Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Tales from the Dugout" #4: Thurman Munson

Continuing with the “Tales from the Dugout” series, here’s an odd, albeit humorous, story about Yankee-great Thurman Munson and his obsession to beat his arch-rival, Carlton Fisk.

Marty Appel used to work as the public relations director for the New York Yankees. In that capacity, Appel was once taught a valuable lesson about baseball statistics by Thurman Munson, the hard-nosed, fiercely proud Yankees catcher who died in a tragic airplane crash in 1979.

“This started one day in the early 1970s,” says Appel, “when the players were sitting around the clubhouse after batting practice. Thurman was reading the day’s press notes, which as the team’s PR director it was my job to write up and distribute to the members of the media. Press notes are mostly statistics (updated daily), but I’d also include all sorts of tidbits, such as notes about Yankees players who were among the league leaders in various categories. Once a month or so The Sporting News would publish fielding stats, and their latest issue showed that Thurman was second in the league in assists among catchers, with 25. Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox was leading the league with 27. Well, I had put this information in my press notes for that day, and Thurman saw it. The problem was that Thurman couldn’t stand Fisk, and he was so competitive he hated the idea that anybody would think Fisk was better than him.

“As I was walking through the clubhouse, Thurman waved me over to his locker.

“‘What’s the idea of showing me up like this?’ he said, pointing to the press notes.

“‘What are you talking about?’ I asked.

“‘This bullshit about me being behind Fisk in assists. Do you think for one minute he’s got a better arm than me? I can’t believe you’d use this! What a stupid statistic!’ Thurman was really mad about it, and he finished his little tirade by saying, ‘I’ll show you.’

“A short while later the game got under way, and I was sitting up in the press box in my usual location. When our pitcher struck out his first batter of the game, Thurman dropped the ball, but he picked it up and snapped a throw down to first. I didn’t look down at Thurman, but I immediately realized what the play meant: a putout for the first baseman and an assist for Thurman. In the next inning a second batter struck out, and again Thurman dropped the ball, picked it up, and threw to first to record the out. This time I did look down at home plate, and there was Thurman looking right back at me. He held up two fingers, as if to say, ‘That’s two assists.’ A third guy struck out, and Thurman did it all one more time, earning his third assist of the game to put him one ahead of Fisk. This time when I looked down and saw Thurman looking up, he had a big grin on his face.

“After the game I said to him, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ He said, ‘Did what?’ He never would admit he dropped those third strikes on purpose, but he definitely made his point about catchers’ assists.”

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