Column

Thurman Munson and the American thirst for further maudlin heights of mourning

Allan Fotheringham August 20 1979
Column

Thurman Munson and the American thirst for further maudlin heights of mourning

Allan Fotheringham August 20 1979

Thurman Munson and the American thirst for further maudlin heights of mourning

Column

Allan Fotheringham

I can tell you, as a matter of fact, when it first started. It began, I can tell you with great certitude, on a January day in 1965 when they buried Winston Churchill with proper ceremony and circumstance. I used to live, by the way, about a block away from the Grand Old Man and could glimpse, on special days, the pale, fading face at the window as he made occasional feeble attempts to satisfy gawking tourist cameras. This was in Knightsbridge, just off the south edge of Hyde Park, where the dignified Lady Churchill went for her daily walk and one day had her hip broken when knocked over by the soccer ball of a couple of careless roistering louts . . . but I digress.

The day they buried Sir Winston, with the whole world watching via TV, was a very special day.

The Brits do funerals very well. Since they have so little to do these days, it is one of the things they do 2 superbly well. That may « seem unkind or macabre, £ but it is true. All America £ watched and that is the § day that the United States, in its immaturity and insecurity, became obsessed with the rites of the dead. On each appropriate and inappropriate occasion since, the Americans appear in unconscious envy of the elaborate dignity and calm tradition of the way the British—on very carefully chosen episodes—say good-bye to their dead.

These morbid thoughts rise to the surface because of the death, in recent days, of a baseball player. His name was Thurman Munson, he was the thicklegged catcher (and captain) of the New York Yankees and he died—because he was a good family man who liked to renew himself in his family roots in Canton, Ohio, on any spare day off— when his own small plane crashed and burned. It would be hard to exist on the North American continent in the past 10 days without being aware of the death and funeral and the eulogies pertaining to Thurman Munson.

Now, this has to be done delicately. Thurman Munson, who previously was

not known to the general public but only to more discerning sports fans (he was not a star of the very first rank, but a quite acceptable occupant of the upper reaches of the second rank), was given in death the amount of media coverage reserved in other times for esteemed statesmen and public figures. Not to put the man down, but there has to be a fence of priorities somewhere. Something has got out of control. There’s a galloping sense of exaggeration here that is in danger of bordering on parody.

It goes back, I contend, to the occasion when the entire American public (thanks to the advances of the multicamera approach perfected at major golf tournaments) could witness the elaborate ceremony and national respect displayed at the state funeral for Sir Winston. The English, who have been doing it for a few centuries, are unsurpassed in their capacity for quiet spectacle in such affairs as coronations and burying their carefully selected heroes. They do it magnificently—and then wait a long time before they do it again.

The problem is that the nation that can hardly wait to enshrine roller skates before it has barely finished enshrining skateboards suffers from an equal thirst for sensation when it comes to grief. The Americans, God knows, had more than their fill with history’s most public and well-recorded murder (John Kennedy) and the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. One would think a na-

tion that has endured such genuine tragedy would be more selective in meting out heartfelt compassion and acres of newsprint. To the surprise of a foreigner with supposedly some perspective, the opposite is true. Each occasion, each rock star, each baseball player elevated to deity on his death, demands further maudlin heights of mourning.

We will even leave aside, for the purpose of arguing on this particular scene, the obvious attraction of the cult of the dead—James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, now Montgomery Clift, most recently the Elvis Presley phenomenon that borders on necrophilia. What is pertinent is that it reveals a lack of purpose in life for the most vigorous nation in history to devote so much attention to the demise of an athlete who, for all his merits, was no Ruth, no Gehrig, no Willie Mays or Stan Musial, no Ted Williams, Ty Cobb or Hank Aaron. The accidental death of a back catcher unknown four years ago is hardly the event that should obsess a mature nation.

It demonstrates, among other things, the spurious sentimentality of the sports pages. An action freak (being one who feels sports writing is designed for the description of muscular people doing their thing, just as ballet columns are designed for the description of how dancers perform) finds it difficult these days to discover actual sporting events. What is not devoted to the boring legalese of Alan Eagleson is dedicated to the latter-day soap sisters of pseudodrama. The late (and lamented) Thurman Munson falls into the latter category. If death were not so serious, it would be almost laughable to observe the instant boom to thrust Munson into baseball’s Hall of Fame (an institution that long denied the legendary Hack Wilson, because he was a drunk, and Satchel Paige, because he was black).

Thurman Munson in death, in the dog days of summer, suddenly became the victim of a bored society in search of titillation. There is a sickness when even grief is made a trivial affair.