"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Observations from Cooperstown: Cody, Jerry, Chad, and Thurman

The great Yankee mystery of the month finally came to an end this week. I must confess that I’m as clueless as everyone else as to why Cody Ransom occupied space on the 25-man roster for as long as he did before finally being thrown into the baseball limbo known as being “designated-for-assignment.” Ransom has never hit curve balls, now struggles to hit waist-high fastballs, and has shaky hands on the infield. So what else is there? Even the explanation that the Yankees simply wanted a second utility infielder (to go along with the newly acquired Jerry Hairston, Jr.) fell short of justifying Ransom’s presence on the roster. If the Yankee high command believed that another utility guy was required, Ransom should have given way to rookie Ramiro Pena, currently playing a jack-of-all-trades role at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Pena is a better defender than Ransom, has a touch more speed, and now has the same level of versatility, considering that he’s been learning to play the outfield at Scranton. When a team is involved in a dogfight for a division title, every roster spot counts; it’s about time the Yankees either sent Ransom back to Triple-A or perhaps let him loose to try his wares with one of the weak sisters in the National League…

Speaking of Hairston, the reaction to his acquisition from Cincinnati has drawn a tepid reaction in these parts, but I’m slightly more enthusiastic. At the very least, he’s a major upgrade on Ransom, who had become the 2009 version of Mike Fischlin. Looking deeper, Hairston provides six-position versatility, can steal a base in the pinch, and has a modicum of power. He’s also highly regarded as one of the game’s most intelligent players, which is not so surprising considering his family’s baseball heritage. With grandfather Sam Hairston (a former Negro Leagues catcher and longtime coach and scout) and father Jerry, Sr. (a longtime backup outfielder and accomplished pinch-hitter with the White Sox), Hairston has received a good baseball education. And on a team that doesn’t always play the game smart (see Jorge Posada tagging a baserunner with an empty glove or failing to slide into home plate), that’s a nice attribute to have coming off the bench…

I like the acquisition of Hairston; I love the pickup of right-hander Chad Gaudin from the Padres. Coming at the likely cost of a lower level minor league prospect, Gaudin will take his rightful place in the Yankee rotation as soon as Sergio Mitre has his next bad start (which could come as early as next week). The 26-year-old Gaudin throws a fastball in the mid-nineties, has a killer slider, and has averaged a strikeout per inning despite a subpar season in San Diego. His acquisition makes a lot more sense than last week’s trade proposal from the Mariners: Jarrod Washburn for top center field prospect Austin Jackson. I’d rather have Gaudin at the cost of a borderline prospect than a soft-tossing lefty like Washburn, who gives me too many flashbacks of mid-1980s pickup Steve Trout. And we all know how that mid-season trade worked out for the Yankees…

I’m usually reluctant to do book reviews, since I’m an author and I consider the process a potential conflict of interest. But when a book is good, I won’t hesitate to recommend it. That’s the case with Marty Appel’s Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain, released this summer by Doubleday. An in-depth biography that examines both the ballplayer and the family man, Munson details the late catcher’s excruciating childhood experiences, his often controversial career with the Yankees, and his tragically premature death at the age of 32. Even for an avid fan of Munson such as myself, Appel manages to mine a hefty amount of new material, including some stunning passages about the verbal and physical abuse that Thurman took from his dysfunctional father, Darrell. If only for the early chapters on Munson’s disturbing childhood upbringing, the book is worth the retail price. But there is much more, such as Munson’s positive relationship with managers Ralph Houk and Billy Martin, his boiling resentment over failed contract promises from George Steinbrenner, and remarkable detail about the circumstances that led up to his horrendous death in a 1979 plane crash. If you’re a fan of Munson, Appel’s book is a must-have. If you’re just a fan of the Yankees, the book is a should-have reference on the life and career of one of the most important Yankees of the last 40 years.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


1 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Aug 7, 2009 2:41 pm

Career numbers:

Hairston: .259/.328/.372 (85 OPS+)
Ransom: .233/.321/.401 (87 OPS+)

A major upgrade? I grant that Hairston's the better and more versatile defender and the faster baserunner, and that Ransom's major league stats still suffer from a small sample, but Hairston is a similarly inept hitter with less power. I'm not sure I see a huge difference between the two. To my mind, the upgrade centers around the fact that, with Gardner on the DL, Hairston gives the Yankees a viable defensive replacement in the outfield. Once Gardner returns, however, I'd be just as happy with Cody.

I'm less enthusiastic about Gaudin as well, but I'll elaborate on that in my game preview this evening. I do agree that I'd rather the Yankees make this sort of low-risk pickup than trade a top prospect for something less than a front-end starter.

2 The Mick536   ~  Aug 7, 2009 3:44 pm

I refer you to the review in this weeks SI. I wonder how honest Appel is and whether we can trust what he writes. I will read the book, as I read the original autobio he ghosted, a book I didn't like at all because it had Thurm's fingerprints on it. But my personal recollections seem at odds with the rewritten history.

I am not a Munson fan. He wasn't around long enough and I was a Reggie fan. I agreed with the straw comment. Now Reggie, the Yankee eg0-advisor has recanted, too. He did so originally in the Vescey book, contending there that had Thurm lived, they may have won the pennant in 1979, even though they were 14 games out on the day Thurm died. This despite the fact Thurm may not have caught again and seemed to have lost his power, not to mention his ability to throw the ball.

I felt betrayed when Thurm died, not only because I think he hated New York and would have left the team at the end of 1979, but because he died stupidly, hurting the team and its fans. Think about the way history would have been rewritten had Reggie and Bobby Murcer been in the plane with him. They allegedly turned down a ride and suggested to their friend and teammate that he leave the flying to someone else.

At 32 which I was at the time, he was a contemporary whose death seemed senseless, but it hit so close to home that we all felt mortal and sad. Then he became a hero, almost a deity. For what, I do not know. He was always grousing, ignoring the press, secretely saying he wanted to leave the Yankees because he and George had some agreement that had been breached. Appel even opines he probably would have managed the Tribe if he had lived, not the Yankees. He also says that Thurm would have done roids if it would have given him better stats.

When Thurm came up, the Yankees were nowhere. The Boss has just stolent the team from CBS and the guy from the circus. They had no homegrown players--Roy White, Stan Bahnsen-maybe some others, but I cannot remember. He was named captain by George (who was suspended during the early or mid 70's) over some objections by insiders including Billy. The team needed a leader and a star as they awaited George's reinstatement and the opening of the checkbook. He did not disappoint. Then, the world changed with Messersmith and Hunter.

Thurm's clutch hitting and his management of pitchers cannot be discounted, but does he deserve all the credit for the Yankee successes of 1976-1978? And where was he going to play at the end of 1979 or thereafter? His last three appearance were at first base, like The Mick in his later years. Awkward. Only three homers on August 1. He had played the outfield in 1977, but allegedly didn't like it. Yogi and Ellie toiled there without complaint.

As someone noted, in Thurm's MVP year, Mick the Quick had carried the team until his late season injury and may have won the award if he didn't get hurt and lazy. And what about all those other stars during those years? Those teams had some players, several of whom are in the H of F. Sparky Lyle had a hell of a year in 1977 winning the Cy Young. Guidry went 25-3 in 1978. Gossage relieved in 1978. How about Catfish and Reggie? Chambliss played first. Figgie wasn't so bad either. Nettles became the best 3rd baseman since Clete. They had Randolph and Dent. Roy White played left. Lou was on those teams too.

Thurm had a positive relationship with Billy? The guy was a nut who got fired in the middle of 1978, leaving Bob Lemmon who had his own demons to calm down the Zoo. Do you mean the secret meetings? Were there two sets of rules for white players and black players as Sparky alludes to? How did he get along with Virdon and Lemmon? Why was Houk fired if their relationship was so good? How about manager of the year Virdon who gets fired. I guess I will have to read the book, because I have a lot of questions.

I went to a lot of games during that period (some Shea years) and read and followed them religously, discussing their daily travails with my neighbor Rich Lally. Thurm may have been appreciated, but not by all (I am speaking for myself here and noone else), and not to the exclusion of the many other stars. People seem to have forgotten this after his death, ignoring the great cast the Yankees had on the field during those years.

I am not sure that in the scheme of things he would make the all-Yankee team, either the first, second, or third team. Where do you think he ranks amongst the great Yankee catchers? I mean you got Dickey (whom I didn't see) and Yogi, Ellie (he won an MVP in 1963 with 28 homers), and the incumbent, Mr. Posada (also homegrown).

3 The Hawk   ~  Aug 7, 2009 5:06 pm

Giambi DFA'ed? Well I bet the Yankees are real happy they didn't pick up his option. That was a 5 million well spent.

I was going to say it's sad he got dumped but then I just wrote that bit about getting paid off to the tune of 5 million.

4 FreddySez   ~  Aug 7, 2009 5:22 pm

@ Mick536 - I'm all for replacing hagiography with fact-based analysis, but the facts have to be correct.

"When Thurm came up, the Yankees were nowhere. The Boss [had] just stolen the team from CBS..."

Munson came up in late 1969. Steinbrenner and his group bought the team the winter before the 1973 season.

There's probably a lot of validity in your "what-if he'd lived" letting of air from the Munson legend. But the regard in which people hold his memory is based on the reality that he *did* die too young. Emotion and fact weigh equally.

I consider myself a pretty rational, mature baseball type. But when the subject is Munson, I'll always be an 11-year-old fan arriving home from a trip to Shopwell with his mom and hearing the news from a neighbor kid. If you want to talk that 11-year-old out of a measure of reverence for Munson... keep trying.

5 The Mick536   ~  Aug 7, 2009 6:02 pm

I apologize for the date mix-up. I did this off my head and I should have fact checked. This is why I am not one of the regular Banterers.

But I still think that is why he got the job. He didn't have such a great year, although he knocked in over 100 runs. Some said the Yankees should not have another Captain. They had just returned to the Stadium when he was named. They needed to reestablish credibility. Virdon had been fired during the season, replaced by Billy. The Yankees finished third. Boston and the Reds played a spectacular World Series.

How about some of my other points?

I don't want to talk anyone out of their grief or their childhood memories.

6 Raf   ~  Aug 7, 2009 6:52 pm

I felt betrayed when Thurm died, not only because I think he hated New York and would have left the team at the end of 1979, but because he died stupidly, hurting the team and its fans.

That's certainly an interesting take. I was ony 5 when he died. Over the years, I never really thought he died "stupidly" (tragically, like Lyman Bostock, maybe) but I do wonder if the Yanks granted his wish to be traded to Cleveland if he would still be alive today. Presumably he bought the jet so he could make it home quicker to spend more time with his family.

7 FreddySez   ~  Aug 9, 2009 11:53 am

Hi Mick,

I began by tipping my cap to the points you made, and to the validity of the discussion. Still feel that way. I guess my post boils down to: Is that a discussion we really need to have during the first week of August, in connection with the anniversary? We can be flinty-eyed analysts the rest of the year.

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