Five Days in August - Part IV

A week of mourning our captain and leader, Thurman Munson
07/31/2009 11:36 AM ET
By Ray Negron / Special to

Yankees players, including Bobby Murcer (center) and
manager Billy Martin (second from right), line up on the
dugout steps at Yankee Stadium, their sleeves wrapped in
black arm bands, during a moment of silence for Thurman Munson. (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.


I got into the ballpark just in time to get on line with players on top step of dugout. Sadness marked the day. I wasn't sure any of the players were going to be able to get through that game. After a standing on the steps for a moment of silence, the starting players all ran out onto the field and stood in their defensive positions. The catcher's box was left empty. Robert Merrill sang something. I can't even remember what.

Then the 51,151 people at the game stood and gave Thurman a 10-minute standing ovation so loud you could hardly hear. Even the members of the Baltimore Orioles applauded and stood to pay their respects. Thurman was loved all around the league. The players stood on the field holding their hats over their chests. Reggie had his hand over his face, weeping in right field. Everywhere you looked, there were signs and banners. Even if one lousy New York cop couldn't show his respect for Thurman, it was beautiful to know that the inside of Yankee Stadium was filled with nothing but love for our beloved captain.

  • 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

Graig Nettles was no condition to play but he did because he is a great pro — plain and simple. In between innings, I remember he had to keep running into the clubhouse to shed his tears. He didn't want to cry in front of the fans. No one was really in any condition to play. Everybody was just going through the motions. Roy White was emotionally drained, but he did the best he could. The crowd tried to stir the team up. They wanted us to win one for Thurman. Luis Tiant started the game and gave up one run. Luis with his roller derby outfits and roller skates, Thurman would have gotten a laugh out of that one. Goose Gossage finished it up.

The guy who had the toughest job that night was without a doubt, Jerry Narron. He was the backup catcher and had to step into Thurman's impossible-to-fill shoes. You could tell he was a little nervous, but that it was a big deal for him to go out there and do this for Thurman and for the team. He was completely professional and kept his emotions in check, even though it must have been really hard for him. I gave him a lot of credit for what he did. Thurman would have been truly proud.

We lost game 1-0, but who really cared? We knew the fans wanted a win for Thurman, but everyone was too emotionally drained to really play. It was amazing we only lost 1-0. We all had the feeling the score was going to be much worse than that. But I know how Thurman would have felt to lose 1-0 to the Orioles. He wouldn't have dwelled on it. He would have taken a shower and gone on with his life. That was exactly what we had to do. We had more important things to do than think about losing a game to the Orioles. It was just one game — a very small and meaningless moment compared to the rest of it we had to face.

After the game, Graig Nettles was still really down. He was really having a hard time of it and he did a lot of crying as he and Billy Martin sat together at his locker. Billy was also crying, but he tried his best to give Graig strength and comfort. The phone rang and I answered it. I told Billy that Mr. Steinbrenner was on the phone. Billy took the call and I asked Graig if I could get him a beer. I don't know why, it just seemed right at the time. Bat boys are supposed to know their players and what they need, sometimes even before the players know. I just wanted to do something to help Graig, and if it helped to get him a beer, then I wanted him to know I was there to do it. That's what bat boys do.

After the game, my friends were outside waiting for me, but I told them to leave because I wanted to be alone. Silence and sadness was what the Yankee clubhouse was all about this day. For the first time since I started working for the Yankees, all I saw was pure love for one another as far as the players were concerned. Everyone was using the other guy for strength and courage. It was a funny feeling for me, but I felt like my friends were outsiders. They didn't know what was going on inside that locker room, they weren't a part of it. There was really no way I could make them understand what it felt like in there, and so I just wanted to be alone.

One by one, the players left. Each of them headed off in their own direction in search of some kind of relief from all the emotions we had been through that day. I knew that everybody just wanted to hug their own wives and kids and just feel so glad to have them near. I hoped they would at least be able to get a good night's sleep.

Sunday August 5
The day started pretty normally. Things at the Stadium seemed a little bit more relaxed. There seemed to be more talking in the clubhouse, even if it was pretty quiet talking. Gene Monahan, the trainer, finally let out a smile after two days of deep depression. We won the game on Graig Nettles home run. It was his first in a month. Once again, I thought of myself whacking baseballs in my friend's backyard. Maybe that's how Graig was able to hit one. I guessed he just needed to let off some steam or anger or frustration. All I know is that when I saw him touch home plate, I was hoping to see that it felt good for him in some way. He needed it, he really did, but it really didn't seem to help. Graig was still suffering badly.

Even though we won, the game had no meaning for us whatsoever. There was no cheering in the clubhouse. The guys just seemed to find their way to the showers, then get dressed and head home. It was almost like they were all robots doing a job.

By this time, I had been hiding Thurman's last game bat for three days and it was beginning to weigh heavily on my mind. Part of me really wanted to keep it forever, but part of me knew that just wasn't right. I knew that Billy would really like to have it, so I decided the right thing to do was to give it to him. I got it out of where I hid it and marched straight to Billy's office, hoping nobody would notice what I had in my hands. When I got to his office, it was full of reporters. Billy looked overwhelmed by them and tired of answering their questions. I felt a little funny being there and I turned to leave, but Billy stood up and stopped me. He could see in my face I had something important to say.

With all the reporters crowding around us, he could see I was afraid to talk to him, so he dragged me into his closet and shut the door behind him. He didn't care that the reporters were waiting. The door had slats in it and the light was shining in a strip across our eyes. That was really all I could see — Billy's red, swollen eyes. It seemed that the redness and the swelling just wasn't leaving our eyes, none of us.

"Talk to me, Ray," Billy said seriously. I held the bat up and told him Thurman would have wanted him to have his last game bat. I told him I wanted him to have it and I hoped he wasn't mad at me for hiding it, but I knew how really special it was and how much it would mean to Billy.

I could see the love and concern in his eyes. He told me he could never be mad at me and for the first of many times, he told me he couldn't love me any more even if I was Italian. I will never forget those words. As he finished his last word, I just couldn't hold my emotions any longer. Billy took the bat from me and we both cried in each other's arms in the dark closet while the reporters waited outside wondering what was going on. We talked about our love for each other and our love for Thurman. I thanked Billy for always having his door open to me. I was glad I had made the right decision. The bat was in the right hands now.

I went back to the player's lounge where I had this little corner where I liked to sit and think. As I sat there, with tears descending down my face, Reggie came over and asked me what was wrong. I just told him I really felt bad. Reggie was really feeling badly himself and for the first time possibly in his life, he really didn't know what to say. He just shook his head and walked away.

Graig Nettles came and sat next to me on the floor and we talked about Thurman. As I looked in Graig's eyes I saw his tears drop, almost in slow motion. He helped me catch the strength that I needed to hold my inner feelings a little more in check. Lou Piniella came over to comfort me and he was great too, just for being there. Then Lou got up off the floor and went right to Mr. Steinbrenner to make sure that I was going to the funeral on the plane with the rest of the team in the morning. Bobby Murcer saw me, started towards me, stopped in his tracks and walked out the door with his head down, face very withdrawn. Like Reggie, he just didn't seem to know what to say. I guess it was starting to sink in that we still had the worst day ahead of us.

Monday August 6 — The Funeral
My day started at 4:30 in the morning. I got up and got dressed in my best suit. I tried not to disturb my family as I left, but I really don't remember talking to them at all since Thurman died. I was just lost in my own world. By the time I got to Yankee Stadium it was 6 a.m. No one was there yet. I guess I was just used to getting to the Stadium before the players. In this time, I was trying to get my composure together. I had decided that I was going to be strong. I was going to make it through the day without falling apart.

Soon, the players arrived, most of them with their wives. Everyone seemed very quiet. We left the stadium at 7:05 on two buses and got to the airport at 7:35. The charter flight to Ohio was pretty much normal. Most of the players were whispering quietly to their wives. Some players were joking around a little, but nothing compared to how it usually was on a Yankee flight. But this wasn't your usual flight. That's the reason some of the guys joked around, to cheer the others up. I was just numb.

We landed at Canton Airport at about 9 a.m., got into two buses, and went to the Civic Center where they held the funeral. It was the biggest place in Canton. There wasn't a church big enough to hold the funeral in. There must have been about two thousand people outside the building and another five hundred inside. Everybody in Canton knew Thurman Munson. He was a local hero and everyone was there to pay their respects and stand quietly in the August sun to show their support.

There was a lot of press there, too. This was a really big story, guaranteed to be the front page of the sports section the next morning. It made me a little mad that they were there — almost like they were intruding on a very private moment, but they had their job to do, too. Thurman was always good to members of the press and he got his share of headlines. It was only right they were there to give him one more. At least they were quiet and polite.

As I sat down in the Center and looked around, I could see a lot ex-teammates like Sparky Lyle and Mickey Rivers and Bobby Bonds, also Mike Heath, who flew in from Oakland and was going to fly back right after the funeral at his own expense. That showed me even more the kind of man Thurman was, that his ex-teammates would come their on their own just to say good-bye.

The service began with Lou Piniella giving a eulogy. It was very touching. He wasn't reading a speech off of cards. He was just talking off the top of his head. He just seemed to know the right things to say. He mentioned the fact that as long as we were wearing pinstripes, we would always be close to Thurman. I hoped I would be close to him a lot longer than that. Lou's nose was very stuffy right through the eulogy. He had to pause every once in awhile at so that he could compose himself, but everyone was proud of his courage and his words.

"The door had slats in it and the light was shining in a strip across our eyes. That was really all I could see — Billy's red, swollen eyes. It seemed that the redness and the swelling just wasn't leaving our eyes, none of us."
— Ray Negron

Bobby Murcer then came up to eulogize his captain and close friend. It was noticeably very hard for Bobby, but something I'm sure he was very proud to be doing. Bobby started talking about Thurman, the man as well as the baseball player we all knew. He mentioned how he used to call him "Tugboat." A quiet little chuckle went through the room. Everyone had silly nicknames for Thurman and they teased him a lot for being stocky. It never bothered Thurman, he just teased them right back.

Cries interrupted Bobby's words all the way through, but it was still that voice we were all used to, with that familiar homey Oklahoma accent. I knew he was determined to make it all the way through his speech, no matter how hard he was crying. All of his words very touching and very true. You could tell he loved Thurman very much. Thurman wasn't the perfect person, no one is, but one thing that I can remember about Thurman was that in all aspects of his life he was true and genuine and he was proud of it.

Tears were all through the large auditorium. At this time I thought I had cried myself out the night before because not once did I get the urge to cry. I was sticking to my promise to myself to stay strong. A priest that Thurman knew well followed Murcer. He spoke of Thurman and what should be done for him. He said how he felt Thurman should be inducted into the Hall of Fame immediately, just like Roberto Clemente had been after his untimely death in 1972.

I didn't think that was right because it was too soon and he seemed to be making a comparison between the two players. I could understand that priest making a mistake like that because Thurman was his friend and he naturally wanted to see his friend on top at the end. But it just didn't seem right at the time. Who was thinking about the Hall of Fame? Baseball wasn't about life and death. This was. And I just didn't care about the Hall of Fame.

After the priest finished, he asked all Thurman's teammates to stand and be official pallbearers. The Yankee players rose from their seats and walked up to the casket, half standing on one side and half on the other. Then the other people in the room went up and paid their last respects before the closed casket. On my way up, I went over to Diane Munson and as I hugged her I said to her, "I really loved him."

She hugged me back and responded by saying, "I know you were always a help to him, thank you." We both cried in each others arms. I felt a sense of pride at that moment, knowing Thurman had mentioned me to his wife and told her how helpful I was to him. It meant I was doing a good job as a bat boy. When I was done talking to her, I hurried past, not wanting to stand and look at the three little children who now had no father. I knew it would be too hard for me.

Then I proceeded up to the casket, got down on my knees. Suddenly all my strength just disappeared and I just cried. There were a lot of flowers in the front of the room and in the heat, the perfume scent was very strong, almost choking me. On the top of the casket was a picture of Thurman in pinstripes, just as I remembered him. As I knelt there, I reached out for one of the leaves from the flowers on top of the casket. I took it and crushed it into the palm of my hand holding it tight. I remember crying to myself, "Thurman, Oh Thurman, how I miss you. Thank you for all those moments we shared. Now, we have to leave you here."

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