By Mark Herrmann


During these past 30 years, much has been remembered and much has been learned about Thurman Munson, who was both familiar and concealed. One thing does stand out, though. He didn’t want to hit for the cycle.

He wanted no part of the family cycle that produced his father, Darrell, a man so difficult that by the end, he had no relationship with his wife or children.

Thurman Munson, heart and soul of the Yankees, couldn’t stand being apart from his wife and three children in Ohio. That led him to get a pilot’s license and buy his own plane, which led him to take a spin in his new Cessna Citation on Aug. 2, 1979.

The plane crashed short of a runway at Akron-Canton Airport, 15 minutes from his house. The accident took his life at 32, when he was at the center of the baseball universe, captain of the two-time defending world champions.

It devastated his family and shook New York. It left the Yankees having to grapple with grief and shock while still having to play ball. “That was the toughest thing I ever did,” said Bucky Dent, a teammate and friend.

Dent had taken the first ride in the Citation when Munson took delivery in Seattle less than a month before his death.

“It doesn’t seem like 30 years ago,” Dent said.

That is partly because Munson still is larger than life. His memorabilia fetched big prices at auction last year (his Most Valuable Player Award went for $110,000). His locker, unoccupied since 1979, was moved to the new Yankee Stadium and is on display in the museum. Sales of the book “Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain,” have surpassed the expectations of its author, longtime Munson friend and former Yankees executive Marty Appel.

Also, it doesn’t seem so long because the story, like Munson, never grew old. We never saw how his career would have turned out. Newsday’s Joe Donnelly wrote presciently 30 years ago: “(Reggie) Jackson will probably reach 500 home runs and be voted into the Hall of Fame while Munson, an infinitely better all-around baseball player, quite possibly will not make it.”

No one ever had all the answers about how Munson could be such a tender family guy and solid teammate while being so irascible to outsiders. He spent his final years behind a screen of “no comment,” which came out through a sardonic “I’m just happy to be here.”

Herschel Nissenson, who covered the Yankees for The Associated Press and had a famous clubhouse contretemps with Munson about a seemingly harmless jibe, said this past week, “He was always grouchy and growly. But I learned that if you growled back at him, he was fine.”

Nissenson added that they shook hands after their 1974 confrontation and never had another problem. He mostly got along with Munson and believes the fuss about Jackson’s “straw that stirs the drink” comment soured the captain.

“He never said, ‘Here’s the reason I’ll never talk to you guys again,’ ” Appel said. “Mostly, I think he was so uncomfortable in the controversy of being part of the Bronx Zoo that the only way he found to deal with it was not deal with it.”

Some things are crystal-clear about the three-sport star from Canton, Ohio, and Kent State.

He was crazy about Diana, whom he called Diane in his own verbal shorthand and whom he met when both were 12.

Munson was the bridge from the old Yankees and refurbished Stadium to the new. He played with Joe Pepitone, a holdover from the original dynasty, and was the central figure when the Yankees became good again (he was the first team captain since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939.)

He was the MVP in the American League in 1976 and the MVP to his teammates every year. “I think it was his toughness, the way he played the game,” Dent said. “He got the most out of his ability. He was a great teammate.”

But Appel mentions other parts of the Munson story: He was great with his teammates’ children, playing with a young Roberto Alomar and Barry Bonds. He played winter ball with Roberto Clemente, who also died in a plane crash.

As much as people assume the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has been sizzling forever, Appel asserts it wasn’t hot until Munson and Carlton Fisk came along.

It was Munson who coined the phrase “Mr. October” — sarcastically. But Munson and Jackson did make peace, which was more than Darrell Munson ever did with his son.

The father showed up unannounced at Thurman’s funeral, reportedly approaching the coffin and saying, “You always thought you were too big for this world. Well, you weren’t.”

Thurman wanted a totally different environment for his two daughters and especially for 4-year-old Michael, who had trouble sleeping through the night when Dad wasn’t home.

“I have people reading the book and e-mailing me,” Appel said. “One guy said he was so moved that now when he makes his 45-minute commute, all he thinks about is his family and how precious it is.”

If Munson had talked more, that’s the sort of thing he would have said.

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