This weekend saw the 35th anniversary of Thurman Munson's death in a plane crash. From Michael Paterniti's superlative 1999 Esquire story, here's how Munson's Yankee teammates and George Steinbrenner remember hearing the news for the first time:
The day of the crash, Reggie had business in Connecticut. I'll never forget that day, he says. I had on a white short-sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans and penny shoes and I was driving a silver-and-blue Rolls Royce with a blue top. Heard it over the radio: A great Yankee superstar was killed today. And at first, I thought it was me. I wanted to touch myself. I went like that … Reggie grabs his forearm, a forearm still the size of a ham hock, squeezes the muscle, tendon, and bone. He seems moved, or just spooked by the memory of how he imagined his own death being reported on the radio. He's driving his Rolls-Royce, and he's here at a Beanie Baby convention. He's hitting a home run at Yankee Stadium, and he's here, twenty years later, going down a line of autograph seekers, shaking with both hands, as if greeting his teammates one last time at the top of the dugout steps.
Of course, everyone else remembers that day, too. Bucky Dent was told by a parking-lot attendant after a dinner at the World Trade Center and nearly fainted. Catfish got a call from George Steinbrenner and went across the street and told Graig Nettles, who was already talking to George himself, and both of them thought it was a joke at first, that someone was putting them on. Goose Gossage and his wife were in the bedroom, dressing to go see a Waylon Jennings concert. It was just, God damn, says Goose. We all felt bulletproof, and then you see such a strong man, a man's man, die …. Then it's like we're not shit on this earth, we're just little bitty matter.
Lou Piniella remembers arguing past midnight with Thurman Munson at Bobby Murcer's apartment in Chicago a couple nights before the crash—the Yankees were in town playing the White Sox; Murcer had just been traded from the Cubs back to the Yankees—arguing about hitting until Murcer couldn't stand it anymore, took himself to bed at about 2:00 a.m. Piniella was poolside at his house when George called. I was mad, says Piniella, now the manager of the Seattle Mariners, sitting before an ashtray of stubbed cigarettes in the visitor's clubhouse of Fenway before a game against the Red Sox. He doodles on a piece of paper, drawing stanzas without notes. Over and over. I was mad, he says. I'm still mad.
Bobby Murcer, the last player to see Thurman Munson alive, remembers standing at the end of a runway with his wife and kids at a suburban airport north of Chicago where Thurman Munson was keeping his jet, declining his invitation to come to Canton, watching Thurman Munson barrel down the runway in this most powerful machine, then disappearing in the dark. Remembers him up there in all that night, afraid for the man.
And George Steinbrenner remembers it today in his Tampa office, surrounded by the curios of a sixty-nine-year life, some signed footballs, some framed photographs. He dyes his hair to hide the gray, but seems immortal. The living embodiment of the Yankees past and present. He has the longest desk I've ever seen.
He remembers clearly when Thurman came to visit his office at Yankee Stadium, flat-out refused to be captain, said he didn't want to be a flunky for George, and George finally talked him into it, said it was about mettle, not management. He remembers flying out to Canton at Thurman's request to see Thurman's real estate, eating breakfast with the family. And, of course, he remembers the day. He got a call from a friend at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, and at first he didn't put two and two together, not until the man said, George, I've got some bad news. Then it hit him.
I just sat there, says George Steinbrenner now, folding his hands on his lap. Sat paralyzed. Everything about Thurman came flooding back to me—his little mannerisms and the way he played. When George could move his arms again, he picked up the phone and started calling his players. I don't think the Yankees recovered for a long time afterward, he says. I'm not sure we have yet.
Below is Paterniti's full story, and it's worth your time.