Reflections on Thurman: 30 years laterAnimated film to be used as educational outlet for Munson's legacy
Negron is the executive producer of "Henry and Me," an animated film based on his series of children's books scheduled for release next March in Tampa before going to the Tribeca Film Festival. Licensed through Major League Baseball, "Henry and Me" features Paul Simon as the voice of Munson and Richard Gere as the film's central character, Lou Gehrig. The movie is drawn from Negron's latest book, "One Last Time: Good-bye to Yankee Stadium," a story of Yankees greats who gather for one last game at the original House that Ruth Built.
Like with all of Negron's books, a large percentage of the film's proceeds will be donated to charities including the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx and the DeWayne Murcer Memorial Foundation. The project is an educational outlet to Yankees history, one that with Munson's tragic death is left with a gaping hole, just like inside the hearts of many who knew and loved Munson, including a teenager learning to do what was right.
I feel deprived, 30 years later, knowing what I know about life and living, I feel very deprived because Thurman Munson was a man at such a young age. At 32 - thirty-two - you're still a kid and he was a man. I don't know too many 32 year olds that were the type of person with the strength that Thurman had. In essence, I miss him just as much as I did then. I wish my sons had gotten to know Thurman Munson the man.
It's exciting that I'm working on an animation which features Thurman as such a strong character. Thurman had a big love of music. He liked all forms of music: country, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul. To get a guy like Paul Simon to play Thurman, to do the voice of Thurman, I feel it's so appropriate. I remember a song Thurman used to like called, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" (the Hollies and later performed by Neil Diamond). I'm excited about Paul Simon doing him.
"Henry and Me" gives children a chance to be introduced to Thurman Munson in the way children like it best, in cartoon form. So when they see and hear Thurman Munson in a cartoon, I'm hoping they're going to be asking a lot of questions about him as well as Bobby Murcer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and all the greats that are no longer here. I'm very, very excited about that. Cartoons live forever, per se, especially if they're done right. And this is being done beautifully. Thirty years later we are celebrating Thurman's life.
He wasn't crazy about the media, but if you were a good person and the right person, he would have been your friend. I once heard him say, "Are you talking as a writer or as a friend?" I don't remember who the writer was, but I remember him saying, "Are you a writer now or my friend?"
Believe it or not, I learned a lot through Thurman, just like through Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. They were my educators. Because of my adulation for them, and because of the trust they had for me, I was able to take in a lot. A lot of times Thurman would say, "Don't worry about Ray." The best example of that was one time, this was '79, Reggie was getting on me because he found out I had a girl in his apartment and hanging out in his bedroom. He caught me. He didn't say anything that day, but a day or two later we were in the trainer's room, me, Reggie and Thurman. I was sitting on one of the trainer's tables, talking, Reggie was on another and Thurman on a third.
Reggie was giving me a hard time - remember, I worked for Reggie too - and he said, "I'm going to have to suspend you for a week because you weren't honest with me. You should have asked me." He was right, but Thurman right away took sides with me and said, "Come on Reggie! Why are you beating up on our boy? If you were a teenager under that circumstance, you'd do the same thing!" Reggie reduced the suspension to three days.
Thurman used to love McDonald's cheeseburgers. Back then, the Yankees clubhouse wasn't like it is today with gourmet chefs and all that stuff. Thirty years ago I was the gourmet chef and Thurman would say, "Ray, go get me a cheesy" or "Ray, I'm feelin' for a cheesy." I knew that meant a run to McDonald's to get a couple of cheeseburgers and he would hammer them. One day I picked him up at Teterboro Airport and he asked to stop at McDonald's. We each got cheeseburgers, fries and a soda, and we sat in the back and talked. The one thing about Thurman was that he was a pretty smart guy who can talk about life in general. I remember him talking about his kids, me and school. He said something to the effect of, "Me and Reggie think it's funny that you can be so close to George." I said, "Why? Do you think it's a bad thing?" He said, "No, that's a great thing. George is a great man, but don't you ever tell him I said that."
When Thurman would be flying home, most of the time I would drive him to Teterboro. I loved doing it for two reasons. One, he would trust me with his brand new Cadillac of that year and two, I'd have a brand new Cadillac to take around New York.
I was in my friend's batting cage on August 2, 1979 when all of a sudden his mom comes out and said, "They said Thurman Munson died." We ran inside his house and we watched the news. I was in shock, numb; I don't know what else to say. I was completely numb. It got to the point to where tears starting coming down my eyes. At that point, I was with a couple of my friends, one who was Hector, another Yankees batboy. I said. "Let's go back to the batting cage and hit, because that's what Thurman would have wanted us to do." I know it sounds corny, but that's all I had. That's all I could do.
Nothing can help ease the pain at that time. The next day you're going into the clubhouse and everybody is using everybody from the standpoint of treatment. Every group of guys were talking about the same thing: "Why? Why? Why? Why did he have to be flying? Why did he have to be doing touch-and-goes?" There were guys breaking down in different parts of that clubhouse, guys trying to hide to ease the pain.
Thurman Munson and Ray Negron watch a game from the Yankees dugout (Michael Grossbart).
As a kid, which is what I was, I wasn't going to tell the great Thurman Munson, "Why are you doing this?" I would ask him, "How much do you like it?" and he would say, "I love this. It puts me in a whole 'nother world." I used to stay on the runway and watch him take off or watch him come in. Seeing him come in, and seeing that gigantic plane and that little head ... because of the power of the machinery in my eyes and in my mind, it took a Thurman Munson to be able to do that. In those days, Thurman, like Reggie, Billy and George, were superheroes to me. To me, there's no way that a Thurman Munson could die. That was the shocker to me: Not Thurman Munson. He can't die. It was the first real death of a friend I would go through.
At Old Timer's Day, Thurman would have been like Joe DiMaggio. He would have felt love like Yogi Berra. Remember, he would have played for another three years and then at that point, he would have been the manager of the Yankees. Knowing George Steinbrenner and the influence he had on people, he would have talked Thurman in the essence of, "We need to bring the dignity of the club back and only you can give us that. Please don't let the dignity of the Yankees die. You need to run this club. You need to be our leader. We need you." Thurman would have said. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!" and then at the end of the day, Opening Day, he's our manager.
At this point, church bells sounded. Somebody upstairs was apparently eavesdropping.
You hear the bells going in back of me, right? That's Thurman saying, "Ray, you were always crazy, but you're probably right." That's Thurman telling me, "I'm hearing you, Ray. I'm listening, Ray."