** Munson's family carries on **

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** Munson's family carries on **

Postby T15D23 » Sat Aug 03, 2019 11:01 am

‘I’m always 7 coming back to this stadium’: 40 years later, Thurman Munson’s family carries on
Rustin Dodd


NEW YORK — Kelly Munson was 7 years old when her father died, just old enough to form memories. The ones she has can be hazy and elusive, triggered by a moment or a thought or an old photo. The ballpark, she says, is where they always come back.

So it was Friday night at Yankee Stadium, the 40th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Thurman Munson in the summer of 1979. Kelly Munson was standing inside Yankee Stadium. Her mother, Diana, was throwing out the first pitch. Her sister, Tracy, was remembering the old clubhouse where the tables had trays and trays of candy, the hot tubs had stainless steel, and their father traipsed around the room, the captain at the center of everything.

“In some ways,” Kelly Munson said, “I’m always 7 coming back to this stadium. This is really the place where I think about my dad. So whenever I’m sitting in the stadium with the Yankees and I see the pinstripes and I hear the voices and I smell the dirt, it’s where I remember him most.”

For the Munson family, Friday was a tough day. The anniversaries always are, of course. And there have been many. Diana Munson, Thurman’s childhood sweetheart and widow, kept reading the texts on her phone, so many meaningful stories about her late husband, so many well-wishes from old friends. Kelly and Tracy thought about the years that had passed. Their brother, Michael, wasn’t at Yankee Stadium, but the anniversaries have a way of bringing the family together.

For the Munson family, Friday was also a good day. Diana Munson never left Canton, Ohio, the town in which Thurman was raised, the home to which he returned on an offday in 1979. Ohio is home. The family house is there and so are so many memories. Yet the memory of Thurman, Diana says, is most potent here in New York. So this has become home, too.

“I think the fact that people have loved and appreciated him and showed such loyalty means the world to us,” Diana said. “We’re from Canton, Ohio — Pro Football Hall of Fame — nobody cares in Ohio. But in New York, this for me is coming home. And this is loving Thurman together.”

The memories of Aug. 2, 1979, have not lost their ability to shock, even 40 years later. In the midst of another summer in New York, one year after leading the Yankees to a second consecutive World Series title, Munson, the club’s captain, returned home to Ohio on a day off. Nestled in the cockpit of his twin-engine Cessna Citation, he was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport.

The death rocked a family and franchise and reverberated across a sport. It tore a hole through a clubhouse and across a region.

“Thurman, to me, was The Captain,” said former Yankees teammate Willie Randolph. “Period.”

Friday, Randolph came to Yankee Stadium to catch Diana’s first pitch and remember Thurman. He also went on the radio to talk about the life of his old friend. For Randolph, it always comes back to the stories: the way Munson called him “Rook,” the way he took him under his wing, the way he glared and ribbed and brought you closer at the same time.

“I have this T-shirt,” Randolph said. “It’s a bright yellow T-shirt with lime-green letters — it says ‘Rook’ on the front of it. I still have this to this day. It’s in my closet. It has mothballs all in it. I cut the sleeves off it and everything. I still have it. That’s the impact he had on me.”

Four decades is a long time. It’s enough time for grandkids and graduations, for careers and disappointment and 40 summers in New York. Thurman Munson would be 72 years old now. Diana wonders if he might have still been in baseball.

Over the years, she says, people have suggested that Thurman would have moved on to something else. The game was changing. He was stubborn. Maybe he would have gone home to Ohio and pursued another challenge. But she’s not sure about that. Thurman loved baseball so much.

“He still had that ‘little kid’ love for baseball in him,” Diana Munson said. “And people have speculated that, well, you know, baseball changed and perhaps he would have been happier in other fields. No, baseball was what it was all about for him. And he knew that George was kind of mentoring him to be the manager.”

George, of course, was George Steinbrenner, and Diana likes to joke that her husband would have been hired to be the Yankees’ manager, fired, then hired again. There would have been fireworks, no doubt about that. Yet part of her believes Thurman and Steinbrenner would have been a good match. They shared a mutual respect. They wanted the same things.

“I think it would have been a good marriage,” Diana said, “and it would have lasted for a long time.”

Diana Munson throws the ceremonial first pitch at the Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day game in 2004, surrounded by some of her husband’s former teammates. (Chad Rachman / AP)

Forty years later, Diana Munson has been back to Yankee Stadium so many times. She returns most years for Old-Timers’ Day. She’s thrown out other first pitches. She likes coming back and thinking about Thurman. But Friday, she said, felt different. Perhaps it was being here with her daughters. Tracy, 49, once went 18 years without coming back, she said. There were other gaps, too.

Maybe it was just the gravity of the day.

“Any time you can look up and see him, running from first to third, playing with reckless abandon the way he did, it’s tough,” Diana Munson said. “But I’m also proud to be here and glad my family could appreciate this moment with me.”

In some ways, Diana says, the joy comes in seeing people still wearing her husband’s jersey, in the way fans still care, in still telling all the stories. The family has them. So do teammates. Randolph likes to call Munson the “heart and soul” of the Yankees. And for a moment on Friday, he was back in 1979.

“If he loved you, he loved you,” Randolph said. “If he didn’t, he would tell you. He would. But he was just very honest and blunt about who he was. But he would give you the shirt off his back.”

It’s been 40 years since the Yankees lost Thurman Munson, 40 years since Diana lost a husband and the kids lost a father, but for an evening on Friday, the family came back to remember. For a moment, Kelly Munson says, she was 7 years old again.

“It brings back all of my memories from the time I couldn’t remember anything until 7,” Kelly said. “And a time that was so important in our lives.”
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