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Ron Blomberg, Baseball's First DH, Focused On Getting Thurman Munson To Cooperstown

Ron Blomberg's new book is a memoir of his time playing with Thurman Munson
Triumph Books
Ron Blomberg's new book is a memoir of his time playing with Thurman Munson

Yankees great Thurman Munson was one of the best catchers in the game when he died in a stunning plane crash at age 32 in 1979. One of Munson’s closest friends and teammates was Ron Blomberg, from their time in spring training, the clubhouse and their adventures off the field.

Blomberg was the first designated hitter in major league history, and the author of a memoir called “Designated Hebrew.” His new book is called “The Captain & Me: On and Off the Field with Thurman Munson.”

What got you thinking about your time with Thurman Munson? And why did you want to write this book now?

Well, I thought about it about maybe about three, four years ago, I was down to Yankee fantasy camp. And I knew that there has been a lot of books written about Thurman. And they were baseball books. They're really not a book about what type of person he was actually off the field. Everybody knew he was very, very tough. Everybody knew when he got on the field, he never shaved. Always had, you know, ruffled type of uniform, always dirty. But everybody always thought about him as a person that always liked to chop your head off.

But then I was down at Yankee fantasy camp. And I knew from a lot of people, they've written books about them, that they always asked to have Diana to write the foreword of the book. And Diana was down there with Helen Hunter and Kay Mercer. Of course, Helen was Catfish’s wife and Kay Murcer was Bobby Murcer’s wife. I was so close to Diana. So I went up. And I looked at her and  I said to myself, I'm going to ask her because I was that close. And I went up to her, and we're talking and I said, Diana, I want to ask you something, you can always tell me no if you wanted to. And I said, Diana, I'm thinking about writing a book about Thurman. And she said, OK, and I said, I would like for you to do the foreword of the book. And she looked at me, she started crying. And she said, I would love to write the foreword to the book, because I knew that you would tell the real story about my husband, and what type of person he was off the field and what type of human being he was. And one reason why I'm writing it, I want Thurman where he belongs: in the Hall of Fame.

You show a side I found really interesting in the book of both Thurman Munson and in your career where he stuck up for you at some difficult times. And what I learned, it seems like Thurman's persona, in public and with the reporters and even on the field, and how he acted with his friends in the clubhouse were two different things, right?

Oh, absolutely. I would tell you right now that he did not like writers. Only writers that he would get along with were actually the beat writers that follow the Yankees like Dick Young, Phil Pepe, Maury Allen. People like that. But if you are actually a rookie, a writer from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and you know, living and playing in New York, you just don't get covered by one or two, three papers, you get covered by 50, 60 papers. And there was always new writers. I used to come in and they were scared to death of Thurman because he they knew his reputation, and he would bite your head off. He would absolutely destroy you. And I was like three lockers away from Thurman and Bobby Murcer was actually one locker away from Thurman. And we knew after any type of ballgame, even if Thurman had a great ballgame, we knew that there are going to be some yelling and some different types of words that would be said. And I mean, it was a great sight but in the clubhouse Thurman was the captain. Once he got to the ballpark, he was a very aggressive athlete, very competitive athlete. And a guy that did not take any nonsense from anybody. I mean, really anybody.

And so after, you know, once he's off the field after the game is over with, he's a total different type of person. We used to do the Shriners telethon. We used to do the Jerry Lewis telethon. And he would go up to the kids that are sick. And, just hug them, and you know, just love them. And that's the type of person he was with his family. But you on the field. I mean, he was a piranha. He was a tough guy, but I loved him. He was a brother of mine. And he took great care of me. And it's another thing, unfortunately, when I played and I got injured quite a bit, and my last couple of years with the Yankees, basically, I missed two seasons, knees and my shoulder.

And actually, when I used to come into the clubhouse to get a get a therapy, there was a few rumblings that you know, stay away from this guy. This guy is jinxed. Just like little things. But once Thurman heard about that, he actually got into their face and said, Don't you ever say anything about this guy. This guy hurt his shoulder in Milwaukee, hit a home run. And it took actually a year to come back. Then I ran into a wall in spring training. Four days before we were supposed to break camp. I was out for two years, but he stuck up for me. He was my brother. And he was a wonderful guy. He was a great teammate, a great family man. And we did everything on and off the field together.

You say in the book that you had never seen anybody get the ball out of the catcher's mitt and to throw down to second on a steal as fast as Thurman Munson did. Athletically speaking, what made him so much different from his fellow catchers of that era?

Well, you know, people always talked about Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk. And they always said that Johnny Bench was better. And Carlton Fisk was better, but I'm just telling you now. There was no better catcher. No better catcher in that era than Thurman Munson. Thurman Munson, maybe didn’t hit as many home runs as Johnny Bench did. But he wasn't that type of hitter. But he had a better batting average. Drove in more runs, more important runs. He was more important. You know, I mean, he to his pitching staff, he was extremely, extremely dominating with his pitchers. When he used to catch it, maybe didn't have the strongest arm in the world. But he had the quickest release in the game of baseball. And it looked like the ball when the pitcher used to throw didn't even hit his glove. And, you know, he when he threw down to second base, he threw over the top. He threw sidearm. He threw submarine. He was just a natural leader. He was just a natural catcher. And he was the best with his pitching staff.  Plus, he was our team captain. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. And I'm doing everything I possibly can to get him in.

He's at this era now, where he wasn't voted into the Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown on the actual writers ballot over that 15-year period at the time. So now it would take a vote by the Veterans Committee for him to be added to the Hall of Fame. I guess the other side of the argument is that, you know, he didn't play long enough because he died so young. Why do you think he belongs in?

Because what he did for that era, you look at a Bill Mazeroski. You know, Mazeroski had one home run, and then got him in. I mean, it was a great ballplayer, a great stop, you know, great shortstop. But you know, but nobody did with Thurman did. Thurman took a team that was the biggest baseball media in the game of athletics, New York City, took the team, where CBS owned the Yankees, and then George Steinbrenner came in to bring the Yankees back. OK, here's a guy that had 25 guys, 25 guys on that team, different characters. And that's why they called us the Bronx Zoo. But he took these guys and put them in their place. He took these guys and led these guys to greatness. And you know, he had almost 10 years. And but those 10 years, you know, you had Sandy Koufax, I think had four or five great years. But Thurman had X amount of great years also, and what he did for the Yankees and what he did for baseball, and what he did for New York City, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

The reason why he's not and I spoke to a couple of writers, because of his attitude and gis disposition. With a lot of writers, I mean, hey, let's just be honest, you know, it was a club, it was a clique. And, you know, if they didn't like you, you know, you don't get in the Hall of Fame. So what I'm trying to do now, because now there's all new writers, there's all new veterans. And what I'm doing now is trying to show the veterans, the committee, the executives of baseball, what type of guy because they knew of him, but a lot of these new owners, and a lot of these new veterans and writers really actually never saw him play. So what I'm trying to do now is to show what type of person the human interest, the type of person, he was off the field. On the field,  I mean, he was a very aggressive, great ballplayer that led the Yankees to greatness. There's two sides of an athlete: there’s one on the field and one off the field and I'm trying to show what type of wholeness he had as a ballplayer.

If you don't mind my asking, I think many Yankee fans who have gone to Yankee Stadium over the years remember seeing Thurman Munson's locker, which was left as it was when he died, and they've kept it intact all these years. It gets a lump in your throat as a fan. But you spent time, obviously, as a teammate and a friend of Thurman Munson's. When you see that locker, what do you think?

To be honest with you, that's the cleanest I've ever seen his uniform. You know, look at his uniform, and I'm looking at and I said, that's the neatest I've ever seen his locker. That's the cleanest I've ever seen his uniform. And it brings back you know what, every time I see it, it brings back tears. Because I mean, he was such a good friend, because when I signed in 1967 as a number one draft pick, he signed as the number one draft pick in ‘68. And we became very, very close in ‘69. And to that day when he came into the clubhouse, and to put on his uniform, and he came back off the field, he was the dirtiest guy you have ever seen. I've seen him many, many times where he never shaved. I've seen him many, many times where during a ballgame he's the dirtiest. Sometimes he wouldn't ever take a shower. You know, he would go home and take off his uniform, of course, but he would never take a shower. Sometimes I was seeing him come in with the same clothes to the next game to the next day. And you know, looking at that locker, that's the cleanest I've ever seen it and you know, and, you know, but hey, it reminds me of him. It reminds me you know, I love him as a brother. He was a brother to me and he's a guy that really, really did a lot for me in the game of baseball.

You were a Jewish baseball player raised in the South, which is a really unusual background. And you really didn't want to play for anybody other than the Yankees. You thought about other sports if the draft didn't work out that way. Why were you so set on coming to New York?

Oh, it's very, very simple. being Jewish, living down South, growing up with the KKK. And I'm a major minority. To get a chance to go up to New York City where all my people were, you know, going up to New York and doing commercials for the delicatessens up there. And all the Jews out there, there's 8 million Jews up in New York City. That was a no brainer to me. I signed a basketball scholarship in ‘67 to play at UCLA. And I signed a football scholarship to Alabama with Bear Bryant. And if I did not have an opportunity to get drafted No. 1 by the Yankees, I would have probably gone to I want to play something else. That was the only city that I would have, to be honest with you, what I would ever play in New York. The fans were the greatest fans in the world. The people took great care of me up there, even to this day. It's wonderful. I mean, it's the greatest city in the world. Whenever I had the opportunity to do something, what I wanted to do, he and I got to play up in New York, got to put on the Yankee pinstripes and got to play in Yankee Stadium, and got to eat at all the great finest restaurants and shows up on Broadway.

What more could you ask? And the fans up there were just unbelievable. And I think, you know, during the offseason, I think I lit more candles at every bar mitzvah and every wedding. And that was my second job. Because back then we made no money. And that was my second job was to be related to every Jew in New York City. And to this day, I'm still related to 8 million Jews.

You actually write about the stress it put on you to know that you are going to be on a one-year contract. This age of the 10-year deal was many years out when you were playing.

People don't realize back then when we played we had one-year contracts. We didn't have these 3, 4, 5, 6, 10-year contracts you had to perform every single day, you had to perform every single year. I remember in ’73 I hit .329. They gave me a $500 raise. The next year I hit .311. They took my $500 back. And then next year I hit .301, they didn’t even talk about a raise to me. So you know, I mean, it wasn't easy, you know, I mean you had to perform every single year. If you didn't perform, you get sent down to the minor leagues. Realistically, let's be honest, you're never gonna come back. You're never gonna come up to the big leagues.

You had to perform. I loved the era when I played baseball. To me it was great baseball. Nowadays, I watch the game all the time. I'm up in New York, unfortunately for the last a little bit over a year we could not go up to New York, to do a lot of stuff with the Steinbrenners and do a lot of meet and greets up but not watch them on TV. And the game of baseball I has changed so much. It’s analytics now, it's not the game of baseball that I'm used to. They have a runner on second base on extra innings. They think about moving the mound back a foot. It’s all robotics. Now, the you know the players they play two games, and then they take off two days. You know, hey, we had to play. I mean, it's a home run or a strikeout now. It's no first and third. No bunting now. It's no stealss anymore. You can’t slide into second base, you can’t slide at home. The pitchers can't come in. It's a total different game. To be honest with you, it would’ve been very difficult for me to play this type of game. But a lot of fans like it, a lot of fans like to watch the players flip up a bat 25 feet up in the air. See how far the home runs go. Hey, I would just tell people just put the ball on the tee, just hit the ball off the tee and see how for you can hit it. So hey, that'd be easy. But it's a total changed game. But I'm very, very happy, very happy to have played when I did and play in the greatest city in the world and put it on the Yankee pinstripes.

You are forever going to be the answer to a trivia question, which is, who was the first designated hitter? And it’s a fascinating story. It kind of it happened by chance that you ended up being the first DH. What do you make of the evolution of that position almost 50 years on?

I'll tell you right now, I screwed up the game of baseball in ‘73. I am so proud. I'm so happy of it. Because 50% of the people hate it and 50% of the people love it. And let me tell you, in 48 years, the National League and baseball can’t come up with a solution about having the universal DH. This is crazy. They put all these other rules in it took six months to make a decision. Now it's taken 48 years, 48 years. And it looks like they're going to have eventually the DH universally next year. They had it last year. I thought it worked extremely well. The managers loved it. The players loved it. You know, you had Edgar Martinez was the first DH to made the Hall of Fame. It looks like David Ortiz will be the second guy to make a Hall of Fame. It's great for the game of baseball, people love it. And I love it. And they need to have it in and like I told you before I screwed it up. But I'm very, very proud of it. They can never ever take it away from me. And my first book was “Designated Hebrew.” And that did extremely well also, and that selling now too. So I mean, I don't know if they feel bad for me because I had one-year contracts. Or they just feel bad for me. But it's been really fun. It's been fun. It's been a great ride. And I'm very, very happy to be part of baseball forever and ever and ever.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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