Marty Appel is the behind-the-scenes Mr. Yankee. He was the PR guru for the Yankees back in the 1970s, and you’ve seen him in Yankeeographies and anywhere else a Yankee expert is needed.
He was around the team for Thurman Munson’s whole career, and to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Munson’s tragic death, he’s just written a book about the former Yankee catcher, Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain (Doubleday), which will be released on July 7th.
Appel was friends with Munson, and his insights into the grouchy, yet lovable Yankee are far-reaching and detailed, including a minute-by-minute account of The Captain’s fateful last flight.
He interviewed Munson’s siblings and former teammates, and Appel was a first-hand witness to the Munson era.
After his PR days with the Yanks ended, Appel moved on to produce Yankee broadcasts on WPIX, start his own PR firm, write countless books, including co-writing Munson’s autobiography in the late '70s, and was an executive producer of the mini-series The Bronx Is Burning.
I asked Marty Appel a few questions about Munson and his days working for the Yankees.
Jeff Freier: We’ll start with some questions about Thurman Munson. Tell us something about him that would surprise everybody.
Marty Appel: I think people would be surprised to know he was never on the disabled list, not once—at a very physically demanding position, which he played hard.
JF: What are your memories of the first time you met Munson? Was he as gruff and grouchy as an up-and-coming player as he was as an established star?
MA: He had a certain poise for a minor league player. He had come up from Binghamton to play a game in Yankee Stadium, and we all flocked to him because he was our No. 1 draft pick. And you could sense something special there. He “had it.”
JF: What did you learn about him in writing this book that you didn’t know beforehand?
MA: The details of his tough childhood, the loveless home environment [and] the fact that he didn’t want his baseball coach dropping him off at home in case his father was outside.
JF: What were Thurman’s feelings about Reggie Jackson before the Sport article came out? Was he against Jackson’s signing from the beginning?
MA: He urged George Steinbrenner to sign Reggie; he knew power in the No. 4 spot was missing in the lineup. He was an advocate to bring him to the Yankees.
JF: What would he make of today’s sports blogging revolution and today’s modern players, epitomized by Alex Rodriguez, and their emphasis on branding and marketing themselves and posing as opposed to just playing baseball?
MA: He would have hated the blogs, the close examination of his game by fans being posted for all to see. It might have made him appreciate the mainstream media, though, at least a little more. He wouldn’t have been very much into personally marketing himself, but if something came along, he’d take it.
JF: What player on today’s Yankees would he admire the most?
MA: He would have admired his successor as captain, Derek Jeter, for sure. And his successor as catcher, Jorge Posada. He would have liked the way they both play tough and clean, respect the game, [and] study all aspects of it.
JF: How accurate was his portrayal in The Bronx Is Burning?
MA: Erik Jensen did a wonderful job in capturing Munson and made his character come alive again for a whole new generation of fans. He nailed it.
JF: How would you describe what made him special to today’s fans who never saw him play?
MA: The fans knew that what you saw was what he was—a guy who played hard and true, took no prisoners, played with honor and respect, and didn’t really care what the media thought of him. And the fans saw past the media and loved the guy for the kind of baseball he played.
JF: Let’s move on to your career with the Yankees. You were there at the beginning of the George Steinbrenner era. What was it like working for him, and did he ever ask you to bring him a calzone?
MA: I should have brought more calzones! God, those were exciting times. You would go to work in the morning; you had no idea what the day would bring, but you knew you’d be on the back page of the News and Post the next morning. It was constant energy.
JF: Who made a better George Steinbrenner: Oliver Platt or Larry David?
MA: Larry David’s voice was pretty good, but Oliver Platt was the whole package. People thought he must surely be exaggerating, but he wasn’t. He was George. I was there when they filmed one scene where he walked into the clubhouse and yelled at Billy (John Turturro) Martin,“YOU!” And I had a nervous flashback and jumped.
JF: How much of a challenge from a PR standpoint was the Fritz Peterson/Mike Kekich situation [the two Yankee pitchers swapped wives and families in 1973]?
MA: I was 25 and in over my head on wife swapping from a PR standpoint. All I could do was tell callers that the Yankees did not condone wife swapping. Now there was a headline, right?
JF: Did working for the team affect your view of being a lifelong Yankee fan? Was there a player you had to deal with that was extremely difficult or that you even hated? Who was your favorite?
MA: Mickey Mantle was my favorite because he was a hero when I was a kid and now, hey, Mickey Mantle knew my name. How cool was that? I had no difficulties with any player—not a one—although Thurman could test your patience by saying, yes he would do something, and then not show up. But I never expected him to anyway, so it wasn’t an issue. I always had somebody else at the ready.
JF: You were in the eye of the storm during the Bronx Zoo era. How crazy was it from your point of view? Did any of the players confide in you?
MA: Players would confide how they wanted anything to get away from the daily controversy. It took a toll on guys who just wanted to play baseball and stay out of all that stuff. Those weren’t easy days, and it was emphasized by how pleasant the feel-good days of Joe Torre were in the ’90s.
JF: I attended the Ron Blomberg Baseball Camp for a couple of summers as a child. What was he like to deal with?
MA: I’m still in touch with him and did the foreward for his book last year. We’re buddies. And he’s still a kid. I hope he reads Munson, but I’m not sure there are enough photos in there to hold his interest.
JF: What was the most thrilling moment for you while working for the Yankees?
MA: The opening of the new Yankee Stadium in 1976 and the pennant clincher with Chris Chambliss’s big home run at the end of the ‘76 ALCS.
JF: When I was nine years old, I wrote a letter to the Yankees asking for free stuff and was sent a 1974 team picture (which I still have). Was that you who sent it to me?
MA: By 1974, I had people who would do that for me. If it was a 1968 or 1969 photo, it would have been me. And it would have been a nice letter you would have written because it cost extra postage to mail an 8x10 picture!