Note: A somewhat different version of this review was originally written for the New York Post. It didn’t run, however, and given how rarely it is that I praise something, I figured it was worth sharing with the world.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Thurman Munson’s plane went down in Canton, Ohio, killing the Yankee captain at age 32. That’s longer than Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and CC Sabathia have been alive. It’s also far too much time to have passed before a definitive treatment of Munson’s life was put to print, but now it has and it’s an excellent one.
Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain is actually author Marty Appel’s second pass at Thurman Munson’s life story. His first was as co-author of Munson’s 1978 autobiography which, due to its subject’s taciturn, guarded and – there’s no escaping it – surly nature, was not particularly revealing. Appel interviewed Munson for twelve hours back in 1977 and Munson simply wouldn’t let him in. “[H]e didn’t have many funny stories and he didn’t want to share much about his childhood,” Appel notes, “so what we had was a pretty traditional baseball bio.”
After thirty years, Appel’s new bio is still traditional but it’s much more comprehensive. Unlike the last book, this one has plenty from Munson’s troubled upbringing. Most significant are the stories about his distant, unloving, and uncaring father. A man who said of his son that he “figured he had the market cornered on brains . . . but he didn’t,” and that he had a “swell head” and “couldn’t be taught anything.” A man who said all of these things, it should be noted, a mere two months after his son’s death. One can only imagine what it was like to grow up with him.
But unlike so many brought up in such circumstances, Munson was not defeated. Indeed his story is one of triumph. Triumph over both his upbringing and a physique that didn’t suggest to anyone that he belonged in the Major Leagues. A triumph, Appel quotes former Yankee executive Pat Gillick as saying, that was due to Munson’s “mental attitude and heart . . . he had that heart of a winner.” The accounts of Munson’s heart and perseverance – most of which come in the parts of the book that recount Munson’s pre-Yankee years – are what make “Munson” a must-read.
Of course readers will be more familiar with Munson’s Yankee years, and all of the familiar stories are here. However, unlike the way those stories are often told, Munson is not cast as a victim of Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin or George Steinbrenner’s nonsense. To the contrary, as Appel reminds us, through all of the “straw that stirs the drink” and Bronx Zoo drama, Munson remained a fan favorite, comfortable in his own skin and surprisingly unaffected, no doubt due to a long-sought and much valued loving home life with his wife and children.
Sadly, however, it was the desire to be with his family as much as possible that led Munson to obtain his pilot’s license and fly the jet that eventually killed him. Though the reader will dread the inevitable account of that fateful day in Canton from the moment he or she opens the book, Appel relays both the details of the crash and the drama of its aftermath in such a way as to avoid undue focus on its unsettling details while also avoiding overwhelming the reader with sentiment and melodrama. For the specifics, Appel allows one of the survivors from the crash – Jerry Anderson – to provide much of the detail. For context, Appel pretty much says it all when he notes “On strike three for the final out of the inning, Munson knew to roll the ball to the mound for the opposing pitcher to warm up with. It came naturally to him; he knew the game’s subtleties. His piloting skills weren’t as natural. Mistakes were being made.”
Overall, “Munson” presents a comprehensive, and dignified portrayal of both the subject’s life and his death. Which, based on everything Appel tells us about Thurman Munson, is exactly the way he would have liked it.