"I was a guy who ran into a wall and gave 120% all the time."
Ron Blomberg is a man on a mission.
The popular Yankee, who is best known as the first Designated Hitter in baseball history, wants to see to it that his best friend, Thurman Munson, gains his rightful place in Cooperstown sooner rather than later.
Blomberg’s new book, The Captain and Me, details his friendship with Munson and helps to shed light on what the Yankees legend was like off the field. Blomberg, a Jewish superstar athlete from Georgia, and the gruff Munson were roommates for five years and were more family than they were friends.
The Yankee fan favorite joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Blomberg grew up in Atlanta and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who had a better career as a young athlete. He remains the only person to ever receive Parade All-American honors in baseball, football and basketball and naturally he gained a lot of attention from professional and college scouts.
When the time came to make a decision on his path forward, the options he had on the table were playing basketball for John Wooden at UCLA alongside Lew Alcindor, going to play football for Bear Bryant at Alabama or signing with the Yankees, who chose him as the first overall pick in the 1967 draft.
Luckily for baseball, Blomberg chose to wear the Pinstripes like his boyhood idol Mickey Mantle.
Blomberg made his debut with the Yankees as a 20-year-old September callup in 1969 then came up to stay in 1971. A powerful lefty and hard-nosed player, Blomberg was very productive when healthy.
The main problem was that, as with many players who do not give an inch between the lines, injuries cut short his career.
In 1973, when Blomberg was mostly healthy, he batted .329 and made baseball history when he became the first ever DH. Now, he’s hoping to help his best friend Munson make his own history.
For years, Blomberg has been asked why he thinks Munson has been left out of the Hall of Fame, and the usual refrain is that he didn’t cozy up to the media as a player.
As Blomberg puts it, if a reporter asked a dumb question, Munson told them so.
“I got to put on the Pinstripes. I got to play in Yankee Stadium in front of the greatest fans in the world. I was very, very lucky. I lived my dream.”
By writing The Captain and Me, Blomberg hopes to show a more personal side of Munson. The side of The Captain that shows how much he loved his family, how valued he was as a friend and all of the charitable work he did while he was alive. Blomberg likes to say that Munson was Jekyll and Hyde when it came to his demeanor on and off the field.
Blomberg also likes to call people “Big Guy,” no matter how big or small you might be. And trust me, when he lays that moniker on you in conversation, you feel like you’re one of his old Yankee pals he reveres so much.
There are a handful of players who most agree belong in the Hall of Fame who played during Blomberg’s era. Luis Tiant, Dick Allen and Dave Parker come to mind first.
But for now, we’re making the case for Munson, so come along as we go Spitballin’ with Ron Blomberg.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Blomberg. I definitely want to get into your book and thoughts on Thurman Munson, but first let’s start at the beginning. How did you become a baseball fan as a kid, and did you have any favorite players or teams?
I grew up in Atlanta and baseball wasn’t the biggest sport there, football was. You had the Georgia Bulldogs, Georgia Tech, Alabama and Tennessee. All those great schools in the south. I was really lucky growing up because the only baseball games on TV were the Yankees. So, when I was young, I pulled for the Yankees and Mickey Mantle was my hero.
You had an incredible scholastic career as a football, baseball and basketball All-American. What made you choose baseball?
I signed a letter of intent to play basketball for John Wooden at UCLA and when you put your name on it back then, it was like a contract. It wasn’t like today when recruits go from school to school. I also had a football scholarship with Bear Bryant at Alabama. But I was lucky. I knew when I was a senior in high school I was being heavily recruited by the New York Yankees.
I told my parents, if I got drafted by the Yankees number one, I was going to sign with them. Being Jewish and living in the South, there weren’t too many of us there. Being able to come up to New York where there was a large Jewish population was a fantasy for me.
I got drafted number one in the country and I got to play for the best team in the world. I got to put on the Pinstripes. I got to play in Yankee Stadium in front of the greatest fans in the world. I was very, very lucky. I lived my dream.
Wow, that must have been an incredible feeling. You came up to the Yankees during a tough period, but they were building the team up to that late-70’s success. Could you see the pieces in place as they started to make progress?
Oh, absolutely. I signed when the team was owned by CBS. The team was basically just a tax write off for them. They didn’t want to put anything into it. But then in 1973, George Steinbrenner bought the team and you’re talking about a 365-degree turnaround.
What was your first impression of George Steinbrenner?
He was a guy that came from Cleveland and was a very good athlete. He was a guy who was a coach too. He went to Williams College, but was very big at the University of Michigan. When he bought the team, he did everything he could to make that team go. He was a great businessman, and he was tough. You better give 120% or he was gonna get rid of you. Everyone had their arguments with George, but at the end, he was like a father to us. He did everything he could to get a winner, and he did.
Thurman Munson was obviously a huge part of that revival. Do you remember when you first met Thurman?
I was drafted first in 1967 and Thurman was drafted first out of Kent State in ’68, so he was a little more mature than me. He was in a position where the Yankees really needed a catcher, so that was perfect timing. Thurman was just born to be a leader. You saw right off the bat when he came up, he was the leader of the team. Being a number one pick like myself, we became good friends.
You were roommates with Thurman and from what I read you guys were like family. Can you talk about your friendship with him?
Yes, we became very good friends. My family became very good friends with his wife Diana and we basically lived our lives together. We had the same friends and just basically did everything together. That’s what my book The Captain and Me is about. There have been many great books written about Thurman and the way he played, including a great one by my friend Marty Appel. But this is the one book that looks at Thurman off the field and the friendship we had. People will see him different after reading this.
There’s been a lot written about the relationship between Thurman and George. What was your perspective of that as Thurman’s best friend?
Thurman was like George. He was like a baby version of George. When George came in the locker room, you knew right off the bat he was gonna lead. He fired Bill Virdon and brought in Billy Martin. No matter what, he was gonna bring the Yankees to meet his highest expectations of himself and the fans. Thurman was the same way.
He walked in with that big barrel chest and said, “You just follow me. I’m gonna lead you to be a good team.” That’s why he became the captain. You don’t find many guys who came onto a team as a 22-year-old rookie and get the respect of the older guys, but that’s what he did and that’s why I think he was the best team captain ever.
You played in an era with some great catchers like Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. How do you think Thurman stacked up against those guys?
You’re talking about three Hall of Famers right off the bat. I played against Fisk and Bench was great. Not so much against Carter because he was in the National League, but they all had great careers. I’m not taking anything away from those guys, but Thurman was a guy that took a team that was the Bad News Bears, and a lot of guys who were high maintenance and just molded them.
A lot of the guys on the team were crazy, but he was able to mold them into a great team. He played on different teams with different guys, but he was always the glue that held it all together. He performed great on the field, but it was all of the intangibles. He was the guy that kept everything together; he was the guy that brought the New York Yankees back.
I guess this is a broad topic, but I’ll keep it general so you can do what you want with it. Can you talk about Thurman and the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Unfortunately, he didn’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame because he didn’t have that relationship with the writers. A lot of the writers didn’t talk to him after games because he was tough. He would get in your face in a second if he didn’t like something, but that was only at the ballpark. Once he left the park, he was a different guy. He was the best of the best; great to the fans and did a lot of work with charity organizations. He was great to me and my family. That’s what The Captain and Me is about and I hope people can see him different.
But he kept the team together for the entire time he was there. What he did for the organization, for the fans in New York and really fans across the country was incredible. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and I told Diana Munson I was going to do everything I can to get him into the Hall of Fame. I’ve done an awful lot on Facebook and radio and did a lot of Zoom interviews and the book will help too. Let me tell you, the book has some really incredible stories; it’s unreal and I am not just saying that because I wrote it.
Your book has already gained a lot of attention and it hasn’t even been officially released yet. What do you think of the way fans have been reacting to The Captain and Me?
The book is not even out yet and it’s already in the Top 25 baseball books. People tell me that’s unheard of. It’s selling like crazy. People like to read about the Yankees and that’s a big reason, but also, it’s about someone that didn’t get the respect he deserved with the Hall of Fame. The fans respected him, but the writers didn’t. I think fans like to read about those kinds of guys.
We had crazy guys on that team, that’s why they called it The Bronx Zoo. We did everything and we were crazy, but Thurman kept us together. Fans love that team and the stories. I kind of see Thurman and I like the guys in the movie Bang the Drum Slowly. People connect with that.
We can go on about Thurman for days, but I don’t want to sell you short either. Yankee fans love you and you always get a great reception at Old Timers’ Day. Can you reflect on your career with the Yankees?
Unfortunately, I came up and was going good but I got injured a lot. Back then, when you got injured, you didn’t have modern medical technology. If you pulled a hamstring, they told you to rub some chewing tobacco on it and go play. Now, you pull a hamstring, and you take your time to recover. Back then, we had one-year contracts. You think about Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig and you don’t want to miss time.
I was a guy who ran into a wall and gave 120% all the time. Unfortunately, I had knee operations and shoulder operations, but there was nothing I could do about that. I didn’t have the stats and my career ended a lot sooner than Thurman’s. When I was healthy, I did well, but my career was about injuries unfortunately, so I don’t feel like I fulfilled the potential that I had.
Now they have trainers and nutritionists and are really taken care of. I ran into a wall in Spring Training. They put me on the bus and threw me down in the hospital. They said, “Well, you busted your knee.” I asked how long I was gonna be out and they told me the whole year. Nowadays, they scope it and you’re ready to play in eight weeks.
You may not have fulfilled all that potential, but Yankee fans respect you because you played hard and always wore the Pinstripes with pride. You can tell how much you love being a Yankee. I have a couple more questions for you. You mentioned Mickey Mantle was your hero. What was it like when you met him for the first time?
I got drafted when I was 17 and they took me and my mom and dad on a trip up to New York City. We didn’t have any money, so that was my first time on a plane. They took us out to the stadium and there were only about 7,000 people at the game because they didn’t have the greatest team. They took me down on the field to take batting practice and Mickey Mantle was walking around. My idol was right there; it was like I was living a fantasy.
I got on that field and took batting practice with Mickey Mantle. Joe Pepitone was there. Whitey and Yogi were around and Ralph Houk. That trip was great. I got to put the Yankee pinstripes on. My first interview was with Walter Cronkite and it took off from there. I was very, very lucky to play with the greatest organization in the world.
It’s awesome to see you have so much pride in your career. Switching gears for a minute, I have to tell you I interviewed Art Shamsky a little while ago and we talked about the Israeli Baseball League…
Let me stop you there, he told you I didn’t know any of the player’s names, didn’t he? He told you I didn’t know one guy on my team?
That is exactly what he said.
Well, I’m not very organized and he was a very organized guy. But he’s right, I didn’t know anyone. It was a lot of Spanish names and it was confusing, so I just called everyone “big guy.” Even if they were little, I just called them “big guy.” They would look at me like, “Are you sick?” I would say, “Well you’re a big guy to me.”
Jokes aside, that Israel Baseball League was great, even if it lasted one season. You managed Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, what was that experience like?
We had a great time there. The only thing I didn’t like was the food. I am a steak and potato guy; I didn’t like Mediterranean food. But Art and I became very good friends. He told you I didn’t know my players’ names, but did he tell you we won the championship too? The league lasted one year, and my team was the champion and we beat Art for it. You know, I can always tell people the Yankees beat the Mets in Israel too. We had so much fun, but he was right, I had no idea who they were.
That’s so great, Mr. Shamsky seemed to enjoy his time there too. This has been really enjoyable and it’s great to hear how much Thurman Munson meant to you personally and it’s really fantastic you are pushing him for the Hall of Fame. He should have been in long ago. One last question for you: are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave for our readers?
I got to play in the greatest city in the world for the greatest organization there is. I met so many great people in my career and anytime I get back to New York City, everyone treats me so great. I am just so blessed that I was able to do something that I always wanted to do.
I also feel like I am blessed to be able to write a book about my best friend. I feel like my book is great. Fans will really enjoy it. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say it, but there’s even been some talk about making a documentary about it, that’s how good it is. It’s a different type of book, all of the personal stories off the field. There’s even some stuff in there about hanging around with some of the gangsters like Gambino and Gotti. You’ll have to read it.
But for me, the book is something I want to show people about Thurman. He wasn’t this tough guy away from the field like he was in the locker room. I want people to see that he loved his family and friends and that he did so much for charity. They kept him out of the Hall of Fame because he was tough at the ballpark to writers. But with this book, I want to do everything I could to get him in the Hall of Fame.
Ron Blomberg’s book, The Captain and Me: On and Off the Field with Thurman Munson, is available now on Amazon. The book is a “deeply personal story of a friendship between two teammates, and of a human bond which ultimately transcends the game itself.” You can follow Ron Blomberg on Twitter @RonBlomberg1 and at www.RonBlombergYankees.com.