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Five Days in August - Part V

A week of mourning our captain and leader, Thurman Munson
08/01/2009 10:59 AM ET
By Ray Negron / Special to YESNetwork.com

Diana Munson leaves Thurman Munson's funeral in Canton, Ohio, on August 6, 1979. (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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I got up and barely made it back to my seat. I could hardly see because of the tears in my eyes. Mr. Steinbrenner sent an aide over to where I was sitting by myself. He tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, "Mr. Steinbrenner would like you to come and stand beside him in line with the players." The aide walked with me over to him. I felt very proud to be standing there. Mr. Steinbrenner put his arm around my shoulder and told me that it was almost over. "Hang on, Ray, you will make it through this. We all will." Mr. Steinbrenner was always so good to me, and I was glad to be standing there with him to cling to.

  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

Marty Appel, the man who wrote Thurman's biography, came over to comfort me. He was crying himself. I told Marty how much Thurman cared about him. All he could do was nod and wander away. He was a man who wrote words for a living, and he couldn't find any at that moment.

As the pallbearers were leaving with the casket, they passed by us. I just stared at it. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I kept saying to myself, "My brother. Our brother, don't leave us, please don't leave us." As they put the casket into the hearse, everyone just stared blankly and silently for the moments that it took for it to be put inside. Our day wasn't over yet.

Now we had to get into the buses and go to the burial site. I was very worried about Billy because he was very depressed and he was there alone, but the players were surrounding him and holding him up. I just prayed he would be all right.

Everything Bobby Murcer told us about Diane Munson was true. She was truly a tower of strength. At the Civic Center, she was so calm and it seemed like she was handling it so well. Unfortunately Diane is also only human and at the Sunset Hills Burial Park, it seemed as if she came to the realization that this was really it. Thurman was really gone. And she broke down completely. The other wives were very concerned about this. They were also worried about the children seeing her this way. The kids seemed so little and scared. The Yankee wives wanted her to leave, but they decided she needed to have some space for her children and her family to grieve. Seeing Diane and the kids like this hurt me more than words can say, but there was nothing anybody could do for them.

At that moment I felt very close to Chris and Audrey Chambliss. Chris came over to me and we I started to hug while Audrey stood by. I told him how much I appreciated him. That's when I left for the bus. On the bus, Willie Randolph and his wife sat next to me and said how we really had to be strong now even though we were leaving one of our brothers behind. It really seemed as if we had all become one family. Nobody wanted anybody to be left alone. Whenever you turned around, there was someone there to hold you and comfort you. It was an amazing feeling.

I told Willie another thing that bothered me greatly was hearing that Lou Piniella visited one of the survivors when he came out to Ohio the day before with Bobby Murcer to help Diane prepare for the funeral. Lou learned from the survivor that Thurman was alive and conscious for about three to four minutes before he died. He was yelling, "Get me out of here. Please get me out." He had to have burned and suffocated to death.

The sound of those words kept playing in my brain over and over. I thought of all the things I did for Thurman and it almost seemed like he was talking to me, asking me to do something for him. Willie held my hand and told me he understood, but there was nothing any of us could have done for Thurman. We did everything we could. Just being there to say good-bye to him was all that was left for us to do. I only wished there could have been some way that Thurman didn't have to suffer so much. It just didn't seem fair. Nobody should have to suffer like that, not even somebody who played when they were in pain.

I saw Don Gullett as I was sitting on the bus. Earlier, I was worried about him because he told me on the phone Saturday he was driving up from Kentucky. I couldn't find him with all of those people at the Civic Center and I wasn't sure he had made it. I called Don to tell him of the team meeting we held because he was on the disabled list and couldn't make it. Still, he was a part of the team and a brother, and I wanted him to know the details. You can't help but to love Don Gullett because of the type of person that he is. A true gentleman, the type of person I would want to be. I was happy to see him there. It wouldn't have been the same without him.

Everyone got on the bus and we left for the airport. We talked along the way. Nobody was left alone. It had been some of the hardest days of my life and I was really relieved that it was finally over.

Later That Night — The Bobby Murcer Show
When we landed at Newark, half the team went home with their wives and the other half went to the ballpark. Everyone just seemed too exhausted to even think about doing anything else. Players were lying all throughout the clubhouse sleeping on chairs and couches, anyplace they could find to stretch their exhausted bodies out. They had a game ahead of them and they needed all the rest they could get. Baseball players are professionals — even under the toughest circumstances. They didn't want to embarrass themselves out on the field. Some got a little rest on the plane ride home, but not too much. Nobody had gotten much rest for the previous four days and it was really beginning to take its toll.

It was a long and exhausting day already and they still had nine innings of baseball to play. The game was even going to be on Monday Night Baseball. I wondered if Diane would watch in Ohio, if she would turn the game on, just out of habit. I really hoped she was doing better. Thurman was lucky to have such a wonderful woman in his life. He always said she was a great wife and mother.

I was really quiet the rest of the afternoon. I tried very hard to act like it was just another day at the ballpark. I had things to do to get the team ready. There were spikes to clean and uniforms to make sure were prepared for the game. I had equipment to set up in the dugout. As I worked, I just tried to be as quiet as I could and not disturb anybody. I was tired, too, but I knew if I didn't get my job done, they couldn't be ready for the game.

So my rest would have to wait for later. I would sleep when I could. I could make it, I knew I could. I had to. If Thurman could do his job hurt, I could do mine tired. I even made a couple trips to the McDonald's across the street because nobody felt like going out to eat. I was worried about them because they hadn't really eaten all day. A batboy's job is to make sure his players are taken care of. Sometimes, that means going to McDonald's, too. It was a hot night in August, and I didn't want to see anybody collapsing of exhaustion.

I kept an eye on Lou Piniella as I worked. He was really still very upset. I could see that he was kind of pacing around, as though he was wrestling with some important decision. I felt so sorry for him, and I wished there was something I could do. When Billy Martin finally came in, I watched as Lou went over to him to talk with him. He told Billy he really didn't want to play. He just felt too emotional to go out there. Billy said he understood that. This gave Bobby Murcer a chance to get into the lineup in Lou's spot. Billy said he was thinking about not playing Bobby either, but Bobby wouldn't hear of it. He was going to be out on that field no matter what.

Since Murcer came back to the Yanks, he had really been having his problems. For one thing, he wasn't really getting all the playing time he wanted. But with Lou sitting it out, this was Bobby's chance and he intended to do everything he could with it. He wasn't playing for himself. He was playing for Thurman, and for Diane and their children. Somehow, he would find the strength to make it through that game.

As if a miracle has struck, he did find the strength. He went out on that field like a man with a mission. With the Orioles leading 4-0, Bobby hit a three run homerun. It was a terrific line drive in the right field stands, just like he used to do in the old days. The old Bobby Murcer was suddenly back. The beautiful thing about that home run was how Murcer and Piniella hugged for joy in the dugout. Bobby seemed to be saying that Thurman really gave him the strength to do it. The team was happy, but nobody was happier for him than Lou. It was as though Lou Piniella knew this was going to be Bobby Murcer's night to shine, and all he was going to do was sit back and watch the fireworks.

Then, as if lightning doesn't strike twice, in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees were still one run down. There were runners on second and third with Bobby due up next. Bobby kept looking over his shoulder to see if Billy was going to take him out for a pinch hitter, but not this time. Billy just clapped his hands and yelled out, 'Come on Bobby, you're a good hitter. I know you can do the job. Bring them in!' Every eye in Yankee Stadium was on him and he knew it, but he walked up to the plate calmly.

Bobby fouled off the first two pitches. The Yankees were down to their final strike, but from the look on his face, you could tell Bobby wasn't the least bit worried. He could feel a hit in him. At this moment, everybody on that team seemed drawn closer together than I had ever seen them in all my years at Yankee Stadium. All of their energy was collectively directed at Bobby Murcer, standing at home plate. Nobody made a sound. They just stood there, watching him and waiting for something special to happen. And as if by the blessing of God, Bobby swung at a knee high slider and ripped a vicious line drive down the left field line. Two runs crossed the plate on his game-winning single. It was a big win, and it was on national TV.


Bobby Murcer drove in all five runs of the Yankees' 5-4 victory mere hours after the team attended Thurman Munson's funeral.

Jubilation was in the air. It was by far our happiest moment since our tragic loss. The feeling on the bench was almost back to normal. The spirit of Thurman was there, I could feel it. Nobody was happier for Robert Murcer than me because when I think of him, I think of the old Yankee days when we weren't winners but we were happy. And nobody would have been happier than Thurman for his old friend Bobby. I just stayed in the background and sucked it all in, letting the players jump for joy, for this was truly their moment.

As I sat there happy with joy, tears suddenly developed in my eyes. At first, I was afraid I was going to start crying for Thurman again, but then I realized I was really crying because of the happiness the Yankees were going through. I guess after everything we had been through those few days, I never
thought was going to be possible for the team to be happy again. But there was nothing the Yankees needed more at that moment than something to cheer about. The crowd kept chanting for Bobby to take a bow. He didn't want to, but after a few pushes from his teammates, he responded by going up to the top step and tipping his cap to them as they cheered wildly. It was the perfect end to a beautiful evening.

In the clubhouse, Mr. Steinbrenner was there waiting to congratulate everybody right down to the batboys. It almost felt like we won the World Series, but in a way, we had won a whole lot more. He was proud of all of us. As most of the guys got into the clubhouse, the one thing that seemed to be on their minds was to walk by Thurman's locker so that they could stop and say "Thurman Munson, thank you very much for so very much. Our respect and love will always be with you. And you will always be here with us in spirit." I think he will be. Thurman loved us all way too much to go away. Something tells me this is always going to be his clubhouse. I don't think Thurman would have it any other way.

_______________________

It's been a long time now, and a lot of things have happened to me and to the Yankees. Even now, just thinking about those five days in August brings tears to my eyes and I have to stop and let them fall.

Thurman's original locker and a bronzed set of his catching equipment are on display in the Hall of Fame. I am proud of the fact that I probably took care of that very equipment. He was never elected as a member, but at least his things are there. At the original Yankee Stadium, a replica of Thurman's locker was near current captain Derek Jeter's and it remained empty. His No. 15 was retired immediately after his death and hangs on the wall in the outfield.

On September 20, 1980, with Diane and his family in attendance, a monument was added for him in Monument Park. Mr. Steinbrenner himself wrote the inscription. "Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next ... Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him." I think Thurman would have loved all of it — except maybe for the captain part. There is also now a Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton where two Frontier League teams, The Canton Coyotes and The Canton Crocodiles play. His No. 15 is retired there as well.

To this day, Thurman remains the only Yankee player to ever win both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the American League. He is remembered for so many things. In 1971, he was charged with only one error behind the plate, and that was when a runner knocked the ball out of his catcher's mitt running in to him. Unfortunately, he had to knock Thurman unconscious, to do it. That's the kind of guy he was — he never gave up. Somebody once said there was a big difference between a legend and a man. In Thurman's case, I got to see and know both. And I miss both of them dearly.

I have spent a lot of time with the New York Yankees, and I have seen a lot of them laugh and a lot of them cry. I never got to see Thurman cry, but I wish I had because then I would have had some more time with him, and maybe even gotten to know him better, if that was possible. In life, the longer you live, the more apt you are to cry. At 32, you're still just a kid. Sooner or later, he would have. He had that kind of love in his heart. If it had been someone else who died that day, Thurman would have had the wettest shoulders in the clubhouse, because he would have been there for everybody. That's just the way he was.

Since then, two other Yankees have died in small plane crashes. I remember once driving in a car with George Steinbrenner and talking about Thurman. George really summed it all up for me when he said, "I want you to go to school, finish your education and plan to always work with the Yankees. If there is one thing Thurman's death taught us, it was that we should always be prepared for anything. Thurman could be as rough and complicated as anybody else. But he was definitely someone I would like to see my two sons grow up to be like." I would wish the same for mine.

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