Thurman Munson’s children were 4, 7 and 9 when they lost him.
At the ages of 46, 50 and 52, they remember him in their separate ways and, as a family, with bittersweet joy.
Mike, the youngest, operates a neighborhood pub overlooking Meadowlake Golf Course. Its name is Tugboat’s. The appetizers are creative, and there are amusing little boat-themed decorations.
“Tugboat” was one of Thurman Munson’s nicknames when he captained the New York Yankees teams to World Series in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Tugboat’s is about a mile from the home Diana and Thurman Munson built so their children could go to school in Stark County.
On a Yankees day off in 1979, Thurman was about to head home when his private jet crashed short of a runway at the Akron-Canton airport.
“My dad was an incredible family person who loved his wife and loved his kids,” Mike said recently. “He literally bought a plane just to fly back and see his family.”
Mike’s overview of his father got shaped far beyond what he remembers as a little boy.
“I experience him on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “When I open the pub, his picture’s all over it. A lot of people are curious what he was like. Somebody new will come in and tell me a story.
“In one sense I’m very lucky because I get to hear about my dad almost daily, No. 1 because of who he was.
“Sometimes when you’re having a tough day, remembering him … you get a little sad. There’s no way around that. People keep bringing it up, and it does get tough, at times. But 95% of the time I love hearing the stories.
“People who were close to him say we were everything to him, to the point I’ve heard many times he wanted to be traded to Cleveland.”
Thurman Munson was American League Rookie of the Year in 1970, league MVP in 1976, and a World Series champion in 1977 and ’78. He spent his entire MLB career in New York.
Tugboat’s is ringed by TVs that get worn out showing Cleveland games. One screen off to a side plays the Yankees. Most people know why. New customers tend to find out who the guy watching the Yankees is.
“I really enjoy going to work every day,” Mike said. “I know all the regulars. It’s a fun little neighborhood bar, exactly what I was hoping it would become.
“I still pull for the Yankees like my dad is still part of the team. Of course all my friends are Indians fans.”
Mike has used every resource there is to find game action of his dad. His anecdotal knowledge is a tapestry of a thousand talks, with people who knew Thurman, watched Thurman, played with Thurman, played against him.
Some of the stories make Mike laugh.
He played along when asked to give a serious scouting report.
“Dad was gritty … obviously a little cocky … clutch,” he said. “He had a toughness and a loyalty that would make me want to be his teammate. His teammates say, to a man, there’s no one they would have wanted to follow more.”
Mike and his wife, Michelle, have a daughter, Bella. An interview with Mike coincided with the rededication of Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium, which is in the late stages of a $5 million renovation.
Mike played in the stadium several times. The first time was with GlenOak High School.
“That game was very emotional,” he said. “It was also the coolest thing. I was playing center field. I ran out and touched that No. 15 at the base of the center field fence.”
Thurman Munson’s No. 15 was retired by the Yankees in the days after he died.
“Geeze, he was so young,” Mike Munson said. “I’m 14 years older than he was.
“I do have dreams that he shows up in. That’s always neat. He can visit any time.”
Kelly Munson was born in December of 1971, the year her father made the first of seven straight trips to All-Star games. In the first several years of her life, the family had a house in Norwood, N.J., within 20 miles of Thurman’s workplace.
Yankee Stadium became her playground.
“My mom took us to the stadium frequently,” Kelly recalls. “We would run through the stands with the kids of all the other ballplayers. When you heard Bob Sheppard announce that your dad was up, everybody would pause and watch him bat. Then we’d go back to running and playing.
“I would always get goosebumps when Bob Sheppard announced my dad’s name. After the games we would wait for dad to come out, then we would all join hands as we walked out of the stadium.”
Thurman and Diana Munson agreed they wanted their growing family to go through school back home. The kids’ in-season address changed from New Jersey to Stark County.
“I remember playing in the backyard at our current house in Canton,” Kelly Munson said. “We were playing whiffle ball. I caught a fly ball … the first time I ever caught a fly ball. My father put me up on his shoulders.
“When you lose a parent young, there’s an immediate change to your life and to everything you know. A parent walks out the door and doesn’t come back. You come to understand that the people that you love can not come back one day. It changes your perspective.”
Baseball is one of Kelly’s loves. She keeps her dad with her. She recalls the aroma of his mitt. She regards Diana Munson as a hero in the hard transition to life without Thurman.
“We had a great role model,” she said. “We had a mom who forged ahead. We had expectations on us. We all have a lot of our dad in us as well.
“We understood we had an expectation to be certain kinds of people … to be kind, to be caring. to contribute back into society. We had guiding principles our mother and father gave us, and a lot of support.
“I had a lovely growing up. I had a lot of opportunities. I would have rather had my dad there. You have people who come into your life and offer support in different ways.”
Kelly lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband and three children. She has a long job title — president, Aetna Medicaid at Aetna, a CVS Health Company — and a simple life plan. Move home.
“Dad really, really loved his hometown,” Kelly said. “He really wanted us to grow up in it. Here I am after my travels and my years later, itching to get back.
“I’m actually building a house next to my sister’s property. It’s been an adventure to live away the last 10 years, but you find at the end of the journey that all you really want is be with family. I am 100% coming home because my mom, sister and brother are there.”
Tracy Munson, like Kelly Munson, is the mother of three children. For years, Tracy was reluctant about her kids being too closely identified as Thurman Munson’s grandkids.
“I’m pretty quiet,” said Tracy, who works for the City of North Canton and lives in Plain Township. “I kept it pretty quiet. I wanted to shield them from some things as much as I could.”
Tracy, Kelly and Mike regularly joined Diana Munson at Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Day, where families of former players are made welcome. Eventually Tracy took her kids to Old Timers Days.
“It hit them that Old Timers Day in New York is a pretty big deal,” she said. “When they saw so many people walking around in Munson jerseys, I think it was a surprise to them.”
Tracy’s memories of her father waft to Lucia’s, a Canton steakhouse that was close to the Cook Park ball field where Thurman basically became a catcher. Lucia’s, since relocated to Belden Village, also was next to the Canton Zoo. Yes, there used to be a Canton Zoo.
“Lucia’s was his favorite restaurant,” Tracy said. “He was great friends with Carl, the owner. We would go twice a week and sit in the first booth, in the bar area, where it was kind of quiet.
“Sometimes people would know he was there. He was always good about signing autographs, but he wouldn’t do it during dinner. If someone came over he would say, ‘You know what, I’m eating with my family right now, but if you wait in the lobby I’ll sign whatever you want.’
“And that’s what he did. He would go sign afterward, and we would wait in the car. As a kid, it kind of annoyed me, but when you look back as an adult, I appreciate the way he handled it.
“He was always different at home than he was when we were out in pubic. He was just very silly. He was always singing. He would listen to music on his headphones when he wanted to relax.
“He loved board games. He was cut-throat. In Parcheesi, he would make a roadblock and keep it there the entire time until he got all of his people around.”
The house in Canton (actually, Plain Township) had a pool.
“We would have diving contests,” Kelly said. “He would always judge them.
“When the Yankees played at Cleveland we would always take a big group. It was nice because you knew he was be driving home that night.
“Lots of times he would have some of the players stay at our house. They would swim all night long.”
The siblings appreciate the renovation and rededication of the stadium named after their dad.
“He really loved his hometown,” Kelly Munson said. “What they’re doing is a lovely tribute.”
Mike Munson says, “I think my dad would be blown away.”
Tracy Munson glances at the stadium every time she passes it on a certain stretch of I-77.
“I had a job just south of the stadium for a while,” she said. “I would drive over and eat my lunch in the parking lot.”
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This article originally appeared on The Repository: Thurman Munson’s children remember New York Yankees catcher captain