Up close, stars often lose luster
Just over 30 years ago, baseball catcher Thurman Munson made a series of what the National Transportation Safety Board called “startling mistakes’’ and plunged the jet plane he had recently purchased into the ground. Overtired and inexperienced in the new plane, Munson had been practicing takeoffs and landings at the airport near his home in Canton, Ohio, when, according to the NTSB, “four gross errors caused him to undershoot the airport.’’
Though Munson’s two passengers managed to crawl from the burning wreck, Munson died shortly after he crashed. He was 32 and generally regarded as one of the players most responsible for the resurgence of the New York Yankees during the mid-’70s,
In “Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain,’’ Marty Appel, who worked in public relations for the Yankees when their star catcher was active, gives us his second biography of Munson. The first, written when Munson was 29, was, according to Appel, “a pretty traditional baseball biography.’’ This one includes the warts Munson didn’t want in the earlier book. For example, lots of people come from dysfunctional families, but it’s hard to imagine “a pretty traditional baseball biography’’ in which we’d get the story of the deceased player’s estranged father coming to his son’s funeral to address the corpse as follows: “You always thought you were too big for this world. Well, you weren’t. Look who’s still standing, you son of a bitch!’’
This is not to suggest that “Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain’’ is entirely dark. The episode in which Billy Martin catches Munson and Lou Pinella hiding behind the shower curtain in George Steinbrenner’s hotel room is almost worth the price of the book.
Shortly after Munson died, there was a movement among his fans to suspend the five-year waiting period (as had been done when Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash) so that Munson could be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown immediately. The movement failed, and Munson never made it to the hall. Had he done so, Zev Chafets might have included the Yankee catcher in his new book, “Cooperstown Confidential:
“Cooperstown Confidential’’ is full of entertaining stories that eventually reinforce a conclusion most relevant to our current baseball days. Chafets recommends that those responsible for determining who gets into the Hall of Fame should “drop the pretense that baseball greatness is inextricably linked with good character’’ and vote in those players who have demonstrated “simple professional excellence, judged by the standards of the day.’’ Since said “standards’’ over at least the past few decades must take into account the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs, the members of the muscled tribe who have achieved “simple professional excellence’’ would be in, no matter the insincerity of their confessions or quality of their relationships with the men who wrote about their exploits.
If Michelle Wie ever makes it to the LPGA Hall of Fame, it will be no thanks to the misguided attempts of her father to create a Tiger Woods with two “X’’ chromosomes. As a small child, Wie demonstrated a talent so prodigious that Arnold Palmer claimed she would “influence the golf scene as much as Tiger - or more.’’ That was enough for B.J. Wie, who apparently convinced his daughter that she’d be wasting her time and boring herself playing against other girls and women. Dad began agitating for Wie’s inclusion in PGA tournaments. Not surprisingly, she was not successful in that realm, even though she could sometimes outdrive her playing partners.
Following all manner of disappointments and damage that Eric Adelson lumps under the term “unmaking,’’ Michelle Wie is now playing on the LPGA tour. She has set no records, but she has frequently scored pretty well, and in August she was named to the Solheim Cup Team - quite an achievement for a tour rookie whom most of her colleagues had regarded as a delusional prima donna with a deranged daddy.
Adelson ends “The Sure Thing: The Making and Unmaking of Golf Phenom Michelle Wie,’’ with Wie’s contention that she still wants to play against men, because “it’s always been my dream.’’ But she also says that her immediate goal is “to try to be the number one woman golfer in the world,’’ and she contends that she is “finally happy.’’
That’s likely to be a fragile state in a professional world where the dream of winning can evaporate with a bad bounce. Still, you get the sense that Adelson, who first talked to Wie when the golfer was a celebrity at 10, is rooting for her to achieve an adult triumph or two.
Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio’s “Only a Game.’’ His most recent book is also titled “Only a Game.’’