With Bill Madden’s new book on George Steinbrenner topping many of the sports bestsellers lists, it’s an appropriate time to look back on the first year of “The Boss’” reign as the game‘s most recognizable owner. That would be 1973, when the Yankees were in the midst of a 12-year absence from postseason play. Still three years removed from ending their lengthy playoff drought, the Yankees embarked on a new era not fully aware of how life would change under the thumb of “Big George.”
Coming only weeks after he purchased the franchise for less than $10 million, Steinbrenner’s first spring would not pass without major controversy, though it had nothing to do with his ability to rant and rave. The flames were instead fanned by two unconventional left-handers, Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, who decided the time was right to announce that they had swapped wives, children, and family pets. One could not have blamed Steinbrenner for questioning his new investment right then and there, what with 40 per cent of his projected starting rotation daring to do something that much of the civilian population would never even have considered.
The Yankees had other personnel problems, too. Their middle infielders, Horace Clarke and Gene “Stick” Michael, carried lightweight bats that would have made them utility players in today‘s game. The Yankees lacked a quality all-around right fielder, a position that featured the over-the-hill talents of Matty Alou and Johnny Callison. Their first baseman, the 38-year-old Felipe Alou (Matty’s older brother), had not been a premium player since the late sixties, when he played the outfield for the Atlanta Braves. The pitching staff, though featuring top-tier talents like Mel Stottlemyre and Sparky Lyle, lacked the depth of some of the other elite staffs in the American League and could not carry an offense that ranked tenth among 12 teams in runs scored.
Fortunately, Steinbrenner had few worries when he looked to the catching position. The site of Thurman Munson poised behind the plate, as he was seen on his 1973 Topps card, surely must have provided Steinbrenner with some comfort, as it probably did for most Yankee fans. Nearly 40 years later, the Topps card of Munson still brings me some exhilaration; I see Thurman squatting in the twilight of the original Yankee Stadium, bending those rickety knees, and preparing to set his precise target with that soft glove hand. Watching Munson go to work behind the plate, where he combined flexibility, quickness and toughness, became a favorite pastime of those Yankee seasons.
Also evident on the card is that familiar red chest protector that became a Munson trademark. I’ve never found out why Munson used the red protector. Red has never been one of the Yankees’ primary uniform colors. To the best of my memory, no Yankee catcher has worn a red chest protector since then, instead using the traditional navy blue or black protectors. The mystery of the red protector continues.
With all apologies to Bobby Murcer (another favorite of this scribe), Thurman Munson was the best player on the ‘73 Yankees. In many ways it was his breakout season, as he made the vault from good player to All-Star catcher. He hit to the tune of an .849 OPS, which not only led all Yankee regulars but represented the highest figure of his career. Considering his ability to hit, and hit with power (a career high 20 home runs), the Yankees boasted a 1973 rarity: a catcher who could bat third and do it well. Munson’s vast defensive abilities made him that much more valuable, one of the game’s most desired commodities of the early 1970s. Munson did commit 12 errors, mostly on errant throws, but threw out a stunning 48 per cent of opposing base stealers and generally did wonders in handling unproven pitchers like George “Doc” Medich and the pint-sized Fred Beene, who somehow won all six of his decisions and kept his ERA a diminutive 1.68. For his efforts, Munson earned the first of three consecutive Gold Gloves.
All things considered, Munson quickly made himself one of Steinbrenner’s favorite players. Munson’s scrappiness only gained him more favor with The Boss. Steinbrenner must have loved it when Munson challenged rival receiver Carlton Fisk in a game on August 1. With the game tied at 2-2 in the top of the ninth, Gene “Stick” Michael attempted a squeeze bunt but missed the pitch. Munson continued to run home, barreling into Fisk and sparking a nasty teamwide brawl that lasted for about ten minutes. The fight not only pitted the two best American League catchers against one another, but underscored the differences between the two men. On the one hand, you had Fisk, tall, handsome, and naturally athletic; on the other, you had Munson, the owner of perennially sore knees and a bad body that motivated teammates to call him “Tugboat“ and “Squatty Body,” among less than flattering nicknames. For those who preferred rooting for underdogs, Munson represented the obvious choice.
So who won the fight between Munson and Fisk? When asked by reporters, Munson said boldly, “Go ask Fisk who won the fight. He knows.”
At the time, Steinbrenner probably had no idea that Munson, one of his favorite players and the team‘s future captain, would become a temporary enemy just a few years later as part of the daily soap opera known as “The Bronx Zoo.” Steinbrenner upset Munson when he vowed that he would always be the highest paid Yankee after Jim “Catfish“ Hunter, but then shattered the verbal promise by giving more money to free agent superstar Reggie Jackson. As proud as they come, Munson would never completely forgive Steinbrenner’s unwritten betrayal.
In turn, Munson drew the ire of Steinbrenner when he dared to grow a beard in a glaring break with franchise rules. Steinbrenner demanded that Munson shave, but the veteran catcher refused. Finally, Munson relented when The Boss began to exert pressure on manager Billy Martin, whose job status was placed on red alert. Munson and Steinbrenner later filmed a memorable commercial for “Williams’ Lectric Shave” that poked fun at the incident–and the silliness surrounding it.
In spite of their differences, Steinbrenner appreciated Munson and his prominent place in the clubhouse. Like Munson’s teammates, Steinbrenner was devastated by the catcher’s early death. In many ways, Munson’s passing in August of 1979 brought an unofficial end to the first era of Steinbrenner’s ownership, an era highlighted by the two world championship teams of 1977 and ‘78.
It was an era that started in 1973, when a bad-bodied catcher made himself both the premier player and the recognized leader on a team that was learning a new way to do things under the game’s most demanding owner. More than most, Thurman Munson knew how to meet the demands of The Boss.
Bruce Markusen will present a paper on the art and culture of baseball cards at the annual Cooperstown Baseball Symposium on June 3 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.