The Death of Mickey Mantle (August 13, 1995)

Mantle_magcover I don't know why Mickey Mantle's death sticks with me.  Perhaps it was because he hit his 500th home run on my 10th birthday.  Or because he was the embodiment of the classic All-American boy from the nation's heartland.  Whatever the reason, I heard the news of his death on Sunday afternoon shortly after I returned from a vacation in Provincetown.  He was only 63. 


Mantle died from cancer a few months after receiving a liver transplant.  His life was somewhat of an American tragedy.  In his last years he had gone public about his struggles with alcoholism and how it likely diminished what could have been an even more glorious career.  (Not surprisingly, the bases are loaded with books written about MM.  One is Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son; another that was published last October is The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle & the End of America's Childhood.)


Ptown As it turned out, the summer of '95 (made memorable by the Macarena craze sweeping the nation) would be my last time in Provincetown, a wonderful place at the tip of Cape Cod I'd vacationed at on numerous occasions between 1980-95.  The following summer I began spending summer weekends at Fire Island, a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island. (The community I stayed in is the Pines.)


Smiling_mickeyMantle played his entire 18-year career with the Yankees, much of it during the Yankee dynasty of 1949-1964.  He died just as the Yankees were re-emerging as a powerhouse.  One of the main contributors of this era, Derek Jeter, passed Mantle at the end of the 2011 season as the player with the most games played as a Yankee.  FYI, five of Mantle's Hall of Fame counterparts are still with us: Yogi Berra (88 years old); Whitey Ford (84); Ernie Banks (82); Willie Mays (82) and Hank Aaron (79). 

Here is a video clip from the daytime Joan Rivers Show that aired just a year or so before Mickey's death.  In it he candidly discusses his struggle with alcohol. 




Yankee Catcher Thurman Munson Dies in Plane Crash (August 2, 1979)

200px-Munson_2 Roberto.clementeI had been working in New York for just four months and had yet to develop an allegiance to any New York team so perhaps that's why I don't recall what I was doing when I heard of Thurman Munson's death.  However, a number of years earlier I experienced the same shock and utter disbelief as Yankees fans when Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente was killed - also in a plane crash.  I was getting ready to deliver the morning paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at 6AM on Jan. 1, 1973 when I heard the news on the kitchen radio.  What an awful way to begin a new year.  I tried to console myself with the memory of Clemente getting his 3,000th hit in his final at-bat of the 1972 regular season.


To pay proper tribute to Munson I've asked a friend and devoted Yankee fan, Sam Belil, to fill in for me and provide his memories and reflections.  Sam, thanks for your heartfelt tribute.


Thursday, Aug. 2, 1979 - I'll never forget that day, the day we lost our Captain, the heart and soul of the New York Yankees - Thurman Munson.  He was my first baseball hero and is STILL my favorite Yankee of all-time (Jeter is #2).  I remember it as if it were 30 seconds ago and not 30+ years.  I was watching General Hospital on WABC-Channel 7 when a "Special Report" came on and (pardon the pun) a VERY grim looking Roger Grimsby reported that "New York Yankee star catcher Thurman Munson has been killed in the crash of the plane he was piloting".  As I write this I feel the same exact pain in my gut that I felt that afternoon.  For those of us who were alive back then losing Thurman is something we'll probably never get over - a part of my heart was forever broken. (In less than a year's time Yankee fans had gone from the exhilaration of Bucky Dent's game-winning home run in their one-game playoff against the Red Sox to take us to a third straight World Series, to this crushing blow.) 




Not surprisingly, the next few days were emotionally draining.  Before the start of the game on the day following his death (and with home plate left unoccupied), Munson received a 10-minute standing ovation from the Yankee Stadium crowd.  Then on Monday, August 6, the day of Munson's funeral, the Yankees flew to Canton, Ohio for the morning funeral and flew back for that evening's nationally televised game - which MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn wouldn't allow the Yankees to postpone.  Fittingly, the Yankees came from behind to win in the bottom of the 9th on a 2-run walk-off home run by Munson's close friend Bobby Murcer.




As a teenager, besides my girlfriend at the time, Thurman Munson was MY EVERYTHING.  My favorite memories of him come from his extraordinary 1976 post-season - he batted .435 against the Kansas City Royals and .529 against the great Cincinnati Reds, including six consecutive hits.  He was the only Yankee not to be intimidated by the Big Red Machine, the only Yankee whose body language said, "Yes, I belong here and I will make the most of it!"  Whenever I watch highlights of that World Series I always listen to the meeting at the pitcher's mound between the Reds' Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and manager Sparky Anderson as they talked about Munson ... "Man that guy can flat out HIT!"  It still brings tears to my eyes.





Although he played shortstop in high school and college Thurman looked so natural in his catcher's gear.  Statistically speaking he may not have been the greatest Yankee ever, but his leadership, grit, genuine concern for his teammates and clutch hitting make him, to me, the greatest Yankee Captain of all time. (And he holds the distinction of being the only Yankee to win a Rookie of the Year and MVP award.)





When his autobiography was published in 1979 (and I've already bought and read the new biography about him, Munson: Life & Death of a Yankee Captain) what touched me most about Munson was his dedication to his family and the importance he placed on being a good father.  Ironically, it was his desire to be in close contact with his family in Ohio that motivated him to take up piloting.  From Thurman I learned the importance of family and being close to them. I have a 19-year-old son (and just celebrated 21 years of marriage). Coincidentally, his name is Michael, the same as Munson's son.  I cherish every day with him as if it were my last on this planet.  Thurman Munson was my role model in more ways than one.








Saddam Hussein's Evil Sons Meet Their Maker (July 22, 2003)

Saddam_husseins_sonsOn July 22, 2003, five months before the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, his sadistic sons Uday (age 39) and Qusay (37) were mowed down by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.  (A teenage son of Qusay was also killed.)  I heard the news a few days after it happened while vacationing in Iceland.  Graphic photos of their bullet-ridden bodies were widely circulated.  They were truly vile characters whose "removal" was one of the few positive accomplishments of the U.S. invasion.
Our tour group was in the desolate central portion of the country on a gloomy day (pictured, below) when our tour guide, Yense, announced the news over the bus microphone.  This was the first news we heard from the "outside world" since our trip began six days earlier.  I found it interesting that Yense mentioned it since, except for me and my friend Tom and a feisty retired elementary school principal from North Carolina, the rest of our tour group was from Ireland or the UK.   



Tragedy, and Scandal, at Chappaquiddick (July 18, 1969)

Maryjokopechne_tedkennedy As the nation prepared for one of man's greatest triumphs (the Moon landing on July 20) another event was unfolding that would remind us of human frailties that time and again lead to the downfall of great men.  The news of the deadly car accident involving married Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and his young female passenger Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick Island (off Martha's Vineyard) interrupted my family's viewing of the Miss Universe Pageant that Saturday night (back then beauty pageants were a big draw).



Chappaquidick headline

Although the accident occurred late Friday Kennedy waited until after daybreak Saturday to report it.  And despite the fact that I was only 12 at the time even I could sense that there was something amiss about his explanation.  And although it occurred on the eve of the Moon walk it would easily outlive that news cycle.  (Looking back, it was a precursor to the uncensored scandals that are now sadly the norm.)   




28 years later another Kennedy tragedy would occur in the middle of July (July 16, 1999) when John Kennedy, Jr. was killed in the crash of the plane he was piloting off the waters of Martha's Vineyard. (See my post about the deaths of Princess Diana and JFK, Jr.


For the uninitiated the book Chappaquiddick Revealed: What Really Happened goes into detail about the scandal and the implications it would have on Ted Kennedy's political career.  And in April 2018 a movie about the incident opened.  The actor who portrays Kennedy, Jason Clarke, was born, no joke, on July 17, 1969 - the day before the incident.  


The book


Chappaquidick movie
The movie

Remembering TWA Flight 800 & United Flight 232: Two Memorable Mid-July Plane Crashes

News of aviation disasters often produces a visceral reaction since such crashes usually result in a large number of fatalities.  Additionally, since most of us have been on board a plane we can empathize with the doomed passengers.  Two of the nation's most high-profile air disasters occurred in mid-July in 1989 and 1996.


Brian.williams.twaflight800TWA Flight 800 was bound for Paris on the evening of July 17, 1996 when it exploded off the south shore of Long Island shortly after take-off from Kennedy Airport.  Some eyewitnesses reported seeing a streak of light shoot up to the plane, perhaps a missile.  My mother called to tell me the news shortly before I sat down to watch the 11:00 news.  I remember that at one point NBC News anchor Brian Williams resorted to showing the crash location by holding up a paper map since there had been no time to create a whiz-bang graphic.  That summer was the first in which I had a weekend share out in Fire Island Pines and a seat cushion was found washed up on the beach that weekend.  For the rest of the summer whenever any flotsam appeared in the water (the plane came down just 15 miles east of the community) we'd wonder if it was debris from the plane.




Unitedflight232_iowa An air disaster captured on video occurred the afternoon of July 19, 1989 when United Flight 232 bound from Denver to Chicago lost its hydraulic system an hour into the flight and was forced to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa.  Although 111 passengers died there were also 185 survivors.  Besides the high number of survivors what also made this accident stand out was the fact that news crews were waiting for the plane when it crash landed. (For more than an hour it was known the flight was in distress.)  The dramatic footage of the plane breaking apart with pieces of it going up in flames and then somersaulting into a cornfield adjacent to the runway was shown over and over on TV that night.  I didn't see the news coverage until late because I was at a carefree summer networking event, but once I was home I was glued to the TV set as I counted the cash from the evening's event.  It was horrifying, but mesmerizing as well, to watch because it was something rarely captured on video. 





Images On the same day as United 232's crash landing another story out of LA was receiving a lot of coverage as 21-year old actress Rebecca Schaeffer, co-star of the sitcom My Sister Sam, was murdered the day before by a stalker who shot her at point-blank range when she answered the door of her West Hollywood apartment.



John Kennedy Jr. Dies in Plane Crash (July 16, 1999)

People_magazine_johnkennedy_jr It was just past noon on a scorching Saturday afternoon (the temperature back in Manhattan was close to 100°).  I was out on the deck of my summer share at Fire Island putting on sunscreen when a housemate returned from a beach walk and told us the news that the private plane piloted by John Kennedy Jr. was missing.  It had taken off Friday evening from New Jersey and never arrived at its destination in Martha's Vineyard where here and two passengers, John's wife Carolyn and her sister, were to attend the wedding of John's cousin Rory.  Their bodies were recovered on July 21.  John was 38, Carolyn 33; they would have been married three years in September. 



Flight experts speculated that Kennedy, a newly licensed pilot, likely became disoriented by a thick haze that obscured the horizon and was unaware his plane was flying directly into the water.  Ironically, Kennedy's death occurred almost 30 years to the date of his uncle Ted's controversial car accident at Chappaquiddick.




That weekend happened to coincide with the annual Fire Island Dance Festival (a benefit for Dancers Responding to AIDS) and the Kennedy tragedy put somewhat of a damper on the event.  Kennedy's fate was likely on mind of many of the event's attendees, especially since the stage looked out onto Long Island's Great South Bay which served as a sobering reminder of the watery grave of the plane's passengers.




This tragedy brought back to mind the death of Princess Diana two years earlier because I was also out at Fire Island then when I heard that awful news.  












Ethel & Julius Rosenberg Executed (June 19, 1953)




The June 19, 1953 execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were members of the Communist party convicted of passing plans about the A-bomb to the Russians, coincided with a milestone for my parents - the purchase of their first home.  At the time my sister Linda was 2-1/2 years old and my mother was a month away from giving birth to my brother Darrell.  Mom and Dad were understandably anxious to move because they wanted to be settled in by the time my brother arrived. 


The new house on Roosevelt Ave. was in McKees Rocks, seven miles northwest of downtown Pittsburgh  and overlooking the Ohio River.  It was part of a new development, Hanover Heights, that was very near to the small farm where my father grew up.  Ours was one of the first homes completed and after a string of delays our fledgling family moved in on June 30.  My brother was born a few weeks later and I came along four years after him.  And it's where my mother still lives (as of June 2020).




The early 1950s was rife with paranoia about Russia's plans to overtake the U.S.  Thus, the Rosenberg's actions were portrayed as having seriously comprised the nation's security.  Still, as a young mother, Mom felt some uneasiness over their execution since they had two young sons, Michael and Robert (pictured below), who were orphaned.  The execution of their parents in the electric chair took place at Sing-Sing prison in New York State.





The Six-Day War: Israel Vanquishes Its Enemies (June 5-10, 1967)

Flag_of_israel The residents of McKees Rocks, the factory town I grew up in just outside of Pittsburgh, were a mix of Poles, Slovaks, Italians and Germans, and predominately Roman Catholic.  Jews were few and far between.  However, the Six-Day War in the Middle East in June 1967 struck a chord with my family because my teenage sister, Linda, had an Israeli pen pal.  Her name was Meirah; she lived in a village somewhere between Haifa and Tel Aviv and was a soldier in the Israeli army.  When war broke out it put a human face on the conflict for us.   


I was 10 at the time and the idea of female soldiers was a novel concept (as it probably was for most of pre-feminist America).  Linda developed a crush on Israeli general, and war hero, Moshe Dayan (and also took a liking to a Jewish classmate of hers, Sanford, who was valedictorian of her 1968 senior class).  Because of the ties my sister had with Meirah I developed a strong affinity for Israel.  (20 years later I'd have an Israeli boyfriend who drove a tank in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.)


Moshe dayan six day war 


In the eyes of this 10-year old the conflict seemed fairly black and white: Egypt, Syria and Jordan planned to attack Israel which struck first, prevailed and gained new territory - which its enemies then demanded back.  Even a child on the playground would find this demand laughable.


Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem


Also on the minds of my family at this time was the well-being of my Aunt Lillian who had been hospitalized.  Shortly after the war ended she died suddenly on June 13 - the first time I experienced the death of a relative.  On that sweltering day my parents picked me up from school at lunchtime and once home told me the news of her death.  It was a shock since she was set to be released from the hospital the next day.  She was only in her mid-50s at the time of her death. 


Linda and Meirah exchanged 25 letters over a three-year period (thru the end of 1969) and she has all of them as well as souvenirs and small gifts she received.  I've wondered how much she could get on Ebay for the special commemorative edition of the magazine Bamahane, a Hebrew-language weekly of the Israeli Defense Force that Meirah sent her after the war concluded.


(To learn more about this war, the book Six Days of War: June 1967 War & the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, sets the landscape for the conflict and discusses the geo-political implications that still reverberate today.)


Book about six-days war   






Bobby Kennedy Assassinated (June 6, 1968)

Bobbykennedy I'm sure many of us remember times in our lives when we awoke in the morning to learn of some major news event that had happened overnight.  For instance, that's when I first heard of Indira Gandhi's assassination; the death of Roberto Clemente in a plane crash; and about the truck bomb that killed 230 US Marines in Lebanon. 



ImagesCAF6XDBB Robert-Kenneday-Assassination-Harry-Benson-560x374 The first time I recall this happening was the morning of June 5, 1968 when my dad woke me up for school (5th grade) and told me that Senator Bobby Kennedy had been shot.  The shooting occurred minutes after his victory speech at a Los Angeles hotel after he won California's Democratic primary.  The first thing that went through my mind was that this was the second Kennedy in just five years to be shot and it been only two months since the assassination of Martin Luther King. 


RFK_shot_headline Kennedy lingered for a day before dying in the early morning hours of Thursday, June 6 - which happened to be the day of my sister Linda's high school graduation.  Later that day when I arrived home from school I watched some of the news coverage as Kennedy's casket was taken from the plane after it landed in New York.  Since I was 11 at the time the fact that RFK was a youthful 42 years old didn't register with me - after all, he was the age of my parents so it didn't seem young.  Of course, his death cast a pall on the evening's commencement exercises and references to it were inserted into a number of remarks made on the dais. 




Movie_bobby In 2006 the movie Bobby, a fictionalized account of the hours leading up to RFK's assassination, was released.  It had more than a dozen recognizable stars in its cast, including Ashton Kutcher, Laurence Fishburne, Elijah Wood, Demi Moore and William H. Macy.  

The Death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (May 19, 1994)

Youngjackiekennedy Jackie-Onassis-Bob-fb-34876618 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died the night of May 19, 1994 at her Manhattan apartment.  Cause of death was non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which had been made public a few months earlier.  Her death came one month after the death of former president Richard Nixon (who JFK defeated for president in 1960).  She was a great lady who was especially revered in New York because of her love of architectural preservation.  Jackie's death is particularly memorable for me because it coincided with the death of my father.


Dad suffered from a rare degenerative disease of the brain known as progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) for about 10 years - the same condition actor Dudley Moore suffered from.  On Mother's Day on 1994 he was hospitalized for a mild heart attack and two weeks later I visited him and my mother for the weekend.  (Up until this hospital stay my mother had taken care of my father at home.)


I heard the news about Jackie's death (at the age of 64) during the 11:00 news while packing for my trip and I read more about it the next morning in the New York Times while waiting to board my flight to Pittsburgh at Newark Airport.  On the last day of my visit Mom, Dad and I watched some of her funeral from Dad's hospital room.  (It was a sunny and  hot day in New York.)  The next day, May 24, Dad died unexpectedly, two months shy of his 70th birthday.  I returned to Pittsburgh the following day to help my brother, sister and mother with funeral preparations.