the Akron/Canton Regional Airport as well as from the two survivors of the crash. He also repeated a lot of the information that we were already hearing on the different news channels. At first, you could tell that he was trying to sound calm and strong, kind of like John Wayne. He told us Thurman cracked some teeth and some ribs and that he was trapped inside the plane. Even after hearing the details on TV, there was something different about hearing it from George Steinbrenner. It made it sound more real to us, really final. Thurman was really gone. Standing in the Yankee locker room only feet away from Thurman's locker filled with all his personal things, it really began to sink in very deeply for me.
Then he started talking about Thurman, the man. He was talking about how strong Thurman was and how he always played hurt, how he would go to the trainer's room and get all taped and bandaged up and go out there on the field or how he was always sitting around after a game wrapped in ice packs. He never complained about his aches and pains. He was tough, we all knew that, but we also knew it was his job and that was how much he loved playing baseball for the Yankees. He never let anything slow him down. But hearing about how Thurman played in pain started making me think about the pain he was in when he was trapped inside that airplane, and it only made me cry harder. I think other people were thinking the same thing because the noise got louder in the locker room, until it was filled with loud sobs and wails.
Then George's face turned extremely red and he broke into tears. He couldn't go on speaking. He covered his face and took a step back, and for a moment, nobody knew what was going to happen next.
Billy Martin took over and started talking about how we had to pull together both as a team and as brothers. It was getting very hard for him to go on because he had been crying pretty hard before the meeting even started and his voice was all raspy. Then he started sobbing, so he asked Bobby Murcer to continue for him. He wanted Bobby to tell the others about how Diane was taking it.
Bobby could barely get up. He looked the worst of all, his face and eyes already redder than anyone else's, and tears were just pouring from his eyes. He told us that he was with Diane the night before. In a very choked up tone, Bobby said that Diane was a tower of strength. He said he told her that there was just no way he could play that night. He thought the game should be canceled. It was just too hard for the team to go on. His words were coming out in a combination of loud sobs and cries.
He told us Diane said Bobby and the team should play because that is truly how Thurman would have wanted it. In fact, she insisted that they play the game as usual. In a way, I could understand that. I remembered how I went out into my friend's yard the night before and just hit and hit until my body couldn't do it anymore. In my heart, I knew Thurman would have wanted the Yankees to play. I think he would have been mad at them if they didn't. The players all kind of nodded in agreement, but nobody's heart was really in it.
You could hear the sniffling of noses all around the clubhouse. Roy White, Thurman's oldest teammate, Jim Spencer, Piniella, Nettles, myself we just couldn't seem to get hold our emotions. Nobody was thinking about the game. Even after what Bobby said, nobody really cared. Everyone just needed to let out this terrible grief they felt inside. It felt like you just couldn't cry hard enough, and for a moment, nobody was able to talk.
Then, out of nowhere, Reggie Jackson suddenly started talking, right from where he was standing. It took us by surprise for a second and then everybody turned to listen. He was sad and tears were streaming down his face, but there was a quiet calm in his voice. He told us how it was important for all of us to use this as a lesson. He used quotes from the Bible. I can't remember what they were, but it was something that seemed like it needed to be said. Nobody had really said anything about God before that.
Reggie Jackson is the kind of person who goes to the Bible when he needs comfort. Listening to him that day, I could tell Reggie had been reading the Bible the night before. That was Reggie's way of dealing with it. He and Thurman were friends, really friends, and nobody can ever tell me otherwise. They were truly close in spite of their rough start, and Reggie wanted his words to bring strength to the rest of us. I was never prouder of Reggie than I was at that moment.
|"I tried not to, but I couldn't help but stare at Thurman's locker. His locker was right next to the trainer's room, so everybody was passing by. The team kept a valuables box in the trainer's room, and everybody was going in and out to put their stuff away or get taped up for the game. You couldn't help but pause for a second and look at it as you walked by. It was there, all alone. No other lockers were near it, and as I walked by, I swore I could feel his spirit sitting there."|
| Ray Negron|
After the meeting, Mr. Steinbrenner, Reggie, Bucky Dent, Lou Piniella, Tommy John, and Jim Spencer went with me into the trainer's room to talk together quietly. People just broke up into little groups to talk and be together to help each other. Things were a little bit more settled down in the trainer's room when I got there. It seemed Reggie's talk helped some people a lot. They were mentioning how everybody thinks they always have problems, but who's got the problems now. Somebody said something about how everything seems so small now that this has happened. The quarrels, the contract disputes, the arguments, the nasty stories in the press, it all seemed so unnecessary. It was like Mr. Steinbrenner was being the father figure, maybe for the first time since he owned the Yankees. He wanted everyone to know that he was there to talk if they needed him. It made us all feel good about him.
Billy Martin came up to me and told me he had a tough job for me. He asked me if I would go out to Teterboro Airport and pick up Thurman's car. Hector would drive me out there in his car and I would drive Thurman's car back. Naturally I said yes, but I sure as hell wanted to say no. I wasn't looking forward to it, but when Thurman asked me to do things for him, I never thought twice. I just did what he asked. Somebody had to do it, and the players needed to get themselves together and get ready for a game they really didn't want to play. I figured if they could go out there and play baseball feeling as bad as they did, the least I could do was go pick up the car. It was like the last favor I was ever going to do for my good friend Thurman Munson, and in a way, I was honored that Billy asked me to do it.
On the way back I realized that this was the first time that I was coming back from Teterboro without Thurman in his car. It just made my tears start again. The car radio was on WKTU, a disco station Thurman sometimes listened to, so I left it on and listened to it with tears rolling down my face. It felt kind of funny, listening to this music knowing it was the last music Thurman ever listened to. It just didn't seem like the right kind of music to be listening to loud, happy disco music, but I just couldn't turn it off.
As I approached Yankee Stadium, the ceremonies on the field were just starting. I really wanted to rush to get the car into the players' parking lot. I wasn't going to be getting dressed for the game, but I really wanted to be there for the ceremonies with everybody else. Mr. Steinbrenner and Billy said brothers needed to stick together, and I wanted to be there with my brothers as they faced the fans for the first time.
I remember there was this one New York City traffic cop who wouldn't let me through a blocked-off street near Yankee Stadium. There was a lot of traffic, a lot of people were coming to the game and there were cars everywhere. When I told him I was driving Thurman's car back to the players' parking lot, he looked at me and said, "What's your rush? Thurman won't be needing the car for awhile." This hurt me so much. I just couldn't believe he could talk like that about someone who had just died so tragically? If he wasn't a cop, I probably would have gotten out to fight him. It was all I could do to hold back my anger and rage. How dare he speak about Thurman that way? Didn't he even have the decency to speak kindly of someone who was dead?
Someone I loved very much?
Log on to YESNetwork.com this week for Parts IV-V of "Five Days in August."