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Posts Tagged ‘Gerald Ford’

I realize that many of the readers of this blog weren’t alive on August 2, 1979. Many of you were much too young understand why a city wept on a hot August afternoon some 31 years ago. For those of us who were around and old enough to comprehend the tragedy of the day, it was seared into our memories like few other events. Quite frankly, other than 9/11, I can’t think of another event in my lifetime that at once defined New York to the rest of the country and caused the nation to cry with us. As Yankee fans, it is a day that should cause all of us to stop and reflect on things that are much bigger than baseball.

It is the day that Thurman Munson crashed his plane on a small airstrip in Akron, Ohio.

Munson’s legend has, with time, grown to immortal status. There is the empty locker, the plaque in Monument Park, the retired number 15 on the outfield wall. All of these are fine tributes to the man. But none of them can explain why Thurman is still such a beloved figure in Yankees lore. This is a team that has produced some of the game’s greatest players, after all. Why is it that Yankees fans continue to place him on a higher pedestal than Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle or even Babe Ruth? I think the answer to that, can be summed up in one game that occurred several years before that tragic crash.

It was a typical New York summer night in May 1976. Hot and humid, with the all the tension of the time (remember, this is the era when Gerald Ford told New York to “drop dead”). The South Bronx was well-known as “Fort Apache” and the atmosphere was rife with the expectation that at any time, a major riot would erupt. The only thing that could possibly raise the figurative temperature would be a visit from the hated (and defending AL champion) Red Sox. And so, of course, the Red Sox arrived that day to play a game that would go down in history.

The Sox were already reeling by that point in the season, while the Yanks were riding a six game win streak. But nobody could have foreseen what was about to happen when Lou Piniella barreled over Carlton Fisk at home. Piniella, upset that Fisk had tried to spike him, got up and slugged Fisk. The riot everyone in New York had been waiting for had erupted, but it was on the Yankee Stadium field, not on River Avenue. By the time the melee died down, Mickey Rivers had effectively ended Bill “Spaceman” Lee’s career and the “Bronx Zoo” era of Yankees baseball had been born. So, you ask, what does this have to do with Thurman?

Everything, as it turned out. Although the Yankees wound up losing the game, 8-2, Thurman demonstrated the type of class and fire required to be a Yankee captain. It was Munson who came to Graig Nettles defense when Lee charged him from the Red Sox dugout, after the initial fight had ended (Rivers showed up just in time to body slam Lee – as he was readying a roundhouse for the back of Munson’s head). Munson, appointed the first Yankee captain since the late Lou Gehrig by George Steinbrenner that Spring Training, was the one who restored order on that sultry summer evening. When all hell broke loose it was Munson who somehow managed to get his fellow teammates back into the dugout. And it was Munson who hung up his catching gear and went out to play right field (starting right fielder Otto Velez had been tossed), putting aside his personal rivalry with Fisk. There was no doubt after the game who the Yankees field and clubhouse leader was after the game. He wore number 15 and although the Superman cape was missing, everyone who watched that game swore there were red-and-blue tights under his torn Pinstripes. The following evening, Munson led the Yankees to a critical victory over the same Red Sox, a come from behind 6-5 win in 12 innings. He went two for six, driving in the first two Yankee runs with a booming double to Death Valley.

Thurman Munson is a Yankees legend, but he is much more than that. So if you see me shedding a few tears today, you’ll know why. When his plane skidded off the runway in 1979, the heart and soul of one of the great Yankee dynasties was what really went up in flames.

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