by Tim Kabel
August 2, 2021
It was the middle of summer. My fifteenth birthday was a few weeks away. I was watching television in the late afternoon with my cat, Thurman, lying next to me. The program I was watching was interrupted by a newscaster, who broke into tears when he announced that Thurman Munson had been killed in a plane crash. My whole world exploded at that moment. Thurman Munson was my hero. He was my favorite Yankee. I read his autobiography, which I had requested as a birthday gift. After shaking off the cloud of disbelief, I staggered into the kitchen and told my mother.
“Thurman is dead.” I blurted out through tears. After a few awkward moments of confusion during which my mother thought I was referring to the cat, she attempted to console me. It didn’t work very well, through no fault of hers. Later, I went outside to tell my father, who was unloading freshly cut hay from the back of his truck for our horses. After I told him, he looked at me quietly for a moment before saying. “Well, at least his knees won’t hurt him anymore.” It was not a flippant remark. My father had a way of finding a positive spin on any situation, no matter how bleak. He was the most pragmatic person I have ever met. It’s a quality that I believe I have inherited. I have certainly tried to emulate it.
I was devastated for days. On the day after Thurman’s death, my mother and sister took me to Friendly’s for lunch in an effort to cheer me up or take my mind off it, or a combination of the two. Although the effort was nice and the lunch was delicious, and there was ice cream, I was still devastated.
That night, I watched the game and saw the extremely emotional tribute to the fallen captain. All these years later, I distinctly remember Luis Tiant, that night’s pitcher, sobbing on the mound. A bat boy had to run up to him with a towel so he could wipe his eyes. I was wiping my own eyes, watching. It was my first significant encounter with mortality. I had lost pets before, which was gut-wrenching. I also lost my grandparents but, I didn’t know them that well and losing elderly people, although very sad, is an expected part of life. The death of a hero, sports or otherwise, can be extremely traumatic especially when that individual is in their prime. When you’re a teenager, it’s even worse. To this day, I still hold a special place in my mind and my heart for Thurman Munson. He was my first favorite player and my hero. I knew that then and I know that now. What I didn’t know then was the reason why he was my hero.
People become our heroes for a variety of reasons. Essentially there is something about them that appeals to us. Whether that person is an athlete, politician, celebrity, or musician; the character traits they have pull us to them. Thurman Munson was tough, scrappy, hardworking, and someone who was extremely reliable. He was also a little gruff and sarcastic. In addition to his tremendous skills as a baseball player, that is what drew me to him.
As I reflect upon it now, 42 years after his death, I realize that those were the very same qualities that were in my father. No, my father was not an All-Star baseball player. He was a carpenter. My father never took me to a baseball game. I’m not saying that as a complaint. He couldn’t, because he was always working. My father was the hardest working man I have ever known. In order for us to have the horses, my father had to cut hay from the neighbors’ properties. He would then either rake it up and bring it home and stack it, or bale it and then store it for the winter. He worked seven days a week in one forum or another. I remember one time when our lawn mower was broken, watching my father bent over, cutting the lawn, which was sizeable, with a hand-held sickle. He didn’t complain; he simply went about his work and in fact was proud of how good it looked. My father worked hard and devoted himself to his family.
I was too young and naïve to realize that it was the characteristics that I saw everyday in my father that drew me to Thurman Munson. Thurman Munson played through pain. He was a leader. Whenever they needed a clutch hit, he delivered it. He took pride in his work and he did whatever it was that the team needed. He was also an extremely devoted family man. He died because he was practicing landings in his airplane. He became a pilot so they could be home more often.
Yes, he was taken far too early. He remains a hero to this day. When they play the tributes to him on the scoreboard, the stadium erupts. There have been other Yankees who have been my favorite player for a time but, none were ever so special to me as Thurman Munson was.
Five years after Thurman Munson died, I lost my father, very unexpectedly. He was riding with me in my car and had a heart attack. He essentially died in my arms on the side of a road. The loss of Innocence that began with Thurman Munson’s death culminated on that day. My heroes were gone and I was forced to grow up. However, the examples that my father and Thurman Munson set live on with me. I embraced the concepts of teamwork, diligence, sacrifice, and love of family. When I was a kid, Thurman Munson was just my favorite ball player, whom I idolized. That was enough. Now, I realize that I idolized him because of the qualities that he shared with my father.
I’m reminded of the line from Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice Starling that we start by coveting what we see every day. Having a hero is the same; we start by admiring what we see every day. It may be our father; it may be our mother; it could be an older sibling, or a teacher. The qualities in that person are what we admire. When we find heroes in the outside world, we may not realize it but, they are often modeled after the people we admire and cherish in our own lives. That was the case for me, which is why every year on August 2nd, I take a moment to reflect not only on my baseball hero, Thurman Munson but also, on my father, William Arthur Kabel I.