In the Yankee clubhouse in 1967, a gaggle of sportswriters was waiting to interview somebody, standing around, cracking wise, or so we thought.
In a pause between our silly remarks, somebody dropped a droll remark, better than any of ours.
Wish I could remember it right now.
We “pressbox wags” looked around for the source of the witticism -- a lanky young man in a pinstriped uniform.
“Who….are….you?” somebody asked.
“The ball boy,” he said.
He was also an African-American, the first to ever work in the clubhouse of the team that had taken forever to bring up Elston Howard in 1955.
But these were not the same starchy old (white) Yankees of the past. The Yankees would suit up seven players of color in 1967 and had a number of free spirits like Joe Pepitone. So the lanky young man fit right into the be-yourself era of Lee MacPhail and Michael Burke.
But who was he? Thad Mumford was a student at Fordham University, from Washington, D.C., and he was funny and self-assured in talking to the knights of the keyboard.
We noticed he was also comfortable with the aging stars Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, and they with him. He did his job; he was….a presence.
* * *
Thad Mumford’s name was scrolled across the In Memoriam portion of the Emmy awards on TV the other night. He was honored as a trailblazing screenwriter for sitcoms in Hollywood – “M*A*S*H” notably, but many others. Thad died at 67 at his family home in Silver Springs, Md. on Sept. 6.
* * *
Thad had gone from dropping lines for free in the clubhouse to getting paid for putting lines out there for Hawkeye and Col. Potter and Hot-Lips Houlihan.
He would show up for Old-Timers Day every year and put on a spare uniform and shag flies and generally be part of the merriment, listening to stories from Joe DiMaggio or Tommy Henrich or Dr. Bobby Brown.
When Mantle and Ford became official Old-Timers, Thad gravitated to their corner of the clubhouse. They loved seeing him.
“Hey, Thad, could you get us a beer?” Mantle asked one time.
Thad was on his way, but Ford interrupted.
“Slick,” he said to Mantle, using the nickname they (and Billy Martin) used among themselves, “Thad writes for “M*A*S*H.”
Mantle was a loyal teammate and friend; he probably blushed deep red and started to apologize.
Meantime, Thad got them a beer, with joy.
* * *
At some point, Thad stopped getting gigs in Hollywood, but he stayed out there. He wrote some articles on blacks in hockey and other issues for Kathleen McElroy, then the deputy sports editor at the NYT.
“Oh, my goodness, I didn’t know, McElroy said in an email yesterday from Austin, where she is the director of the School of Journalism, Moody College School of Journalism, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas.
“Thad and I had grand plans to start a magazine – back when magazines had their heyday,” Kathleen wrote. “We talked about calling it ‘Langston’ – a production focusing on African-American art and culture. Maybe it was just a great three-hour lunch, but dreaming about that magazine with Thad was one of the most invigorating days of my life. Our talks were always like that: frenetic, ideas bouncing from here to there, almost like musicians riffing off each other. Never a competition about who was the most erudite; it was more like ‘You know that song, too? Cool!’ We didn’t follow up, but sometimes the energy spent dreaming is just as worthwhile as the creation itself.”
* * *
Too bad “Langston” never happened.
I know Thad kept up with Whitey for a long time, and I am told he was in touch with Bill White and Willie Randolph, who were nice to him.
He shrugged off the laptop/smartphone age but every six or 12 months, he would call me and chat about the old days. I tried to get him to talk about his family, his life in LA, his work, but he was pretty opaque.
I recently realized he hadn’t called in a while. I read in the obit that his father, a dentist, had passed in August and Thaddeus Quentin Mumford went back East for a visit….and died there. I don’t know anything more, except that I will miss his calls.
* * *
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.