After 40 Years, We Still Grieve

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Hi friends. Some of you have been with me from the start of this blog 4 years ago, some are newcomers. Welcome one and all. August 2 isn’t a day to talk about what’s happening now, with the playoffs still out of sight. August 2, for a certain kind of person, is always a day to look back.

August 2, 1979 was smack in the middle of my 16th summer in this world. Unlike today, when days flash by in a blur, it seemed like every day of every moment was what we now call drama at age 16. Some years later, John Mellencamp would sing “hold onto 16 for as long as you can, change comin’ round to make us woman and man.” You have to be older to understand what he meant. Thursday, August 2 was in the middle of the week in between what I thought of as 2 big deals. I had spent all of July at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey where the state Commission for the Blind had a month-long program for college bound students to get a taste of the life ahead of them. It didn’t involve beer, and if a boy and a girl even held hands, the fun police would show up, so it was hardly a realistic_ taste of college life, but it was as close as the state could come. With that program behind me, I was looking forward to my last summer at camp which would begin in 3 days. Disco owned the airwaves that summer. Disco is one of a few words you’ll see in this column that may have some of you checking google to see what I mean, along with reel-to-reel tape and UHF TV. Cable was growing fast but it was hardly universal. We wouldn’t get ours for almost 18 months after the August Thursday in 1979 that is today’s theme. The “song” “We are Family” had fallen off the charts (thank God) after peaking at number 2. (Who knew it would be back 3 months later as the Pirates’ anthem.) The love ballad “Just when I Needed You Most” by Randy Van Warmer had also fallen off after peaking at number 4. Now that was real music and it still gets played now and again. At the top of the charts were two truly awful songs, Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and Anita Ward’s “Ring my Bell.” “Bad Girls” featured the lyrics “Toot toot, hey, beep beep.” Arthur Sullivan rolled over in his grave. Donna Summer also claimed number 4 with a piece of garbage called “Hot Stuff.” What I didn’t know was, a week later I would be singing the week’s number 5 song, a truly dumb song by David Naughton called “Makin’ It” in duet with an actual girlfriend who would last beyond our stay at camp. The adults were watching “60 Minutes.” Shows like “Three’s Company,” “Alice” and “M*A*S*H” had huge numbers. you might be able to find them now on TVLand or some other retro channel. If you could get into an R-rated movie, you could see “Apocalypse Now” or “Alien,” two of the top movies. I have two abiding movie memories from that year. The first was an awful picture called “Love at First Bite.” I doubt I would remember that movie, but in May of that year I took a date to it. At the end of the year, “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” came out amid a storm of controversy. I was desperate to see it, but having no date, my mom conscripted my older sister to take me. I was a huge Monty Python fan. Have you ever been a huge fan and had to sit next to somebody through an entire movie, with you laughing like a loon and her sitting there with 0 idea of what’s so funny? It turned out to be good training for watching movies with my future wife. August meant baseball then, as it does now. It was a different game and it was handled differently by the media. With no social media, news traveled much more slowly. In spite of “Ball Four,” a lot of the sins baseball players committed were still covered up by the media of the day. It would take years for us to find out that baseball players had discovered cocaine in the late 1970’s. Steroids hadn’t migrated from football to baseball yet, but that scourge was on the horizon.

I was a Yankee fan then as I am today. While large-scale betting has only just been legalized in this state, the odd friendly wager concerning the Yankees happened from time to time, and I had one I was interested in that Thursday in August. I had a friend who would bet against the Yankees no matter how much they were favored. The season before, I had won a reel-to-reel tape of radio news broadcasts from D-Day because the Yankees had bested the Dodgers in the World Series. This year, he had something I wanted even more. Two reels of tape featuring music by a 1940’s bandleader named Spike Jones. His music was much more to my taste than most of the songs on American Top 40. On my end, if the Yankees didn’t win the pennant, I would pay him a dime for every game back they were. He knew my allowance was small. I owed him $1.40 because the Yankees were 14 games out on this Thursday, an off day on the Yankee schedule. I got the tapes from him, but not because of a stirring Yankee rally like 1978. His sense of decency dictated our wager should be cancelled after Thursday, August 2, 1979.

I honestly don’t remember what I was up to on that summer afternoon. I remember being inside, so I was probably reading. My sister Diane told me the news she had heard on the radio. If I were out in the back she wouldn’t have made the detour. I wanted the news to be one of her sick jokes. It had to be a joke. Thurman Munson couldn’t possibly be dead in a plane crash. On an off day? What would he be doing in a plane?

I went into my room to turn on the radio. Words like google or “surf the web” meant nothing then, just like twitter, instagram or Facebook. The only way to get news or find out information about most things in 1979 was by radio or TV. Sighted people could read newspapers, and still did. A relatively new service, SportsPhone had begun in 1975 and would help me in a major way 4 years later when I got my own sports scoreboard show. But even one call to SportsPhone in the summer of 1979 would have resulted in my telephone privileges being revoked indefinitely, and what 16-year-old wants that hassle. So all I could do was sit and wait. I had a lot to think about while I waited. I knew it could happen. Roberto Clemente had been killed on New Year’s Eve, 1972 in a plane crash, which was the way Diane said Munson had died. By 1979 I had read about the car crash that had left Roy campanella paralyzed. I knew players were flesh and blood, but if it had to happen, how could it be Thurman Munson?

I had heard the name “Thurman Munson” going back to 1971, the year I discovered baseball. It was a very unusual name, as my 8-year-old mind tried to process it. I had never heard of anybody called “Thurman” or “Munson.” Only when the Internet became available would I hear of Larry Munson, the famous football broadcaster for the University of Georgia. When I got his baseball card I was told how to spell the name so I could write it in braille on the card. It always seemed like he was something special. He had won the American League’s Rookie of the Year award in 1970 and been an All-Star for the first time in 1971. He would be so nominated 6 more times, from 1973–78. He was a late replacement in the 1971 game in Detroit, but started the Mid-Summer Classic from 1974–76. 3 times in a row, from 1973–75 he won the Gold Glove as a catcher, the game’s most dangerous position except for manager or general manager under George Steinbrenner. He was named team captain in 1976. Since Lou Gehrig 4 decades earlier, no Yankee had been team captain. The team woke from its 12-year coma that year and made the World Series. That year he was the MVP. When Reggie Jackson came aboard the following year, he stirred up trouble by running his mouth to a magazine reporter about how he was more valuable than Munson. In today’s world, that would be a talking point on the radio for weeks and on Facebook for months. Since the magazine in question wasn’t available to blind readers, I had little idea about the controversy until much later.

I can’t think of Munson without thinking of the mighty home run he hit in game 3 of the 1978 ALCS against the Royals. Early on, George Brett had hit 3 solo home runs off an aging Jim Catfish Hunter. With the Yankees down 5-4 in the 8th and a man on, Munson stepped in against Doug Bird. Bird was one of a handful of pitchers then throwing a “palm ball,” a pitch you never hear about anymore. You maybe don’t hear about it because Munson drilled Bird’s trick pitch 475 feet, clear over Monument Park for a 2-run home run. The Yankees never looked back.

Finally it came time for a sports update on that Thursday afternoon. There were 2 all-news radio stations in the area, WCBS and WINS. Sports Talk radio was 8 years away. When the reporter told me the news, it was just as bad as it could be. The worst was true. Munson, an amateur pilot had crashed his Cessna and was dead. There wasn’t a sports fan in the family. The name “Thurman Munson” would have gotten blank stares from my mom and 3 sisters, and wouldn’t have gotten my Dad to put his newspaper down. Today, Facebook and Twitter would blow up as fans signed on to let their feelings out, and numerous sites would give them an outlet. That’s what happened when the world lost Robin Williams some years ago. There was nothing I could say and nobody to say it to when Munson died, just as there would be no one to understand my sadness the following year on the death of Peter Sellers. Yankee fans who had the means, some 51,000 of them, went to the Stadium the next night where tribute was paid to their fallen captain. Steinbrenner, normally the owner that taste forgot, circled his wagons and put on a memorable tribute in just over 24 hours. 8 starters took their positions on the field, leaving the catcher’s position vacant. The throng gave an 8-minute ovation, and only when Bob Sheppard said “And now it is time to play ball,” did catcher Jerry Narron take up his position. The team flew to Canton the following Monday for his funeral, returned home, and beat the Orioles 5–4 with Munson’s best friend, Bobby Murcer driving home all 5 runs.

Munson’s name hasn’t been forgotten. When the Indians put their AA team in Canton in 1989, the stadium was called “Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium.” 4 years later, my first game as a AA broadcaster was at that stadium. More than anything in the world, I didn’t want to louse up my opening, which was “Live, from Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium, in Canton, Ohio, New Britain Red Sox baseball 1993 is on the air.” One of my buddies who was listening (maybe the only person listening that night) said he could hear me picking my way carefully from word to word during the opening. He said I sounded more comfortable once I got the opening out of the way. Almost 2 years later, a living legacy to the former Yankee captain came into our lives. My play-by-play partner Jim Lucas went looking to buy a cat … and came out with a Labrador retriever he named Munson. He had that dog for almost 14 years. When e-mail came about, Jim’s e-mail handle had the name “Munson” as a part of it. I remember him giving his business card to a man in Georgia who immediately thought the name “Munson” paid homage to Larry Munson, the Bulldogs’ broadcaster. While I knew who Larry Munson was, my partner didn’t and had to explain who was the Munson on his e-mail address. Yankee fans know, and will never forget Thurman Lee Munson. R I P

  • Mike Shea
    August 2, 2019

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it. While I am a life-long Cubs fan I admired Thurman Munson and was also devastated by the news of his death. I can’t help but wonder what the rest of his career would have been, and would have meant to the Yankees. It’s hard to remember things like this. Roberto Clemente’s death was so similar, and I was a broadcaster at the time and read that news off the A.P. teletype. All part of life. Thanks again for your story.

    • Don Wardlow
      August 2, 2019

      Thank you for reading my piece, Mike.
      I wouldn’t have wished to be a radio announcer on New Year’s Day 1973 and have to read about Clemente’s death.
      In later years I would do on-air obits for Jim Valvano, Don Drysdale and Roy Campanella.
      Those are never easy.

  • K
    August 2, 2019

    Thank you for sharing this. I too, was devastated by his death. Went to my first Yankee game at 7 . Big fan ever since. My dad would drive down to Woodlawn and we would take the 6 to the Stadium. Dad, my five brothers and me. I was 19 when he died and in college in Tarrytown. You write beautifully and I was transported back in time. Thanks again.

    • Don Wardlow
      August 2, 2019

      Thank you for your kind words. When somebody takes a moment to write me a note, I know somebody’s out there and my writing is worthwhile.

      I was a broadcaster for a dozen years, and am writing a book about my years in that job. If you stay tuned to my blog, you’ll know when the book is ready.
      thanks again.

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