At 29 years of age and late in his seventh major league baseball season, Thurman Munson of the Yankees is finally learning to relax. Not let up, mind you, just relax. He is still no Mr. Congeniality, but he is becoming less the cranky, what-the-hell-do-you-want misanthrope of earlier years. Just the other day Munson signed an autograph, gave a civil answer to a reporter's question and allowed as how he was not the only catcher in organized baseball. The best, he said, but certainly not the only one.
And the truth is, Munson is the best and probably has been for the last two seasons. As if Munson's own mounting accomplishments were not proof enough, it should be pointed out that the Reds' sore-shouldered Johnny Bench appears to be in decline, Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox is constantly in disrepair and Cardinal Ted Simmons and Pirate Manny Sanguillen do not have Munson's all-round abilities. It is public acceptance of the notion that Munson is the No. 1 big-league catcher—and perhaps even the Most Valuable Player in the American League—that has encouraged him to reveal a better side.
By becoming the best at his position, Munson is following a Yankee tradition that began with Bill Dickey and has continued with little interruption for 47 years. Dickey begat Yogi Berra, who begat Elston Howard, who begat Munson. It is the baseball equivalent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, none of whom ever hit .300. Consider, too, this startling statistic: in the 43 years the All-Star Game has been played, a Yankee catcher has been named to the American League team 42 times. None of this has been lost on Munson, who notes that Dickey's birthday occurs just one day before his, that Howard has given him special batting advice and that Berra—heaven forbid!—has "charisma." (Berra, in turn, notes that the 5'10", 195-pound Munson has a Berra body.)
Munson may soon belong to an even more exclusive club. In the history of the American League, a catcher has been named Most Valuable Player only five times: Mickey Cochrane of Detroit in 1934, Berra in '51, '54 and '55 and Howard in '63. Now Munson has a good chance of winning the award. MVPs are traditionally players from championship teams who have had good years. Munson qualifies on both counts. At the end of last week, the Yankees had the widest divisional lead (11½ games) in either league, and Munson's .302 average, 87 RBIs, 13 homers, 14 stolen bases and excellent catching have been major factors in building that margin. The only thing that could block Munson's selection is the equality of talent on the American League's two first-place teams. Center-fielder Mickey Rivers (.310, 65 RBIs batting leadoff, 89 runs and 41 steals) and First Baseman Chris Chambliss (.294 and 87 RBIs) of the Yankees and Third Baseman George Brett (.331 and a league-leading 178 hits) and Centerfielder Amos Otis (.288, 74 RBIs and 16 homers) of the Royals will contend with Munson for the honor.
Even Fisk gives grudging support to Munson's candidacy. "Yeah, I guess he's the most logical choice," he says. This is a significant endorsement, because Fisk and Munson are not what you would call the friendliest of enemies. Their rivalry began in 1972 when Fisk was Rookie of the Year. "For a while it was like I didn't even exist," Munson recalls bitterly. "He got all the publicity and most of the All-Star votes. I don't hold it against him personally, but he's never been as good a catcher as I am. If we were on the same team, I might even like him, but he'd have to play another position."
Munson has the credentials to back up his boast: he is well into his fourth season as a .300 hitter, and with only seven errors he could win his fourth consecutive Gold Glove Award. In July he played in his fifth All-Star Game—though only his second as the starter. These are only the most obvious reasons. Baseball insiders stress his durability, his consistency, his aggressiveness and his intelligence in handling pitchers. When Detroit's Ralph Houk was managing the Yankees six years ago, he called Munson "just about the best young catching prospect I've ever seen." Today Houk considers him "the best in the league, without question. He can steal a base, go from first to third on a single, break up a double play, hit for average and drive in runs. He'll hit behind the runner and hit to all fields. He's a good thrower. And he's a winner, very competitive, the Pete Rose type." As such, he may be the only man alive who can get two hits while still suffering from the aftereffects of being beaned by Nolan Ryan, which is exactly what Munson did two weeks ago.
Munson has done all this and more in the Yankees' quest for their first pennant since 1964. His batting average has been over .300 since mid-May, reaching a high of .339 after a phenomenal three-game July stretch during which he had 10 hits and 10 RBIs in 13 trips to the plate. His RBI total puts him among the league leaders and his 13 home runs (including an 11th-inning shot that beat Kansas City 1-0 to break a Yankee slump in early August) top the league's catchers. "I played just as well last year," Munson says. "The only reason I'm getting more recognition now is that we're winning."
New York Manager Billy Martin agrees. Before the season, he made Munson the first team captain of his managerial career—and the Yankees' first since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939. Munson's response may have constituted the most candid acceptance speech ever. "I'll be a terrible captain," he said. "I'm too belligerent. I cuss and swear at people. I yell at umpires, and maybe I'm a little too tough at home. I don't sign autographs like I should and I haven't always been very good with writers." So why did Martin appoint this ill-tempered wretch? "Thurman goes all out all the time," Martin says. "He deserved the recognition." Munson would not dispute that. "I should have been named long ago," he says.
Munson's outspokenness makes him a difficult person to know and even more difficult to like. But few of his outbursts should be taken very seriously. "Bleep Abner Doubleday," he said recently, for no apparent reason except that there was no suitable target around.
Naturally, he is understood best and appreciated most by his teammates. Dock Ellis, who has reestablished himself as a pitcher of merit after being banished from Pittsburgh, calls Munson "The Brain." "His knowledge of the hitters helped me get off to a fast start," says Ellis, who has a 14-6 record. "He has me throwing a lot more sinker balls, too. And several times he has talked the manager into keeping me in the game when I knew Martin really wanted to pull me."
Reliever Sparky Lyle says that pitchers like Munson because "he calls the game based on who the batter and pitcher are, not what he might be looking for if he were the hitter." It is a responsibility Munson takes seriously. "Knowing the hitters is what makes a good catcher," he says. "It's not how many runners you throw out or how many balls in the dirt you block."
Among the Yankee pitchers, Catfish Hunter is probably friendliest with Munson. When Hunter was being pursued as a free agent by the Yankees last year, Munson called him at home every day. "Drove me crazy," Hunter laughs. When the Catfish was finally landed, he quickly grew close to Munson, who became a fishing buddy and an apartment mate when Hunter's family returned to North Carolina before the 1975 season ended. Since then they have bought homes near each other in New Jersey. "Thurman's the only player I've ever seen who busts his butt all the time," says Hunter. "Of course, I like to get on him a lot by saying he's the only guy in the league who never hit a home run off me. But he says it's because I was always knocked out before he had a chance to bat. When I played against him, I never knew he was this good a guy."
Well, if not good, certainly better than he used to be. It is no coincidence that Munson started to mellow just when he began to receive increased recognition. Now that people are telling him how good he is (instead of the other way around) he has fewer self-doubts and less reason to hide behind a supercharged ego. "I'm changing. I'm more mature. I accept things better," Munson says. "Egotism is a front for insecurity."
Diane Munson, who knew her husband when he was a three-sport star back home in Canton, Ohio, says Thurman has always thought highly of his athletic skills. "But he wasn't always so grouchy," she says. "He'll growl and swear rather than deal with a situation directly. He even scares me at times. He'll leave the house for a game and kiss all the kids, then when he comes home, he's completely different. Sometimes when we're in public I just cringe at the way he acts."
Diane, who is as friendly and open as Munson can be irritable and withdrawn, has put up with Thurman since she was 10 years old. "I knew I loved him then, and I must admit that I really pursued him," she says. "It helped that I was a tomboy. I would go on his paper route with him and play catch in the yard. It took him a while to discover I was a girl. Sometimes, just to impress his friends, he'd call me a pest. Things finally began to change when we got to high school. He was always playing some kind of sport, and to stay in shape he would run the mile to my house, kiss me and run right back home."
The Munsons were married in September 1968, after Thurman dropped out of Kent State and began his professional career as the Yankees' No. 1 draft choice. Ninety-nine minor league games later he was New York's regular catcher. "I want to be as good as I can as fast as I can," he said that first season—and he attained his goal even though it took him a while to get started. He was batting around .240 just before the All-Star break, when Houk called him into his office and said. "Don't worry about your hitting. You can help this club even if you bat only .250." This is a common sentiment in baseball, which is probably why there are so many weak-hitting catchers. But Munson would have none of it "Dammit," he told his startled manager, "I can hit .300 in this league." Which he did, finishing at .302 and becoming the first catcher ever to win the American League Rookie of the Year award.
The next season, 1971, was different. Munson's average plunged to .251. It was of little solace to him that he tied Howard's Yankee catching record by committing only one error. He was greatly distressed, and his confidence, Diane says, was "destroyed. He would stand in front of the mirror at home swinging his bat and wondering what he was doing wrong. He would say, 'Maybe I'm not the player I think I am.' "
Munson has not doubted himself since, increasing in confidence and self-esteem while waiting—impatiently—for everyone else to give him his due. Any lingering inferiority he may have felt had less to do with his performance on the field than with the image reflected in his mirror. "My build works against me," he once said. "I'm a short, chunky guy, I'm not the athletic hero type. Fisk is tall, lean and more attractive."
In a football locker room, the thick-bodied, mustachioed Munson would look right at home. But baseball players remark how unsuited he seems for their game. "Hey, Bussy," Outfielder Lou Piniella yelled as the team rode to a spring training game, "let this walrus off at Sea World." Score one for Piniella, but Munson can give it back double when he wants to. "I like to dig at people," he says. For him it's a test to see how strong they are. If they can take it—or come back with suitable insults of their own—he respects them. "I like strong, independent people," he says. "That's the way I like to think of myself."
That's Munson, all right. A man's man and one of the boys. No phony sophistication. "Strictly meat and potatoes," says his wife. "We're so down to earth we probably repulse people."
If Munson wanted to, he could cut a more genteel figure. It is ironic, but true, that nasty old Thurman, who looks like a walrus and gets his uniform dirtier faster than anybody else on the team, is one of the wealthiest men in the major leagues. This has little to do with the four-year $720,000 contract he signed before this season began. During the negotiations he made it clear he would not mind being traded to Cleveland, where he could keep a closer watch over his extensive real estate holdings in Canton.
The twinkling initials in Munson's pinkie ring are made of diamonds. Add it all up and he's worth more than a million dollars. His business career began at the same time and had the same rapid success as his baseball career. He took his bonus money and bought a piece of property which, Diane says, "no one thought was worth a thing." Six months later Munson sold it for a $12,000 profit, and a wheeler-dealer was born.
"I've got some silent partners who have given me advice," he says, "but now I know the business well enough that I can make most decisions on my own. You see so many guys who leave baseball with nothing. I never wanted that to happen to me. Security is very important."
Security is the one thing he has plenty of. Plenty of money in the bank, a few base hits and first place in the standings can do that for a man. Which is why if you look very closely these days you might see Munson cracking a smile behind that cold steel mask.