Widows of late Yankees stars Hunter, Munson still share unbreakable bond
Diana Munson remembers simpler times in baseball. Those came back in the 1970s when her late husband, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, carpooled to and from the ballpark with teammates from their home in New Jersey, and she and the other wives would sit in the stands amongst the fans and cheer for their husbands. Back then, Yankee Stadium was not only home to the men in pinstripes, but also to her and her three young children.
“Normal is the word to describe it,” says Munson, now a grandmother of seven. “There was nothing showy about it. It was just our home, and it was good for us.”
Diana, whose husband died in an airplane crash in 1979, and five other Yankees widows—Arlene Howard (whose husband was longtime Yankees catcher and coach Elston Howard), Helen Hunter (pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter), Jill Martin (former player and five-time manager Billy Martin), Kay Murcer (outfielder and later broadcaster Bobby Murcer) and Soot Zimmer (coach Don Zimmer)—were honored last Saturday at the 69th annual Old Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. For the women behind some of the most esteemed Yankees of all-time, the day was a celebration for the men they love and the memories they shared together.
“We look forward to seeing each other and enjoying the memories of our husbands,” Munson says. “Being able to look up at the big screen and see them again, that’s just fun. The fans go nuts and that makes us feel so loved.”
For Helen Hunter, whose husband died of ALS in 1999, making the trip to Yankee Stadium from Hertford, N.C., feels like coming home.
“There have been so many people in this organization who have been good to us," she says. "It is like a family.”
Munson and Hunter were key contributors to the New York teams that won three straight American League pennants from 1976 to '78 and back-to-back World Series championships in the latter two seasons. And nearly 40 years after this golden era in the team's history, the bond that once existed between Munson and Hunter still remains between their wives today.
“Helen and I are pretty tight,” Munson says. “We’re the same kind of women. We share a similar life and memories, and it’s just fun to get together and talk about the old times.”
“Thurman called my husband’s games, and he enjoyed pitching to him,” Hunter adds. “They just knew each other so well. Thurman always knew what pitch to call for him."
Under cloudy skies and among dozens of Yankees legends on Saturday, the pair recalled a time when the dog days of summer were happily cherished by their families.
“We’d get to the stadium early in the morning with our guys and stay until late at night,” Munson says. “We spent so much time at the ballpark watching them play that when I say the children were raised at Yankee Stadium, it’s not an exaggeration. We loved it.”
Among their favorite memories are times spent with a community of Yankees wives who once lived in close proximity to one another. They were a group knit so tightly that when their husbands were off playing during the season, they served as each other’s support systems and shared their lives together in ways that was reminiscent only of family.
“We gave each other baby showers and lent help when our husbands were away,” Hunter says.
“We all lived close to each other,” Munson says. “When the guys were gone, the women would be together here and there, and even use the same pediatricians. We all shared a similar experience.”
For Diana, Thurman’s childhood sweetheart, living with the captain of the Yankees often meant pulling double duty after some of the team’s toughest days.
“He was so intense, and losing never went well with him,” she says. “But Thurman was a big chocolate chip cookie fan, so if I didn’t go to the game and would tune in and see that things were going badly, I’d get right in the kitchen and make those cookies for him late at night before he got home, just to try to make him feel better.”
Helen, who is also a mother of three and now a grandmother of five, had a similar knack for keeping her star husband well-fed during the grind of the 162-game season.
“Jimmy liked home cooking,” says Helen. “He wasn’t hard to please and loved just about any type of meal I made for him.”
Though Yankee Stadium was considered home by the wives, nothing compared to the actual homes they shared with their husbands in the off-season, and they counted down the days until the season was over.
“It was heaven at home in the off-season,” Munson says. “He read stories to the kids every night and blew their hair dry. I mean, Thurman Munson blowing little girls’ hair dry doesn’t sound right, but it was true. He was a family man.”
“We’d take the kids to the beach,” Hunter says. “Jimmy also liked to take them hunting and fishing. He spent a lot of time with them in the off-season.”
Even decades later, the memories that Munson and Hunter have of their husbands’ careers as Yankees remain tremendously special.
“We love baseball, and we love the Yankees,” Hunter says. “I’m just so thankful that the Good Lord allowed Jimmy and Thurman to be Yankees and make the memories that we did. We’ve been blessed because of the Yankees in so many ways.”
“They are the best memories,” Munson says. “They’re memories we’ll have for the rest of our lives, and I’m just so grateful to the Steinbrenner family for making us part of the Yankee family. I think we will always be part of the Yankee family.”