At 4:30 a.m., on the way to the airport, cabbies have a way of making small talk. So, a few miles outside Detroit, the hacker asked, "Where are you going, buddy?" #
"To Thurman Munson's funeral," the words came out, flat and tired.
Perhaps it was the deserted highway in the middle of the night, or the hypnotic dotted line in the road going on endlessly, but that is when Munson's death first hit with any sense of reality - something about each generation burying its own members, one by one.
The shock of Thurman Munson's death has been hard to grasp. His friends have been trying to deal with it ever since the 32-year-old captain of the world champion New York Yankees crashed while piloting his private plane here last Thursday.
Today the reality was driven home with finality as folk from all over baseball - from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to the entire Yankee team - gathered here in Munson's hometown for the funeral.
On Sunday, a viewing of the casket was held in the Canton Civic Center. More people filed past the bier - 2,500 of them - than Canton had seen in any such show of respect and affection since the death of President William McKinley, a Canton resident, in 1901.
Three eulogies were delivered today at services in the McKinley Room of the Canton Civic Center. Yankee teammates Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer and the Rev. J. Robert Coleman, paster of St. Paul's Catholic church in Canton and the man who married the Munsons 11 years ago, were the speakers.
But the most eloquent words were unspoken: Several hundred people stood outside nearly three hours, simply holding a quiet vigil. Perhaps 300 family members, friends and team-mates attended the private services inside.
With American League President Lee MacPhail, Cleveland Indians President Gabe Paul, Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich, and Canton Mayor Stanley Cmich, and Yankee President George Steinbrenner in attendence Fr. Coleman concluded his remards by saying;
"Lord, we ask You to receive a good hard-working family man into Your kingdom. He loved You in his own way. He respected his wife's religion (Catholicism). He loved his family so very much. He loved to be near You as he flew, he followed Your Advice on giving kindness.
"He captained what must be Your favorite team, after the miracle You had to pull last year, the Yankees."
Although Piniella's voice cracked as he talked, and Murcer broke into tears and could barely finish, the services were - like Munson - full of light humor, tinged with bitterness. The outlook was toughly forward-looking, not maudlin or defeated.
All of Thurman Munson's characteristics were present in his friends' comments: his competitive fire, balanced against his love of family; his public gruffness, contrasted with his private humor.
"Thurman was the best of competitors...unselfish...a winner...rough and tough but fair,"" Piniella said. He spoke from a pulpit surrounded by 206 wreaths, including a three-foot-in-diameter white and blue arrangement, depicting a baseball. It came from the Yankees and had with Munson's number (15) on it.
"We don't know why God took Thurman away from us...but as long as we wear the Yankee uniform he'll never be too far from us," Piniella told listeners, who included former Yankee players Rick Dempsey, Scott McGregor, Bobby Bonds, Paul Blair, Jay Johnstone, Mickey Rivers and Sparky Lyle.
"God give you the strength, Diane," said Piniella to the widow, "to raise your family of three children just the way Thurman would have wanted."
Two of the children attended the service. The youngest, Michael, 4, appeared, dressed in a replica of his father's uniform, but left before the funeral.
It was Murcer, who came up through the minors with Munson and dubbed him "Tugboat" in his early Yankee years, who could not control himself.
"The Yankees will be without a captain now, just as they were after Lou Gehrig's death, until our Thurman Munson arrived," said Murcer haltingly. "Someone, someday will lead this team again - in five years, 10 years, if ever. No greater honor could be bestowed than to be the successor to this man."
While the mood in the Civic Center chapel fluctuated, the atmosphere outside on this gray overcast morning was one of silent but genuine entertainment. If the viewers on Sunday came strictly to pay respects to Munson, those today - dressed casually, some even in cutoff jeans and batting helmets - were not adverse to star gazing.
Only one player caused a stir when the Yankee bus arrived (a half-hour late, delaying the funeral). Naturally, he was Reggie Jackson. He was also the only player to conspicuously wipe his eyes as he left the McKinley Room.
Four telegrams of consolation were read at the service. They were from Muhammad Ali, Jackson, Piniella and Mrs. Lou Gehrig.
Munson's many strengths were praised: his athletic ability, his reputation as a fanatically dedicated family man who loathed every minute away from Canton and whose local work was charity. His flaws were presented, too, even if they sneaked in the back door. Munson's views came from Fr. Coleman's lips.
"Thurman was never one to act like a hot dog," said Fr. Coleman twice.
"The media and Thurman didn't always get along, he added, mentioning broadcaster Jim Bouton specifically. "How many times can you give up precious family time for the sake of a headline that by cheap sensationalism causes the other ballplayers grief?"
No attempt was made today to airbrush Munson's preferences, nor to leave the impression that by going to the big city he had ever outgrown the Middle-American popular taste of Canton.
Organ selections came largely from the works of Neil Diamond. Diamond was cited as Munson's only idol, and Munson's friendship with singer Wayne Newton was mentioned by Fr. Coleman. ""Jonathan Livingston Seagull" was a favorite of Thurman's," noted the priest, alluding to Munson's choice in books.
In his remarks, which had been cleared with the Munson family, Fr. Coleman discussed Roberto Clemente's death in a plane crash, adding, "He went right into the Hall of Fame. Perhaps for Thurman Munson an exception can can be made (also)."
After the service, the casket was carried through a full-dress color guard of police, state troopers and a drill team of teen-age girls such as might be seen in a halftime show at one of the football-loving schools here, such as Lehman, where Munson was a three-sport star.
Majors, league presidents and commissioners fell in line in a procession behind three busloads of big leaguers and their wives. As the procession turned left on Canton's main street to begin its winding path to Sunset Hills Cemetery, crowds lined the streets on both sides - standing quietly in what was becoming a sunny summer afternoon.
Children rode their bicycles obliviously between police, enjoying what was to them the New York Yankee cavalcade, not the bleakest Yankee funeral cortege in decades.
As the last car disappeared, dozens of fans still lingered outside the McKinley Room, not wanting to leave.
"Thurman Munson seemed like a fine man," a white-haired Canton gentleman said, "He knew many people here in town and always seemed to be helping somebody. He gave a lot of people pleasure. I just came to say goodbye." CAPTION: Picture 1, Billy Martin cries at Thurman Munson Funeral...; Picture 2, Reggie Jackson epitomizes grief of teammates. UPI