Cooperstown Confidential: Opening a new book on Munsonby Bruce Markusen
July 31, 2009
I’m usually reluctant to do book reviews, since I’m an author and I consider the process a potential conflict of interest. But when a book is good, I won’t hesitate to recommend it. That’s the case with Marty Appel’s Munson, released this summer by Doubleday.
An in-depth biography that examines both the ballplayer and the family man, Munson details his excruciating childhood experiences, his often controversial career with the Yankees, and his tragically premature death at the age of 32.
Aug. 2 will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of the Yankee captain and catcher Thurman Munson. Just a few days before the anniversary, Appel graciously answered a few questions about the book and the compelling character that Munson came to be.
Markusen: Marty, I certainly understand your decision to write a follow-up biography on Thurman Munson, given that he wasn’t as forthright as you might have liked when writing the first book. What went into the decision to release the book now? Was it strictly because of this being the 30th anniversary of his passing, or were there other factors at work here?
Appel: The other factor at work was the ESPN mini-series, “The Bronx is Burning,” reviving interest in Thurman. The portrayal by actor Erik Jensen was masterful, and a new generation seemed to say, "This is an interesting character." It got Doubleday interested in a book.
Markusen: The passages you write about Munson’s father—especially the physical abuse he leveled against Thurman along with the constant belittling of his son’s abilities—are remarkably stunning. Given how troubled Munson’s childhood was, is it surprising to you that Thurman became as successful as he was, both as a ballplayer and as a family man?
Appel: That’s a very uplifting part of the story—how Thurman could break that cycle (which was at least two generations deep), and through sheer determination, create a loving family life for himself. It was his greatest accomplishment. Of course, that troubled home life also served to prepare him, in a way, for being in the clubhouse during the ‘Bronx Zoo’ years.
Markusen: Munson’s durability and toughness allowed him to catch 130 to 140 games a year, leaving little playing time for his many backup catchers over the years. Were any of those backups resentful toward Munson for the way that he monopolized (for lack of a better word) the playing time behind the plate?
Appel: Well, yes. But it was hard to resent Thurman the person—they all loved and admired him. But when he had his two-year hand injury that prevented him from throwing out runners with much frequency, it especially got to Rick Dempsey, who had a rifle arm. But the pitchers just wanted to throw to Thurman; he was such a master at learning hitters and calling games.
Markusen: Thurman had a strong personality, as did Billy Martin. Was it surprising to you that they became as close as they did?
Appel: Billy had a personality that invited sympathic outreach when he was in need - but still commanded respect as a baseball genius in the confines of the dugout. Thurman respected that genius, and Billy knew that Thurman was a throw-back, a guy who could have been a star in any era of the game.
Markusen: Munson’s difficult relationship with Reggie Jackson is well-chronicled in your book. Were there any other Yankees that Munson did not get along with?
Appel: Not a one. He was a player’s player.
Markusen: I remember vividly what I was doing when I heard the news that Thurman had died. I was eating dinner while watching an episode of “Gilligan’s Island”—of all things—when John Roland broke in with a news update on Metromedia Channel Five. What were you doing when you heard the news and what went through your mind at the time?
Appel: Amazingly, my reactions were something like—oh God, what a tragedy....a Yankee....a captain.....reigning world champion....my friend......his family!....so awful.....and then pretty far down the list, I remembered I had done his book with him. I’m surprised I didn't think of that earlier on in the process.
Markusen: Most Yankee observers believe that, even if he had survived the plane crash, Thurman’s catching days were behind him. What position do you think he would he have played, and how much would he have been able to contribute offensively?
Appel: He would have been a DH, and occasional first baseman-outfielder, but he didn't really hit with enough power to be a first baseman or a corner outfielder. He would have been a terrific DH though.
Markusen: Munson would not have necessarily drawn favor from today’s Sabermetric crowd because he didn’t draw many walks and didn’t hit many home runs. Is it safe to say that Thurman was the kind of player that had to be seen in order to be fully appreciated?
Appel: Yes, his skills were more appreciated in the dugout than in the stands, but the fans did see his aggressive style, his take-charge leadership and his clutch play. The more subtle things, like calling pitches, even getting into the heads of opponents, were harder to appreciate. He was very much an "inside baseball" player
Markusen: Thirty years after his passing, how important is Thurman Munson to the legacy of the Yankees franchise? Why should younger Yankee fans learn about him?
Appel: He played the game hard and true every day.....he went into the season wanting to be 162-0, not accepting that all teams lose 60 games. Even in the years the Yankees didn't contend, every game was to be played to win. That’s why he and George Steinbrenner got on well. (They had the) same attitude.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.