Forty years ago today, I was one month away from my eleventh birthday. Little did I know that my life was about to change in the most unexpected way.
Like any typical ten-year-old growing up in the 70’s, my summers off from school revolved around baseball. Ever since I was four, and had seen my first game at Shea Stadium, I was absolutely hooked on the game. If I wasn’t playing baseball, I was watching it on TV, listening to it on the radio, playing baseball board games, or studying the statistics on the back of my thousands of baseball cards.
What was it about baseball that intrigued me? I think there was an innocence about the game, a simplicity to it that was totally engrossing. To me, baseball wasn’t just a game. It was real life, a world unto itself. My beloved New York Yankees, of course, had the most illustrious past in all of professional sports with a history that included legends such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. If it wasn’t for seeing videos or photos of them, I never would’ve believed they were real people. To me, they were mythical gods.
But on August 2, 1979, that would all change in an instant. Baseball, a game that was pure fantasy and the reality of life would collide in a most cataclysmic way—setting the stage for me to discover a mission in life, a deep love, that would ultimately lead me to creating the first and largest franchised youth sports league in the nation. My ‘Big Bang Theory’ moment in life was about to happen.
It was a hot, sunny day on Long Island. My childhood friends and I had just finished playing all-day of Wiffleball in my backyard, like we had done every day that summer. As fanatical Yankee fans, one of our favorite things to do was mimic the batting stance of our heroes.
My friend Mike loved Reggie Jackson and would imitate his mammoth swing, getting his legs crossed up and nearly falling over just like Mr. October was known to do; while Paul idolized Thurman Munson and had his straight up vertical batting stance with his chin tucked in to his shoulder to a tee mirroring the Yankee captain. Meanwhile, although I spent countless hours in the mirror mimicking the swing of every major league player I knew, it was Yankee left-handed power-hitting third baseman, Graig Nettles who I absolutely worshipped. And, it wasn’t just Nettles ability to hit a clutch home run in a big spot that I loved so much. His reflexes at the hot-corner were of legend! Most notably, he put on a defensive show with his glove in Game 3 of the 1978 World Series by making acrobatic catch after catch.
But like many typical suburban neighborhoods, our day of playing ball would end with one of the moms yelling “It’s time for dinner”, from nearly a block or two away. That Thursday was no different.
We all scattered from the field and went home to eat as quickly as we could, so that we could return to my backyard turned Wiffle Ball stadium to play until dark.
That brief dinner break is when life changed for me.
As mom, my little sister, and I sat down with the television on the background, there was this breaking news: ‘New York Yankee catcher Thurman Munson has died at the age of 32 when the plane he was piloting crashed just short of the runway at Akron-Canton airport in Ohio.’ And on the screen, I saw a fiery scene of the horrific plane wreckage.
Time stood still. I was overcome with intense sadness combined with feelings of shock and disbelief.
I jumped up from the kitchen table and immediately headed out the front door to find my friends, who converged on my front lawn, all of us shaken by the news. Nobody knew what to say. We were a group of grief-stricken kids who felt like we lost not just an invincible super hero, but a member of our own family. I don’t think any of our parents realized how devastated we were. Nobody consoled us. To them, it was just an unfortunate news story, and they simply moved on with their lives.
But my friend Paul was a wreck. He had every Thurman Munson baseball card, photo, and poster on his wall. I remember him crying and we consoled him and one another.
As a ten-year old, I had never experienced death before this, with the exception of a cousin who had passed away a few years earlier. But she’d been ill her whole life, and even exceeded what doctors expected of her.
What I wasn’t prepared for was what to come after the news of Munson’s death.
Not surprisingly, the Yankees game was cancelled that night due to the news of the tragedy. However, they did play the first-place Baltimore Orioles next day at home in the Bronx. As the somber Yankees took the field, with the exception of the empty space behind the plate where Thurman played, the moment of silence began.
Suddenly, my heroes were human in a way I’d never seen them before. Even with ball caps covering up their expression, you could see tears running down their faces as their shoulders shook. With the TV cameras capturing it all, they were crying uncontrollably. The impact on me was a profound one, something I can never forget. I cried right along with my heroes.
They lost the somber game 1-0 as the heart and soul of the team was eerily absent.
A few days later Thurman’s funeral was held in Ohio with a game back in New York scheduled later that night, again versus the Baltimore Orioles.
What struck me watching the day time funeral was seeing the players and coaches mourning wearing suits. It’s the first time I’d ever seen my super heroes without their uniforms on. It was like watching Superman as Clark Kent for the first time. Unlike today where we have access to seeing players all the time on and off the field, the only time we saw our heroes were in uniform playing the game.
Two of Munson’s closest friends, Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, eulogized him and fought back tears as they gave speeches in his memory. Murcer said, “Thurman Munson wore the pinstripes as number 15, but in living, loving, and legend, history will forever remember my friend as number one.”
And, to see hard-charging, tough as nails manager Billy Martin being consoled by his players as he cried his eyes out behind big dark sunglasses was something I’ll never forget.
Suddenly, baseball was no longer a game to me. It was my life. I fell deeply in love with America’s past-time and the New York Yankees like never before. The mythical gods were real people, who had to overcome adversity just like the rest of us.
At the urging of Munson’s widow Diana, they did play that night after the funeral. And while they struggled to take the field, what I witnessed that night was pure Yankee mystique at its finest.
Down 4-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Thurman’s best friend, Bobby Murcer hit a 3-run homerun to bring the Yankees within one run. But he wasn’t done. In the bottom of the 9th and two runners on and down to his last strike, Murcer once again came through and punched an 0-2 pitch down the left field line to score both runners to win the game in walk-off fashion. Unbelievable. Murcer knocked in all five runs for the Yankees in the 5-4 victory.
As the team converged at home plate with hugs and high-fives, the fans at Yankee Stadium were delirious. It had been such an emotional week of high highs and the lowest lows. I admittedly cried along with the Yankees celebrating a tremendous mix of emotions.
The euphoria of that night didn’t take away the stinging pain we all felt from the loss of Thurman.
A month later, my mom took me, my sister, and Paul to my first Yankee game for my eleventh birthday. To say I was in awe of Yankee Stadium was an understatement. I was entering “The House that Ruth Built” where decades of baseball history had taken place and was among my people, thousands of fellow Yankee fans for the first time. How could it possibly get sweeter than this?
In the bottom of the 10th inning, my hero Graig Nettles stepped up to the plate with the game in a 5-5 tie and delivered the greatest birthday present I could’ve ever wish for, a game-winning mammoth home run deposited in the upper deck seats of right field. Unbelievable.
While I continued to mourn the loss of Thurman, the heroics of Bobby Murcer and Graig Nettles helped this young boy in the grieving process. Every year, on August 2nd, I recall that tragic day in 1979 and realize how much the death of the Yankee captain influenced my view of life. It not only helped me appreciate how precious life really is and deepen my life long love for the New York Yankees, but also taught me that we have an incredible ability to impact and heal the lives of others.