FAREWELL, NO. 15
Last Wednesday night Thurman Munson was the only starter in the New York Yankee lineup who failed to get a hit in a 9-1 rout of the Chicago White Sox. But then, nothing much was needed of the Yankee captain. In pressure games, Munson had come through often enough. A clutch player in the best Yankee tradition, he was Rookie of the Year in 1970, the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1976 and a six-time Ail-Star catcher. Significantly, he exceeded his lifetime regular-season average of .292 by hitting .339 in American League playoffs and .373 in World Series competition.
Like Lou Gehrig, the Yankees' only previous captain, Munson was fated to die young. On the day after they walloped the White Sox, the Yankees had no game scheduled, and Munson spent the afternoon practicing takeoffs and landings in his brand-new Cessna Citation near his hometown of Canton, Ohio. Apparently losing power on its last descent, the jet crashed short of an airport runway. Two passengers survived but Munson died almost immediately. He was 32.
Munson was a private man in a public profession. An enormous pride drove him; a fragile ego demanded recognition. When a rival catcher like Boston's Carlton Fisk or a teammate like Reggie Jackson was said to outperform him, or when a sportswriter or opposing manager like Sparky Anderson ventured even the mildest criticism, he could be angry, rude and combative. Munson worked hard, got dirty and ignored pain. But tough as he was, he also seemed oddly vulnerable. He was better at seeking glory than at enjoying it. He never seemed comfortable with the celebrity he attained.
Ovations do not usually occur at such moments, but after New York's Cardinal Cooke offered a brief prayer for Munson during a memorial ceremony at Yankee Stadium Friday night, the crowd of 51,151 cheered lustily. Eight Yankees were on the field at the time, but until the game against Baltimore began a few minutes later, the catcher's box was intentionally left empty in tribute to him. In another tribute, his uniform bearing the familiar No. 15 was hanging neatly in place in his locker.
Munson was a bit of a curmudgeon, but no one played the game harder, and beneath the welts and the scars from the foul tips and the collisions at the plate was a well-hidden vein of sensitivity. Consider the night in Detroit when the Tigers' Ron LeFlore came up against the Yankees with a 30-game hitting streak going. Munson called breaking stuff, and Yankee pitchers retired LeFlore three straight times. In the eighth inning, with the Yankees ahead 9-5 and an 0-2 count on LeFlore, Munson suddenly signaled for a fastball. LeFlore must have been surprised, because he took Tippy Martinez' pitch for a called third strike. The streak was over. Afterward Munson reluctantly admitted to SI's Larry Keith that he had called for a pitch he felt might be more to LeFlore's liking to give him one last chance at keeping the streak alive.
The fifth International Special Olympics will be held this week in Brockport, N.Y., with 3,500 mentally retarded athletes from the U.S. and 30 other countries expected to participate. The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation is staging the five-day event, and ABC-TV plans to tape some of the action for showing on Wide World of Sports on Sept. 1. In the glitzy, commercial world of televised sport, competition involving the retarded is highly unusual fare.
It may also be highly instructive. Many big names in sports assist the Kennedy Foundation in its commendable work with the retarded, including Notre Dame basketball Coach Digger Phelps, who uses a standard line when Irish players gripe about problems at practice or in the classroom. "You think you've got trouble, you should go see the kids at the Logan Center," Phelps tells them, referring to a South Bend facility for the handicapped.
But the Special Olympics offer more than just a reminder to count one's blessings. The event provides competition in 14 sports, and many of the mildly retarded participants are talented. The severely retarded are usually less skilled, but they frequently exhibit a sense of joy too often lacking in big-time sport. In the Special Olympics, cheating is virtually unknown, nobody plays out his option, and if somebody falls during a race, his competitors can usually be counted on to stop and lend a hand.