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Decades Later, Thurman Munson's Death Remains a Tragedy

thurman munson photo credit ray negron
Thurman Munson with Ray Negron (Photo Credit Ray Negron)

By Friday, 30 August 2019 02:41 PM Current | Bio | Archive

As we approach the last days of August, I can’t help but to think that 40 years would have gone by since I said my final good bye to my pal, Thurman Munson.

By now I’m sure that you have read and heard all of the different, crazy yet wonderful things about this somewhat super hero, Thurman.

I first met Thurman in June, 1973 at the original Yankee Stadium.

We would actually become friendly during the 1974 season when I started to go on the road with the Yankees. While on the road after games a lot of the guys would hangout in their rooms playing cards or just talking and I would go from room to room taking food orders and going out to get the food. Many times I would go to Thurman’s room and he would just want to talk. He would always tell me about himself and his family or just talk about the team.

The thing that made me really like him was that he would ask me — about me.

His questions about my background made me feel like I mattered.

Different things in his background were somewhat like mine.

Our fathers were pretty much alike in how they dealt with us, but that’s a story for another day.

During seasons 1974-1975, the Yankees were known as the "Band on the Run."

That was the very popular Paul McCartney song at the time.

The reason being that we were playing at Shea Stadium while they were renovating Yankee Stadium. During the 1974 season Thurman, Bobby Murcer and Lou Piniella would have me hit in their groups during batting practice because they had seen me working out during workouts and knew that I would get drafted in the upcoming baseball draft.

To say that this was the greatest thing for my confidence would be an understatement.

That summer I was by far the best hitter in the youth summer baseball circuits in New York and shocked everyone when I ended up getting drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. That would not have happened without the incredible confidence bolstering of Thurman, Murcer, Piniella and of course Walt Williams, a utility Outfielder that was always talking hitting with Thurman.

People used to tell me to watch it with Thurman because he could get very grumpy but when he was your friend, nothing was further from the truth. I have to say that the reason that I became friendly with Thurman was because I idolized Gene Michael, the shortstop at that time. Gene "The Stick" as he was known, was very close to Thurman and really knew how to communicate with him. Thurman really trusted the Stick.

Both went to the same college in Ohio (Kent State), however at different times.

I remember one time Thurman getting angry with a reporter and like clockwork Gene was able to calm Thurman down. I would have to say that the two players who influenced Thurman the most during that era was Gene and Bobby Murcer.

Bobby you could say was our matinee idol and unofficial leader.

After the 1974 season ended, the Yankees released Gene Michael and traded Bobby Murcer for Bobby Bonds.

Thurman and Bobby Bonds became very close friends.

Bonds was a great influence and would always tell Thurman why he had to be a leader in his own way. When you're a batboy and truly love baseball, and the Yankees, then you get to observe things that no one else does.

One time, Willie Randolph asked me how I remembered everything that I did and I would tell him that since I wasn’t a player I knew that when I got into the clubhouse I would sit down, strap in, and get ready to watch the "Greatest Show on Earth," especially when the Boss, George Steinbrenner signed Reggie Jackson.

By the time we returned to Yankee Stadium, Thurman became our official captain.

He truly led by example, not by having a letter C on his shirt.

Let me add that no one was allowed to call him captain and if you did, he would give you the worst facial expression and you ever saw; you knoew that you'd screwed up.

By 1978, Thurman had been flying home on a regular basis on his airplane.

I don’t remember how it happened but I began driving Thurman to Teterboro, N.J. Airport for his trips home. I loved doing it because it would give me time alone with Thurman, time when we could talk about everything and anything.

To this day, I can honestly say that those talks have stayed right here.

Diana, Thurman’s wife, is probably the only person that I have ever talked to about that.

From a selfish perspective the other reason I loved taking Thurman to the airport was because after dropping him off, I would have a brand new Cadillac to use. In the 1970’s having a Cadillac was like having a Mercedes today.

I thought I was so cool because I would show up at my games driving Thurman Munson’s caddie. One time Thurman checked his odometer and saw all of the extra miles on it and said to me, "Where did you drive to, Hawaii? I told him that I had games in Long Island so he asked, "Didn’t Reggie give you a car to use?" I replied, "Yes, but do you want to show up at your game in a Volkswagen Rabbit or a Thurman Munson Cadillac?"

He laughed, saying, "You got a point there!"

When I didn’t use the Cadillac, Reggie would have me garage it in his 5th Avenue apartment building. Reggie always paid for the parking but he told me not to tell Thurman he paid it.

I loved the fact that Thurman and Reggie had become very good friends.

Reggie even flew with Thurman on his plane.

One time Reggie gave me a check to give to Thurman for the gas on the plane. When I handed it to Thurman he started to laugh and said, "I’m gonna keep the check just for the autograph."

Sometimes Thurman would fly back to New York with his wife, Diana, and this was when I would get to know Diana and the wonderful and fun relationship that they had.

Sometime in July of 1979, I was supposed to drive Thurman to Teterboro Airport after the game. Because of a rain delay or extra innings the game ran late.

After packing his bags, I was helping him take things to his car and Thurman turned to me and said, "I’m gonna drive myself to the airport."

I asked him why and he said that he didn’t want me to be driving back from New Jersey by myself so late since it was already midnight. He said that he would really feel guilty if anything happened.

He added, "And besides, you can use Reggie’s Rabbit," and he started to laugh.

So, I walked him up the stairs and we crossed the street to the players' parking lot.

We said some little chitchat, he got into his brown Cadillac and then he started to drive out.

All of a sudden he stopped the car and I thought he had changed his mind and was going to have me take him to Teterboro. Instead he said, "'Okay Silly Rabbit, Trix are for Kids.' See you when I get back."

That was Thurman being funny in reference to me and Reggie’s Rabbit.

The rest is history. As you many of you may know, he had a fatal plane accident.

On August 3rd The Boss (George Steinbrenner) and Billy Martin would come up to me and tell me that I had to go to Teterboro to pick up Thurman’s car. I immediately said no. Billy said that I had to and the Boss said that it was not an option.

The Boss made it a point that I was the only one that they could trust with Thurman’s car.

At that moment I understood. I got another batboy named Hector Pagan to drive me there.

When I got into Thurman’s car, I started it up and the radio was on and the station playing was WKTU, which was a popular disco station. I realized that he was tired driving to the airport and the reason I say this was because Thurman was into music like Neil Diamond etc. The only time he would listen to disco would be in the clubhouse so that he could dance with Mickey Rivers, especially on Saturday mornings when "Soul Train" would be on television.

To say that the drive back to the stadium was a nightmare would be an understatement.

I cried and I screamed and I punched the seat and the dashboard of the car until I got back to the ball park. Even right now, I still cry. He was a friend, he was a good person, he was a caring person. If you would have known him, 40 years later you would still be crying too.

Ray Negron is a sports executive with over 40 years of experience in baseball. His first job came from a chance encounter with George Steinbrenner as a youth. He has become an American film producer, a best-selling author, and a philanthropist. His memoir is entitled, "Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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RayNegron
I don’t remember how it happened but I began driving Thurman to Teterboro, N.J. Airport for his trips home. I loved doing it because it would give me time alone with Thurman, time when we could talk about everything and anything.
steinbrenner, murcer, rivers, martin
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2019-41-30
Friday, 30 August 2019 02:41 PM
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