Thurman Munson and the Enchanted Nectarine

by Alan Zweibel
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alan_zweibel.jpg nectarine.jpgIn 1979 I ate a nectarine that I still think about.

It was August.  August 2 to be exact.  My girlfriend and I were getting engaged and a show I’d written material for, “Gilda Live”, was about to begin its run on Broadway.  Life was good.  And was made that much sweeter by a purchase I’d made at a Columbus Avenue grocery on my way to rehearsal.  A nectarine.  China’s contribution to the world of fruit.

And while this writer does not regard himself adequately gifted to describe the glory of that mutant peach with hairless skin, let’s just say that the moment I bit into it I instantly forgave God for all the wars and sufferings he’d previously turned his back on - figuring he was busy making this amazing nectarine while all that other stuff was happening.  This taste of heaven which caused me to wonder if, at the next round of SALT talks, the Soviet Union would think twice about invading Afghanistan if Jimmy Carter were to feed Leonid Brezhnev a nectarine like this one just before their little chat got underway.  That Leonid would, instead, take one bite, immediately drop to the floor in a squatting position, and hold Carter’s hands as they kicked their heels in the jubilant Cossack dance from the wedding scene in “Fiddler on the Roof”.

But the wonders of this nectarine did not stop there, however, as my other senses, apparently envious of the festival the taste buds were attending, shifted into a higher gear and became more receptive to the offerings of the city street’s colors, music and smells that they were previously too self-involved to savor.  



Yes, all that was right with the world was embodied in that single nectarine whose only fault was that it wasn’t the size of a basketball so its majesty could be shared by entire neighborhoods over the course of several weeks.  As it was, I now was in the process of sucking whatever juices still remained in the strands clinging to its pit when I entered the Winter Garden Theater and learned of a tragedy - first from a stagehand, then verified by everyone else.

 

Thurman Munson, the New York Yankees catcher and team captain, had died in a plane crash.  The heart of the lineup as well as the dominant spirit of their clubhouse lost his life while practicing takeoffs and landings in the Cessna he’d bought so he could spend off days with his family in Canton, Ohio.  

A city of fans was instantly bound by shock   Disbelief.  Raw emotions were soon followed by tributes.  The catcher’s position left empty as the Yankees took the field for their next game…The scoreboard photo of Munson, his frizzy hair peeking beneath his cap, towering over a tearful Reggie Jackson in right field ...A young widow with three small children at a televised funeral.  

I’d never met Thurman Munson but mourned the loss.  Selfishly, I was going to miss his presence on the team he personified.  Their first captain since the legendary Lou Gehrig.  Emblazoned on the tail of the doomed Cessna was the same number that was stitched on his jersey, NY15.   A true Yankee to his untimely end.

I didn’t idolize Thurman Munson.  Perhaps because I was now twenty-nine years old and supposedly past the age of regarding ballplayers with the same awe as I did Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax while growing up. Then again, those players were bigger than the game itself; performing with a grace that elevated the acts of hitting and throwing cowhide to an art form.  This was not the case with Thurman Munson whose play was regularly described by adjectives such as scrappy, gruff and combative. Whereas I don’t have a single memory of Willie Mays having a spot of dirt on his uniform, Thurman was the blue collar counterpart who wallowed in his attempts to protect home plate or dive into the stands to catch a foul ball.  His every move gave the appearance of an effort.  Unbridled exertion.  Thurman’s demeanor was abrupt and coarse.  Physically he was stout and hairy and on no planet in any universe would he be considered handsome.  Yet, this was his attraction.  Why he was crudely lovable.  Ralph Kramden with shin guards.  A common laborer who toiled for a paycheck.  Who loved his family.  And his life.  And most probably appreciated a good nectarine.  Devoured it with abandon.  Relished every fleck that didn’t get caught in his droopy moustache.  And slobbered the juices that hadn’t already spilled onto the front of his already soiled shirt.  

Did Thurman Munson like nectarines?  Was it possible that the bulge in this tough guy’s cheek was not a chaw of tobacco but, indeed, a pit?  I had no way of finding out.  I knew none of his teammates and the few sportswriters I was friendly with thought I was kidding when I asked.  So the question was quickly assigned to the same part of my brain where other former curiosities like “Would Jesus have thought Good Friday was an appropriate name for the day he was crucified?” and “Do fat people use more toilet paper?” were filed.

Then, some years later, I met Thurman’s wife, Diana.  A friend of mine took me to a reception the night before Old Timers Day at the stadium.  I got to see some of my childhood heroes, now elderly men in shirts and ties who no longer looked like baseball players but like elderly men in shirts and ties.  Sensitive to both theirs and my need for them to be young again, I found myself picturing these gentlemen as they once looked on baseball cards – a white lie that no one in the room seemed to mind.  When I was introduced to Mrs. Munson, however, more than anything, I wanted to ask if her late husband liked nectarines but I knew my behavior would be a reflection on the person I was a guest of and the collateral damage could have been disastrous if the question was deemed inappropriate or, the more likely scenario, idiotic.

So while I know that it would be a far better ending to this tale if I said that by the end of the evening my curiosity swelled to the brink of eruption; causing me to dash out into the parking lot, catching up to her just as she reached her car, excused myself, asked if Thurman liked nectarines, and her taking a moment to orient herself before a wide smile appeared on her face as she recalled the memory and said, “Why yes, Thurman loved nectarines” –  I can not honestly say that is what happened.  Nor can I say that to this very day whenever I bite into an amazing nectarine, I think about Thurman Munson.  Hell no.  If that kind of sappiness even makes this oftentimes overly sentimental wordsmith cringe with horror, my guess is that Thurman would use it as an excuse to come back from the dead to beat the shit out of me and he would be justified in doing so.  In fact, there’s an excellent chance that I would join him in giving me a sound thrashing.  That being said, I can not remember eating as good a nectarine since that day. 

 

An original Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel collaborated with Billy Crystal on his Tony Award winning play "700 Sundays".  Most recently, Alan's novel, "The Other Shulman" won the 2006 Thurber Prize for American Humor.

 

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