Anyone who watched Thurman Munson play baseball will remember his passion in pinstripes.
To be in the dugout with Munson made it even more special.
Munson died 43 years ago. Generations of ballplayers have no understanding of the attributes Munson brought to the game. Ray Negron wants to do something about that and will teach some ballplayers of today about the Munson Way.
Negron was there as a batboy for the Munson’s Championship Yankees and has been connected with the organization for five decades.
That’s why he is starting the Thurman Munson Baseball League for kids 6-18. Included in that endeavor will be a summer collegiate team in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League. “The Thurman Munson Disciples,’’ Negron told BallNine of the team that will play in the ACBL out of Nassau County on Long Island.
This is such a wonderful idea and should have been done decades ago because Munson is so beloved by Yankee fans. Kudos to Negron.
Munson was all about grit and team. And there was a softer side than the public knew. Those are perfect qualities to be passing along to a new generation of ballplayers. “There are eight teams plus the college team,’’ Negron said.
I asked Negron why name the league after Munson and what does he want to make sure the players know about Munson?
“Thurman was a man who gave his heart and soul to the game of baseball and at the same time, the way he played on the field, he loved his family off the field with the same enthusiasm.”
“As a kid, if it wasn’t for Thurman Munson I would not had become a professional baseball player,’’ said Negron, a shortstop, who was a second round pick of the Pirates in 1975. “Even though it was short lived, it was that extra oomph that helped me go to that next level and if we teach these kids to play baseball the Thurman Munson way, you are going to have a lot of kids, not only on the field but off the field, having success because I want them to learn who Thurman Munson was as a player and a person.’’
Negron has Diana Munson’s blessings. When Negron told Diana his plan, she responded in a text that Negron shared with BallNine:
OMG … love the wording … love the enthusiasm. But mostly love that you want to instill in these young men the real Thurman Munson and what he stood for … not just in the game of baseball but what he stood for in his life. I’m so honored that you have chosen to continue the legacy that is Thurman.
With that being said I’m never surprised by your love, respect and everlasting admiration for our man. He is smiling down on you. Loyalty was EVERYTHING to him.
Love and gratitude,
Those words touched Negron’s heart and Diana also told him she was so happy a new generation of kids will know who Thurman was as a person.
Munson made such an impression on Negron because he took Negron into the Yankee family and inspired him. Negron started working for the Yankees in 1973 when George Steinbrenner caught him spraying graffiti outside Yankee Stadium. Negron went from the street to take on the job of batboy and eventually became extremely close to Munson.
Batboy Ray Negron side by side in the Yankees dugout with Thurman Munson. (Photo courtesy of Ray Negron)
“That was the greatest experience of my life, the greatest job I ever had,’’ Negron said of being a batboy for the Bronx Bombers. “If I could be Batman right now I would do it. George hiring me and the players like Thurman Munson, like Bobby Murcer, like Reggie Jackson, like Bucky Dent, like manager Billy Martin, those guys saved me because they took me on like a little brother and they made me feel like I was a member of the team. They always did. That helped me to become a better person. The way Thurman treated me is how I want to treat these kids so they learn what life is all about.
“Thurman was a man who gave his heart and soul to the game of baseball and at the same time, the way he played on the field, he loved his family off the field with the same enthusiasm,’’ Negron said. “That’s the bottom line. Remember, I was the guy who used to drive him to Teterboro Airport so he could jump on his plane so he could be home with his family for a couple of hours.’’
Negron was happy to do it because that also gave the young man access to Munson’s Cadillac when Munson was away.
After getting drafted by the Pirates, Negron said with a laugh, “I proved to America that I was a terrible hitter so I was soon back with the Yankees.’’
Their friendship grew and Negron saw a side of Munson that the catcher did not often show to the rest of the world with his many visits to see children in hospitals. There also was a soft side to Munson on the field. Negron remembers a game where Munson spotted a young opposing player coming to the plate with not the fanciest of footwear.
“After the game Thurman got a pair of spikes and told me to take them over to Lynn Jones,’’ Negron recalled.
Negron dutifully took the spikes to the Tigers clubhouse and gave them to Jones saying they were from Munson. “That left such an impact on Jones and his reaction left an impact on me, how Thurman was looking out for his fellow man,’’ Negron said. “That was a big deal’’
A small gesture of kindness meant so much.
Thurman Munson on one of his many quiet hospital visits. (Photo courtesy Ray Negron)
“We would go to a hospital or a school and if I said anything about the kids or we were there or this or that, Thurman would start screaming at me,’’ Negron said. “He didn’t want anybody to know his business when it came to visiting those kids in hospitals.’’
Munson was visiting the kids not for publicity, but to give them some hope and a smile.
It was on August 2, 1979 that Munson died in a plane crash in Ohio. Every Yankee fan remembers that saddest of days. In 1999, 20 years after his death, I visited the site and visited with the Munson family and was taken to the cemetery where Munson is buried. On that trip Diana told me about the soft side of Thurman and the poems he would write her. Thurman and Diana were big fans of Neil Diamond.
“One of my chores, when I got to the ballpark I would go up and see the Boss and then come out of his office and go to the secretary and grab the messages, remember how the messages used to be written on pink papers,’’ Negron said, something else this smart phone generation has no idea about.
“Then I would take the messages downstairs to the clubhouse and hand them out to the players,’’ Negron said. “And there was a message from Neil Diamond to Thurman and I said, ‘Is that the real Neil Diamond?’
“Thurman said, ‘Who do you bleep think it is.’ He said, ‘C’mon,’ and he takes me to (athletic trainer) Gene Monahan’s office where they had a phone back there and he calls Neil Diamond.’’
Negron said Diamond told Munson about a new album he would be releasing later that year called September Morn.
“You and Diana are going to love this song, that’s what he told them,’’ Negron said. “Then he said, ‘Did you talk with your wife about going on the road with me for a couple of weeks.’’
“Thurman said, ‘Not yet.’ And he said, ‘C’mon Thurman, I want you to go on the road with me.’ ’’
That off-season road trip never happened. Everything changed that August 2.
“Their song,’’ Negron said of Thurman and Diana, “was ‘I Am, I Said.’ ’’
Closeup of New York Yankees Thurman Munson (15) victorious, pouring champagne over head of owner George Steinbrenner after winning Game 6 and series vs Los Angeles Dodgers, Bronx, NY 10/18/1977 (Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king and then became one? Munson was that frog who became that baseball Yankees king during his tremendous 11-year career and should someday be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown
“Thurman would change a few words of the song to ‘New York’s fine but it ain’t home, Canton’s home and it’ll be mine some more,’ ’’ Negron recalled, adding Munson loved to sing and dance. “Thurman could dance and he used to love to watch Soul Train on Saturdays,’’ Negron said. “He could imitate Curly from the Three Stooges like nobody I had ever seen. He used to blow into his thumb and make his stomach get bigger and bigger.’’
Negron then mentioned the close relationship between Luis Tiant and Thurman and became emotional talking about the two friends.
He can now tell these stories to the players on the ACBL team and the players on the various teams in the Thurman Munson League. Negron has enlisted the help of Leo Caputo who will be president of the Thurman Munson League.
“Leo was running Hank’s Yanks the last eight years,’’ Negron said. “He is a tremendous person, and his knowledge of the game is off the charts.’’
Negron said that many of the players will be from the Bronx and the games will be played in Connecticut. “They will be playing different leagues throughout Connecticut and they will be traveling also.
“We’re in the process of raising money, we are going to do golf events and things, we are going to hustle,’’ said Negron, an accomplished children’s book author, film producer and a playwright and a member of the International Latino Hall of Fame. Next year will be Negron’s 50th anniversary in baseball and Suffolk County Community College and Professor Bill O’Connell will present a documentary on his fascinating life.
As for the college team, Ike Goldstein helped make it happen, getting eight teams from New York in the ACBL to make it a 16-team league. “We’ve got eight teams on the east side of the bridge. One of the teams is in Staten Island and the seven more are located between Queens, and Nassau County and Suffolk County. It’s a great league, a 16-team league now and I played in it back in the ‘80s,’’ said Goldstein, one of the VPs of the ACBL and owner of the Nassau team. Negron will manage the team and Goldstein will coach with him.
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 05: Jim Leyritz and Ray Negron attend the 2017 Hanks Yanks Golf Classic at Trump Golf Links Ferry Point on June 5, 2017 in New York. (Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)
“I’ve been good friends with Ray a long time,’’ said Goldstein, who was 13 when Munson died. “I was a catcher myself. I was a big Johnny Bench and Thurman Munson fan.’’
Goldstein was drafted by the Twins and made it up through A-ball and became a coach in the Blue Jays organization.
“We want to bring good quality summer collegiate baseball back to Long Island,’’ Goldstein said. “Ray, for as long as I have known him, has had a passion for working with kids, helping them out. He is really dedicating 100 percent effort into not just baseball– and youth baseball – but the developmental aspect of it, off the field as well as on the field.’’
Negron is a frequent speaker at colleges, including Columbia and Fordham, where he will speak on Monday. “I speak at colleges throughout New York,’’ said Negron, who is listed as a community consultant for the Yankees – and knows everyone it seems in the baseball and entertainment world.
Negron has HOF stories, including one where Billy Martin took him to Patsy’s to meet Frank Sinatra so the legend could set the young Negron straight. Frank did just that.
“They keep a portrait there on the second floor by Mr. Sinatra’s table of that meeting,’’ Negron said.
Negron has many life experiences to tell the young players as well as tips on how to play the game the way Thurman Munson played the game.
It’s about time Thurman’s Way will be passed down to a new generation of ballplayers.