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Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain Hardcover – July 7, 2009
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Amazon Best of the Month, July 2009: For Yankee fans, catcher Thurman Munson remains a sentimental standout among the storied lineup of George Steinbrenner’s late '70s Bronx Zoo dynasty of Yankee baseball, when the team made it to three consecutive World Series, winning in '77 and '78. Former Yankee Public Relations Director Marty Appel was the ghostwriter on Munson's autobiography, and now, three decades later, returns to his legendary subject in the biography, Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain.
As a Yankee insider, Appel keeps Munson, "the heart and soul of a world championship team," in a mostly positive light, though he does reveal more sensational elements of Munson's troubled childhood in Canton, Ohio, where his emotionally abusive father criticized him right up to the end of his short life, even chewing out the casket at Munson's funeral. Appel documents Munson's career as a scholarship athlete at Kent State, his time in the Cape Cod league, and his quick ascension to the major leagues and the Yankees, where he won Rookie of the Year in 1970 and was eventually made team captain, the first player to hold the title since Lou Gehrig. His blue-collar work ethic and gruff but lovable demeanor made him an instant fan favorite (a shot of him making a tag at home plate was the first action photo used in a Topps baseball card). And during that Bronx Zoo era, gloriously depicted in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, it was the down-to-earth Munson who balanced out (and butted heads with) his flashy teammate Reggie Jackson. After Jackson made his infamous "I'm the straw that stirs the drink" comments in a Sport magazine interview, Munson was asked if Jackson was quoted out of context. Munson's reply: "For three pages?"
Munson was only 32 when he was killed after the plane he was piloting crashed in Canton, Ohio, on August 2, 1979. Despite so many bitter memories of Ohio, it's where he ended up marrying and starting a family, and part of the reason he learned how to fly was to be able to increase visits to his family from New York. Even though he was a relatively inexperienced pilot, he quickly worked his way up from a two-piston engine to a jet. And pilot error was eventually cited as the reason for the crash, which occurred while practicing touch-and-go-landings. At the home-opener the day after his death, when No. 15 was retired, there was a ten-minute standing ovation in memory of the Yankee catcher. Munson was never inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Marty Appel's biography remains a fitting tribute. --Brad Thomas Parsons
Amazon Exclusive: Marty Appel on Why Munson Matters
Sports biographies can get a little nasty these days. Have a quick look at the covers of new books this year--a year in which I’m thrilled to see the publication of Munson, my new biography of Thurman Munson, by the way--and you see the story. On the one hand, you see a classic shot of Thurman, the old-school catcher and Captain of the Bronx Zoo... And on the other, well, you get players linked to steroids.
There is the feeling, looking at that photo of Munson, that he represented something genuine and beautiful about baseball, and maybe something bigger--a respect for the profession, a pride in performance. Oh, how he played the game!
As Munson’s co-author on his autobiography more than 30 years ago, I have marveled at the enduring loyalty of his fans, and at the palpable emotion his image on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard still produces throughout the stands. The autobiography was an honor to write, but in my heart, I always felt there was much more to the story. Now, with the 30th anniversary of Thurman’s tragic death, the time was right to tell the whole story. He would have been okay with that, because I think he would be proud of his accomplishments off the field, and proud that they could be used as an example for others.
It’s a wonderful story. And, of course, a tragic one, too. It was Thurman’s devotion to his family that got him into aviation, all the better to get home and spend more time with his wife and kids. And ultimately, he just took on too much airplane for his fledgling abilities.
It’s my hope that Munson gives fans a definitive and intimate look at the man in full. I conducted about 150 interviews with his friends, teammates, and associates to examine his childhood, his illustrious career, and of course, the tragic crash that took his life--and the aftermath that made him a Yankee legend for the ages.
I know it’s unusual for the same author to revisit a subject 30 years apart, but when offered the opportunity to do this, I jumped at it. For Yankee fans, and all baseball fans, this is a look at the captain of those "Bronx Zoo," "Bronx Is Burning" teams and how he led by example. Munson is a story of redemption, of how one man turned his life around and became a role model not only for his gutsy play behind the plate, but for his life off the field.
Thurman wasn’t perfect. He was as flawed as we all are in some ways. But in the end, I think the reader will see him for what he was--a Yankee hero, with a life worth admiring. --Marty Appel
(Photo © Raquel Lauren)
From Publishers Weekly
Appel co-wrote New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson's autobiography 30 years ago, and his stated goal here is to tell the story that didn't get told then. The revelations, however, are few. We learn, for example, that Munson grew up in Canton, Ohio, with a father whose coldness and resentment bordered on emotional abuse. (On the day Munson signed with the Yankees, his father openly criticized his playing skills to team executives; years later, he came to his son's funeral and taunted the closed casket.) There's also, naturally, much more information about the 1979 plane crash that ended Munson's life, including the transcript of a lengthy interview with one of the survivors; again, however, the conclusion that Munson was a relatively inexperienced pilot who made fatal errors in judgment is not a new one. Otherwise, Appel covers familiar territory, casting Munson as a journeyman ballplayer who inspired his teammates with his tenacious work ethic, but didn't get along with the press and couldn't stand Reggie Jackson or George Steinbrenner. Excerpts from several other baseball memoirs and transcripts from archival interviews with Munson extend the story, but do little to expand upon it. (July)
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It is not always a pretty story. Appel chronicles Munson's moodiness and sometimes abrasive relationship with the press. His relationship with rival Carlton Fisk bordered on outright hostility. But Munson was also very conscious of his role as a ballplayer and a leader on the Yankees. He had immense talent, but his body was not that of a natural athlete and he worked very hard to become a top competitor. This same determination made him successful outside of sports as well. He was a solid real estate investor and a talented pilot, a skill and passion that ultimately led to his demise in a tragic accident. These skills and his own personal determination are part of the reason Munson was able to escape the damaging effects of his own childhood, but they are only part of the reason.
What this book reveals (and the older Munson biography does not) is the extent to which Thurman was really saved by the love of his wife, Diana, whom he met when he was only 12. Her family was a lot more stable than the Munson family and they and Thurman adopted each other even before the marriage. The story of "Diane" (as Thurman called her) and Munson is one of the great love stories in baseball, and Thurman was able to use Diane's support to stop the multi generation cycle of abuse that went on in his own family. He was a loving father and also extended that love to others. Unknown to the press (and deliberately so) he would attend local schools on reading days and work with children. He supported little league ball and gave far more of himself to his youngest fans than most people knew. I suspect I and literally thousands of other kids sensed that in the 1970s, even if our mothers did not see it. Munson will never be inducted to the Hall of Fame. His career was cut short and the numbers seem rather small in the modern steroid era. But,as this masterful biography makes clear, he is still a worthy hero.
Marty Appel's second book on Munson, the first was an authorized biography written with Munson before he died, is eminently readable and provides a thorough look at Munson, from his childhood in Canton to his days leading a Yankee franchise back to prominence after the lean years following their 1964 World Series loss to the Cardinals.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book were those I was least familiar. The childhood of Munson and his strained relationship with his father were quite revealing. It was quite clear his father was an SOB and his reaction to Thurman's death and subsequent interview with a local Tucson, AZ reporter contrast with what an utterly different father and husband Thurman ultimately became. While Appel certainly doesn't suggest that Thurman's early experiences resulted in him becoming such a family man, the implication is clear.
Appel covers the plane crash in detail and every page is depressing, not just because you know the tragic outcome, but because Appel (1) makes a convincing argument that Munson should not have been flying the powerful Cessna jet so soon after beginning flying lessons and getting his pilot's license and (2) reveals all the errors Munson made during his final flight that led to his untimely death, errors that were preventable and likely driven by Munson's inexperience as a pilot and with his new jet. It is pretty harrowing to read the interviews from the two survivor's of the crash -- many folks assume Munson was flying alone that day -- and their intimate sharing of what it was like to go through the crash, the last seconds with Munson and how they have lived with the tragedy over the course of their lives.
My main reason for giving the book four stars and not five is because Appel made some assertions that were patently incorrect and reflected his bias (he served as a Yankee PR man during much of Munson's Yankee tenure) for his time with the Yankee's. Specifically, Appel mentions that there was not much of a Yankee/Red Sox rivalry until the early 1970's, fueled by the catching All-Star's from each team, Munson and Fisk. From a non-baseball insider, this might be excusable, but Appel certainly should have brushed up on the deep and bitter rivalry that existed in the 40's and 50's between Dimaggio and Mantle's Yankees and William's Red Sox. These types of assertions left me always second-guessing Appel and while I finally got over it, it does prevent me from ranking this at 5 stars.
If you are a Yankee fan, and certainly one who followed them in the 1970's, this is definitely a must read.