Thurman Munson: Image is nothing, and once we were cool with that

Thurman was a throwback; a lunch-bucket kind of guy who was all jock and no rock. He wasn’t going to win over New York by being Joe Namath or Clyde Frazier. He liked Wayne Newton music and, in what was arguably the worst-dressed decade of the twentieth century, the 1970s, he was the worst of the worst. His wardrobe featured clashing plaids and checks made of the finest polyester. Socks were optional. … Thurman Munson made it a virtue to be uncool, winning over the young and the hip with his decidedly unhip approach to his profession.

—Marty Appel, Munson: The Life and Death of
a Yankee Captain
, Doubleday, 2009

Off the field, Thurman Munson was everything I would despise today, at least politically — a gun-collector with “antihippie” sensibilities in the shadow of the Vietnam War, a budding real-estate developer investing in sprawl malls, a jock with a bullying sense of humor (one of his favorite “jokes” was to punch his own team’s official photographer in the ribs) who had little sense of the importance of newspaper coverage to the fans of a baseball team (and thus, the team itself).

And you know what? I still love Thurman Munson. Hypocrite, me? Guilty. But perhaps Yankee fans (and embittered sort-of ex-Yankee fans like myself) loved him because he was all blue-collar dirt and grit, perhaps because he wasn’t one to be misled by others and instead charted his own course, perhaps, as Jeff Pearlman hints, he wasn’t one to be overly concerned about image.

Sad and devastating as it was, it may be somehow appropriate that Thurman Munson’s life ended at the end of the Seventies. It was almost as if he was the last in a line of athletes playing for Old New York. He certainly was the last of the polyester decade. Meanwhile, a new era was just getting underway where image-making and image-maintaining meant everything.

Marty Appel has written an insightful new book about his friend and one-time collaborator, Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain. While the book is certainly not an unauthorized tell-all, Munson’s widow and his children choose not to actively participate in its creation, and perhaps the book is better for it. Appel worked with Munson as the Yankees’ PR guy for much of the Seventies, and he seems fond enough of Munson that there is at least the hint of perception, whether accurate or not, that there might be even more to the great story the author tells, that perhaps there are a few warts he chose not to expose. The family cooperation might have made this seem more of a flaw in the finished book, as if the endorsement of the family would make it seem that all of the man’s rough edges had been scrubbed entirely away, and that all that remained standing was a proud saint cast in granite — towering, but unknowable.

But without the family’s active participation, the book somehow seems better balanced — respectful, at times perhaps a little too close to the subject, but also truthful and willing to look at the man’s life and circumstances of his plane-crash death on Aug. 2, 1979 more honestly. The 30 years of perspective surely helped with that, too.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Munson, the man, comes off as a bit of an asshole, but he’s our kind (and my kind) of asshole — you love and respect him as a player, competitor, and captain and for bringing the Yankees two World Series championships through pain, never once going on the disabled list in his career at the most physically demanding position. He played 152 games in his 1976 MVP season (catching 121 of them). Three decades later, guys go on the DL for having an itchy hamstring (though not if you’re on the Mets, apparently, until it’s too late). You love Munson more for his bluntness and his complete lack of pretension and artifice.

Appel makes that point better than I can with an enlightening anecdote — he tells the story (told before, but worth repeating) of how Munson once gave the New York fans the finger after they booed him. Far from enraging them further, the fans loved it, giving him a rousing ovation the next time he went to bat.

On the other hand, he certainly had a mean streak and there was one alleged aspect of his personality that cannot be excused, and that I struggle with as a fan of the man (though Appel presents some examples to the contrary, particularly with Munson’s close friendship with record executive Nat Tarnopol and his family); you hope, had he lived, he would have been more enlightened and mellowed with age, as some of those of a certain age eventually did.

Digression: I’m through two-thirds of the book (I’m jumping around), and there’s a part near the end where Appel discusses the 2007 ESPN Bronx is Burning mini-series. Looking back, it’s eerie at how well actor Erik Jensen came off in portraying Munson in that show. Coached by Appel behind the scenes, Jensen’s Munson, just like Appel’s Munson in the new book, is gruff and grumpy but also eminently pragmatic he sees the need and value for the Yankees to sign slugging Reggie Jackson as a free agent (even as he dislikes him), but also sees how Jackson’s signing could help Munson earn more money (with a salary boost for himself, though not as much as he thought owner George Steinbrenner promised). With the three leads all over-acting in portraying Billy Martin, Steinbrenner and Reggie, Jensen, with limited screen time in the final few episodes, was the best actor of all in that mini-series (though the actors playing the cops hunting the Son of Sam were excellent, too). But I digress.

Perhaps it was the sign of the times — Munson was beloved and respected for being himself. Derek Jeter, the heartthrob current Yankee captain, is also beloved and respected, particularly by Yankee fans (though I think Munson’s respect, if not love while he was alive, went beyond the Yankee fandom sphere). Neither man would be perceived the same way had they been transported by time. Munson’s hostility to the press would have been even more of a liability today than it was back then. And given his reticence to open up, it’s hard to imagine Munson writing a blog to express himself and bypass those damn reporters, a la the Curt Schilling route.

Jeter on the other hand seems closer to Reggie — no, perhaps not the towering ego thing (though Jeter seems to have an ego, Reggie’s was (and is) well beyond stratospheric). But it’s clear they shared a love of cultivating their own images and controlling that image, and Jeter does it better than Reggie (and better than any athlete today other than Tiger Woods) — and that’s where the convergence of Jeter’s personality and today’s society has been masterful. But in the late Seventies, I’m not sure Jeter would have been as fawned over by the fans and sportswriters, and if he would not have received a more Reggie-like reception.

And of course, this argument circles back to the nature of images of our heroes in general. Our image of Thurman is the gritty warrior, an “uncool” lunch-bucket professional who made the hip root for this unhip athlete, as Appel writes. It was an image that every indication points to as being based in reality. Not that Jeter’s image is false, it’s just different. Munson’s seems to be an image that just was, and not one that was packaged and projected. It just existed on its own. And people loved it.

But the times have changed all around. We, the fans, have changed as much as the players, if not more. We now want the packaging along with the package.

Put a different and final way — it’s hard to see today’s fans, particularly the moneyed box-seat fakers sitting inside New Yankee Stadium’s moat, cheering wildly for a player who just gave them the finger a few innings earlier. But it’s also hard to fathom those thousand-dollar-seat fans pausing long enough from talking into their iPhones and BlackBerrys to boo the Yankee captain in the first place.

Originally published on Aug. 29, 2009, at The Icepick Cometh.

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