“Imagine that you’re sitting at your favorite bar — or, more appropriately, in a booth at your local delicatessen — with Ron as he shares recollections of his and Thurman’s playing days, their adventures, and their friendship…”
- Dan Epstein, co-author, “The Captain and Me”
That quote from the introduction is a great encapsulation of “The Captain and Me,” the new book co-written by Ron Blomberg and Dan Epstein. I’ve read many books co-written by a former player and a writer that unfortunately aren’t that way. Many a writer has taken the opportunity to write a book in their voice, using their words with anecdotes from the player’s experience.
This isn’t that book. “The Captain and Me” is written in Blomberg’s voice, with Blomberg’s words, with Epstein in the background, expertly guiding the story. The result is an enlightening, entertaining read that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Most fans remember Blomberg as the answer to a trivia question. Yankee fans of a certain age remember him on the field from 1969 through 1976. Yet, there’s a small detail that often gets overlooked when Blomberg’s name arises:
Blomberg, as the kids say nowadays, could rake.
He was taken by the Yankees as the first overall pick in the 1967 draft, and despite a series of questionable usage patterns from managers, and a string of serious injuries, here’s what he did from 1971-1975:
Yankees OPS+ leaders ‘71-’75
(among Yankees with a minimum of 1,300 PA)
I’m reminding you of this because there isn’t much self-congratulatory fodder in the pages of “The Captain and Me.” Blomberg has previously written an autobiography and this isn’t it. This book is about Munson and him being characters on a rollercoaster ride in Yankees history, both between the lines and outside them.
To be sure, it’s filled with great anecdotes, the odd circumstances of how Blomberg became the first DH and how having to face Luis Tiant tempered his enthusiasm a bit. The revolving door of roster changes that turned the Yankees from an “afterthought” to World Series champions. His and Thurman’s social life with some folks outside of baseball who, let’s just say Yankees brass was a little leery of. Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich trading wives (literally — along with their houses, kids, cars, and dogs) and the player nicknamed “Bozo” who was called something more colorful behind closed doors. A run-in with George Steinbrenner over some players needing haircuts (spoiler: it didn’t go well for George), as well as being managed by Billy Martin in Billy’s managerial prime and all that came with that.
Most importantly it’s a story of how friends, who were both former first-round draft picks coming up at the same time, dealt with one of them being the constant victim of injuries, while the other turned into the team captain and American League MVP.
I had the opportunity to discuss the book and other various matters with Ron Blomberg recently, and unsurprisingly, he had some interesting things to say.
Blomberg came into baseball in a very dynamic and chaotic era in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The players union was just starting to become a factor in the sport, divisional play was new, the mound had recently been lowered, and the DH was instituted. With the Yankees, ownership switched from the equivalent of a field mouse to a lion, there was major roster upheaval, and the Yankees played in Shea Stadium for two seasons while Yankee Stadium was reconstructed. I asked him, other than the frustration with injuries, what was the biggest off field challenge to deal with?
“We had one-year contracts,” Blomberg answered. “You had to perform every single year. If you don’t perform every single year you have a chance of being Wally Pipp. I got injured and it scared me — I thought about Wally Pipp all the time.”
“And if you don’t perform, you get sent to the minor leagues, and it’s not like today where you get sent to the alternate site for four days then you’re back,” he continued. “If you got sent down there was a good chance you weren’t coming back. If you don’t drive in runs, if you’re going to hit a buck fifty, a buck sixty — you’re gone.”
As someone who was smiling in seemingly every picture and during every game, I noted he clearly enjoyed playing the game. I was curious, however, if there was a different era that he would have liked to play in.
He laughed a little and said, “I was lucky to play in my era. Not a lot of money at the time, but we [his teammates] were all close-knit. I played in front of the best fans in the world, I played in the greatest city in the world, and I got to put on the Yankee pinstripes.”
Since he brought up his salary, it should be noted that he was given a pay cut prior to the 1975 season, despite leading the Yankees with a 148 OPS+ in 1974. The reason for the pay cut? His batting average dropped to .311 in 1974, down from .329 in 1973.
Mostly due to newer player evaluation statistics, we know that Blomberg was a much better player than he is typically given credit for. I was curious if he resented that people forgot about that aspect of his career. Was it frustrating to mostly be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first DH?”
“After you’ve been out of the game for a long time,” he started, “even if you’re a superstar, most people forget who you are. Tony Oliva was one of the best hitters in the game — or Luis Tiant, who should be in the Hall of Fame — people forget about them.”
“Being the first DH, I screwed up the game! That’s how I look at it,” Blomberg said with another laugh. “50 percent of people love it, 50 percent of people hate it. I started something that’s still a big conversation piece. I love it — people have to remember me, always. My career did not live up to my expectations because I got injured, but I’ll be remembered.”
The final matter we discussed was why he decided to write this book. Although he was sure of the answer, he paused for a moment then said:
“There are a lot of books with a lot of stats. I didn’t want to write a book like that. He [Munson] was the best catcher I’ve ever seen, and he had more leadership than any player I’ve ever seen. That’s why I’m pushing for him to be in the Hall of Fame — that’s where he should be. One of the main reasons I wrote this book is for him to get the accolades he should have gotten as a ballplayer.”
He added in conclusion that he still feels like he’s part of the organization that made him feel like family over fifty years ago. He remains close with Yankee ownership, management, former and current players, and still watches regularly. Despite living in Georgia, he still gets to New York for special events occasionally.
On a personal level, I’ll close with this: The question of whether or not Thurman Munson is a Hall of Famer is a discussion too long for the time we have today. Yet I will note, again with the benefit of modern player evaluation, he has the highest “JAWS” score of any catcher not in the Hall who’s been eligible, and higher than five catchers already in Cooperstown. Add that to the fact that he accomplished that over only 11 seasons — some of the catchers in Cooperstown needed much longer to accomplish what Thurman did — and it becomes hard to argue that he’s not a Hall of Famer.
I do know that I learned much about Thurman the person from this book that I didn’t previously know. More importantly, I acquired a deeper appreciation for the value that a player can add to a team through leadership and through baseball intellect that won’t show up on his WAR score. For that, I have Ron Blomberg to thank.
Check out “The Captain and Me.” It’s a fun read and you’ll probably learn a few things too. Plus, Ron Blomberg is on Facebook now — when you’re done reading, you can thank him yourself!