There is a modern term that describes the well-publicized relationship between Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson: Frenemies.
The headline-grabbing antagonism between the two Yankees stars had dissipated long before Munson’s death in the crash of his private plane on Aug. 2, 1979.
Yet history seems to record the two as having a lasting dislike. Each anniversary of Munson’s passing brings Jackson a similar question: Isn’t it too bad the two didn’t reconcile before Munson’s death?
Jackson said there is nothing further from the truth.
“It was a tough situation when he passed,’’ Jackson, 73, a special adviser to the Yankees, said during a phone interview in May. “I think it hit me hard. I don’t know if we ever hated each other. I think that’s too strong a word. I never hated Thurman. I don’t even know if I disliked him. I don’t know that Thurman Munson hated Reggie Jackson. Thurman Munson didn’t hate anybody.’’
Munson became captain in 1976, the Yankees’ first since Lou Gehrig was chosen in 1935 and retired in 1939. The Yankees won the American League pennant in ’76 but were swept by the Reds in the World Series. Jackson, who helped the Oakland A’s win three consecutive World Series from 1972-74, was a free agent and Steinbrenner asked Munson what he thought of him.
“Thurman was the one that actually pushed George Steinbrenner to sign him,’’ said Ray Negron, then a clubhouse attendant and now a special adviser to Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner and president Randy Levine. “Thurman pushed and pushed and pushed.’’
But during his first spring training of 1977, Jackson did stir up some trouble when he was quoted in SPORT magazine saying: “This team, it all flows from me. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad.’’
Fran Healy, a Yankees catcher and broadcaster, said Munson asked him about the story. “I tried to defuse the situation,’’ Healy said by phone, “so what I said to him was that they probably took it out of context. He said, ‘For six [expletive] pages?’ ’’
Jackson now admits, “The things that I said were stupid, didn’t make sense. Certainly, there’s some of the things I get credit for that I didn’t say. ‘I’m the man that stirs the drink and he only stirs it bad?’ I never said that. It doesn’t make sense to say it. I wouldn’t even say it as a side smart-alecky comment, if you will. Just not the way I would talk. Say some things wrong that didn’t make sense, yes.’’
The two said little to each other for most of the ’77 season until Negron, with the approval of Steinbrenner, arranged a sitdown at a restaurant during a road trip. “Thurman essentially said, ‘I really don’t like you but I got to play with you,’ ” Negron said. “Reggie was very, very quiet. Reggie took it in. Reggie accepted it. By the end of the dinner, they shook hands. It was like a miracle went over. Reggie said something to the effect of I know together we can make this happen. And he was sincere. After that, they never had an issue again.’’
The Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series in ’77 and ’78. On Oct. 18, 1977, Jackson hit three home runs on three swings in the clinching Game 6.
“Thurman passed by his locker after the game,’’ Negron said. “And he said, ‘You sure put on a hell of a show tonight, Mr. October.’ And Reggie goes, ‘Mr. October? I think I’m going to keep that name.’ And Thurman said, ‘Don’t say I never gave you anything.’ ’’
Diana Munson, Thurman’s widow, said Jackson invited her son, Michael, to Cooperstown in 1993 when Jackson was inducted into the Hall of Fame. “I think that speaks volumes about him,’’ she said.
Jackson and Diana Munson see each other at least twice a year at Old-Timers’ Day and the Thurman Munson Awards Dinner in Manhattan. “Every time you see Diane, your thoughts go right there and hope she’s doing well and always wonder how she’s feeling,’’ Jackson said.
There was never any doubt about who led the Yankees, Jackson said. “Thurman Munson was the team captain, was the leader. No one was going to supplant Thurman Munson. You just move over and maybe stand alongside of him. You weren’t going to replace him. That wasn’t going to happen.’’