THURMAN MUNSON, YA GOTTA DIG THE DRIP DRIP DRIP

August 4, 2009

TTHURMAN MUNSON, YA GOTTA DIG THE DRIP DRIP DRIP

Boston Dan Shaughnessy activated his “Wayback Machine” and said, “Today we hop into the Wayback Machine and remember a series of unconnected events
that forever changed the face of major league baseball.
Thirty years ago today, Thursday, Aug. 2, 1979, baseball was rocked by three news bulletins.
1. Yankees catcher Thurman Munson crashed his private plane and was killed in Canton, Ohio.
2. Attorney Edward Bennett Williams purchased the Baltimore Orioles from Jerry Hoffberger for $12 million.
3. A little-known former major leaguer (career batting average .199) named Tony La Russa was named manager of the Chicago White Sox.
It was a sad and dramatic day in baseball and I saw it unfold from the inner sanctum of major league clubhouses.
I was covering the Orioles for the late Washington Star in 1979. Baltimore/Washington reporters had been tracking the sale of the ball club for several years and
it seemed like everybody was rumored to be buying the Orioles, including Sargent Shriver and former treasury secretary William Simon.
The Birds were on a three-city road trip at the end of July, scheduled to finish in New York on the weekend of Aug. 3-6. With the Orioles in Milwaukee for a
three-game set, I made the short drive to Chicago to see the Yankees play the White Sox.
These were the Munson, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles Yankees who had broken the hearts of the Red Sox in 1978. They hated the Red Sox
and Munson particularly hated Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk.
“For Thurman, it was personal with Fisk,’’ recalls former Yankees PR guy Marty Appel, who has just released a brilliant biography of the Yankee catcher
(“Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain’’). “This was the very root of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry that exists to this day. It had been dormant for a
while, but it clicked in when the two teams got good, and that’s when Munson and Fisk arrived on the scene. For Thurman, there was resentment that Fisk was
getting credit for accomplishments even when he was on the disabled list. Thurman thought Fisk got better press and that Curt Gowdy always talked up Fisk on
the Game of the Week. The 1977 All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium was particularly embarrassing for Thurman because he was announced with the reserves
while Fisk was a starter.’’
Appel remembers putting together a stat sheet comparing the two catchers before a Red Sox-Yankee series in the early 1970s. Munson led Fisk in just about
every category other than assists. According to Appel, “I remember Thurman dropping a couple of third strikes on purpose early in that game, firing the ball to
first base to pick up the assist, then gesturing to me in the press box.’’
Appel remembers putting together a stat sheet comparing the two catchers before a Red Sox-Yankee series in the early 1970s. Munson led Fisk in just about
every category other than assists. According to Appel, “I remember Thurman dropping a couple of third strikes on purpose early in that game, firing the ball to
first base to pick up the assist, then gesturing to me in the press box.’’
In July and August of 1979 the Yankees were worried about the Orioles instead of the Red Sox, and I talked to Munson about their chances of catching Earl Weaver’s team. Munson was confident the Yankees could do it, just as they had in 1978 against Boston.
I drove back to Milwaukee and worked on a story that would set up the big Orioles-Yankees four-game showdown at Yankee Stadium. On Thursday morning,I flew from Milwaukee to New York and hunkered down in the old Sheraton Hotel at 56th and Seventh. It was then that I learned I was missing a press conference in Baltimore, where Williams was being introduced as new owner of the Orioles.
Rats. I thought I’d been so clever traveling directly to New York from Milwaukee. Among reporters, only the dopes went home to Baltimore for the off day.
Turns out only the dopes got the story.
Williams, arguably the best and most celebrated trial attorney of the 20th century, was a Connecticut native and a Holy Cross man. He also owned the
Washington Redskins. His trusted lieutenant was a young lawyer from Princeton named Larry Lucchino.
“That was my first day in baseball, Aug. 2, 1979,’’ Lucchino recalls. “We’d been working on the deal for several months. Ed and I drove up from Washington to complete the deal. In the middle of things, Hoffberger got another bid, but he didn’t even open it.
“We heard the Munson story on the radio as we were driving back to Washington. Then we walked into a Mo and Jo’s [restaurant] on Connecticut Ave. and waiters were all singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’ Everyone in Washington thought we were bringing the team to D.C.’’
In New York, I cobbled together a sale story, while finishing the feature on the Yankees. I was on hold to speak to George Steinbrenner when Yankees
publicist Mickey Morabito came on the line and said, “George can’t do it. We just heard that Thurman died in a plane crash.’’
I flipped on the TV, and in a few minutes there it was. Munson had crashed his twin-engine Cessna Citation at the Akron Canton Airport. The Yankee captain
was dead.
When the Yankees ran onto the field to face the Orioles the next night, there were only eight players. Luis Tiant was on the mound for New York and Reggie was in right, but the catcher’s box remained empty during the Munson tribute and national anthem.
“For many, it was a visual moment that evoked memories of the riderless horse in the funeral procession of President Kennedy 16 years earlier,’’ writes Appel.
After the ceremonies, Jerry Narron came out to catch for the Yankees, but he wouldn’t wear Thurman’s orange chest protector. No one ever took Munson’s
locker in the Yankee clubhouse. When the Yankees moved out last winter, Munson’s stall was still empty. Today it is on display for fans to see in the New
Yankee Stadium.
After the crash, there was an early push to whisk Munson into the Hall of Fame. The five-year wait had been waived for Roberto Clemente when the Pirate great died in a New Year’s Eve plane crash while delivering relief goods to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua in 1972. Ultimately, it was decided that Munson didn’t have the numbers. On paper, he was no different than worthy players who’d had careers cut short by injury.
Fisk played one more season for the Red Sox after Munson died, and the Boston-New York rivalry fizzled for a few years.
Today, fueled in part by Sox CEO Lucchino – the young lawyer who came to baseball the day Munson died – the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry is hotter than ever.
Before his fire faded, Steinbrenner hated Lucchino as much as Munson hated Fisk. Lucchino is the one who dubbed the Yankees “The Evil Empire.’’
As for La Russa, the other newsmaker of Aug. 2, 1979, he’s the third-winningest manager in hardball history, trailing only Connie Mack and John McGraw.
He was also in the other dugout when the Red Sox forever changed the baseball universe in St. Louis on Oct. 27, 2004.
A lot of stuff happens in 30 years.

Scott Ostler wants the whole MLB list of positive testers released- but not all at once. He wants the big guys not to be “swallowed up” by all the names. “Ozzie Guillen is fed up and begging for the entire list to be released.
Many players are livid, demanding that all 104 players who tested positive in 2003 be announced at once. Voices in the media cry out for an end to the drip torture, where one or two players at a time are exposed as cheats.
Everyone agrees: The entire list must be revealed, the remaining juicers named, now! Why? As Victor Conte told the L.A. Times, “So the healing process can
begin.”
You want healing? I want more slow leaking.
Why should Big Papi’s big news be buried in a landslide of other names?
Most say the slow-drip method is unfair to the players. Which players? The ones who were so arrogant or so stupid that they flunked the pre-announced test, or the sheep who supported their union when it opposed all testing?
Big Papi used performance-enhancing drugs before that test, unconcerned that he was screwing his fellow players. Hey, the test was secret, so his ample rear end was covered. That’s a man with whom we should sympathize?
I enjoy the ongoing theater, the suspense. Sure it’s sleazy, and once all 104 juicers have been exposed, I hope someone leaks the leakers and they are rightfully punished. Fun for everyone.
Meanwhile, let the dripping and dribbling continue. Each player – and the sport itself -deserves each moment in the slimelight.

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