I am not a baseball fan. I don’t mind the sport; it’s just not something I go out of my way to experience either as a player or a fan. As a kid, I played little league (poorly) and collected baseball cards (but was always more into Star Wars and football cards) and played backyard games with neighbor kids. Today, we go to a handful of Akron Aeros games every summer and maybe one or two big league games, but it’s usually because of the company we’re headed to the game with or the fact that we happened on some free tickets more than anything else. I will follow the Indians if they make it into the post season, but otherwise I couldn’t really care less about them. I’m more of a college football fan, followed by pro football, then a bit of an NBA fan. I’ll even watch March Madness before I’ll watch a regular season baseball game.
But I am a fan of local history and local heroes. And just before my ninth birthday, Thurman Munson died piloting his Cessna Citation about seven miles from where I lived. I remember it being a big deal. I remember how crazy it was that this national figure, this hometown hero had died in our back yard. I think we may have even driven by the site soon after the crash. I remember the boys next door being really affected by it and talking with them about it a lot in those days immediately after the crash.
It’s now been 30 years since Munson died in his plane while practicing take-offs and landings at Akron-Canton Airport, and I honestly hadn’t thought about the Canton native with the Jim Croce mustache in years. (Ironic that Croce died in a plane crash six years before Munson, but I always thought they sort of looked alike.) I was looking for a book to read and stumbled on Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain by Marty Appel, and was unable to put the book down. It’s a fascinating read, which says something coming from someone who’s neither a fan of the sport nor that team necessarily, but there is something about the combination of the era (primarily the ‘70s), the familiar connections (Akron, Canton, Kent State University), and the loss of a hometown hero that kept me from turning away.
I still become that grade school-aged boy, star-struck to think Munson joined the country club in the school district I attended, and that he golfed regularly at courses around town. Heck, the guy was even a part of the group that developed Belden Village, the local mall that was often the centerpiece of my and my friends’ high school social world.
I haven’t read the original autobiography that Appel, the former Yankee’s PR man, wrote with Munson back in ’78, but he is clearly the authority on the ballplayer’s life. Appel chronicles Munson’s life from childhood through a complicated relationship with his parents and siblings, to his love of his wife and children, his rise to All-Star athlete, and his devastating, early death. The author mixes up his approach in the middle of the book, but it never seemed jarring and always seemed appropriate. Partway through chapter 13, he starts breaking up passages by date as he walks the reader through the last few days of Munson’s life. Appel also employs long selections (sometimes whole transcripts) of interviews given by or about Munson. It’s impressive how Appel puts the reader in the middle of the confusion and halting emotion as news of Munson’s accident spread from Canton to New York City and between family and ballplayers and the media. The funeral and days following unfold with the intimacy of close friends’ and associates’ honesty laid bare.
Munson’s career was on the decline when he died, his knees were shot, but he was larger than life and deserving of all the praise (and probably all the criticism) that’s been cast his way. He’s a fascinating character, even today, amid all his clichés – his gruff dealings with the media and fans, his blue-collar work ethic, his team leadership, his hometown love, his risk-taking attitude, and his family devotion. Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain is an absorbing read, and I’m so glad it caught my eye.