My first “in-person” baseball game was at Yankee Stadium in 1979. I went with my little league team. We were awful. I don’t think we won a game all year if memory serves. To make matters worse, I grew up a New York Mets fan, after watching Steve Henderson hit a home run on TV the moment I turned the game on. Little did I know, the Mets stunk and the Yankees were on top of the baseball world.
That was until 1979.
Thurman Munson, the team’s captain and catcher was killed in a plane crash that year. The plane was his own. He bought it to get home to Canton, Ohio to be close to his family and one night while practicing take offs and landings he lost control of the plane and it crashed.
A few days later. I attended my first game at Yankee Stadium. Controversy swooned around the stadium because that morning was Munson’s funeral. The Yankees chartered a private plane and the entire team went. The League office was upset because they had a game that night against Baltimore. What if they didn’t make it back on time for the game.
Owner George Steinbrenner put his foot down. “Tough shit. We’re going. If we don’t make it back, we forfeit.” Steinbrenner was often crazy but he had his principles and he wasn’t going to compromise on this.
I was 9 years old and Thurman was the first young person I ever heard of who had died. I had planned to root for the Orioles for weeks but then Munson’s death changed my mind.
“These guys have been through a lot,” my dad reminded me. “We should show them some respect.”
There was a small moment of silence at this game. A few days earlier Cardinal Cooke eulogized Munson at the Cathedral known as Yankee Stadium.
The Yanks had been through an emotional day. They had been to their teammates funeral and then trotted out on the field. Bobby Murcer gave one of the eulogies. Manager Billy Martin offered to sit him out for the game but Mercer told him “No, I think I need to play tonight.”
The result was astounding. Mercer homered in the 7th and then drove in the tying and winning runs in the 9th with a hot single. He had done it for his friend, in his memory. And he made me a memory that night as well.
Mercer never used that bat again. He gave it to Munson’s widow, Diana.
An amazing man mourning and amazing friend.
Mercer died not all that long ago after suffering from brain cancer. He returned to the broadcast booth (Mercer became a Yankee broadcaster after his playing days were done) and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
When you’re a kid you don’t know the magnitude of a night like that. It was a good game. I had no real rooting interest. I didn’t realize Munson’s funeral was that morning when I went to the game but was sad by many posters and signs mourning him around the stadium. Looking back now, it was a heck of a first game for a nine year old kid.
Baseball can transcend life in that way and I hope you have some baseball memories that are just as memorable. This one is one of my favorites.
Rest in peace, Thurman and Bobby.