On a day off for his New York Yankees, Munson an enthusiastic amateur pilot was practicing takeoffs and landings at Akron-Canton Regional Airport near his home in Cleveland. On one of the landings, something went horribly wrong. His new Cessna Citation clipped a tree and fell short of the runway. Munson, trapped inside, died quickly when the jet burst into flames.
The death of the Yankees' inspirational leader and first captain since Lou Gehrig shocked and saddened all of baseball. "I tried to reach out to some of my players," club owner George Steinbrenner recalled 23 years later. It was just awful. It's hard to explain just how devastating it was to the Yankees."
Slugger Reggie Jackson put it this way at the time: "Our season is shot." He was right. The Yankees, who had been pursuing the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East, finished fourth.
Munson's teammates learned the terrible news in different ways. Shortstop Bucky Dent had finished dinner at a Manhattan restaurant and was waiting for his car when an attendant asked, "Boy, isn't it a shame what happened to Thurman?"
After being told, Dent said years later, "I was like, 'Oh, my God,' and I kind of fell up against the car."
Munson's friend Joe Torre was managing the Mets when the news flashed on the scoreboard at Shea Stadium.
"Lee Mazzilli was on deck, and he just looked over at me," Torre said. "I think stunned is the only word I can use to describe the dugout."
We don't expect star athletes in their 20s and 30s to leave us so soon. Many of us connect to them emotionally, and when they depart we feel cheated although by now the economic aspects of pro sports should have conditioned us to losing heroes. But in 1979, at the dawn of free agency, we still expected a player like Thurman Munson to be a Yankee Forever.
He had come up to a then-sorry Yankees team at the end of the 1969 season after being an All-American at Kent State and then playing just 99 games in the minors. Brash and cocky, Munson was a most untypical rookie. Once he told veteran second baseman Willie Randolph, "Relax, I like you."
Said outfielder Bobby Murcer, a close friend: "In those days, rookies kind of walked quietly and did what they were told. Thurman was different. He felt like he belonged the first time he stepped on the field at Yankee Stadium."
And so he did. Munson batted .302 in 1970 and was the American League's Rookie of the Year. Over the next nine seasons, he batted .291 with good power, won three Gold Gloves and was the AL MVP in 1976 when the Yankees won their first pennant in 12 years. From 1975 through 1977, he averaged .309, 16 home runs and 102 RBI.
And if we're looking for a clue to Munson's ability to perform in the clutch, one can be found in his postseason batting average: .357 for 30 games over six series with three homers and 22 RBI.
By 1979, however, the strain of catching was taking its toll on Munson's body, perhaps presaging a switch to first base or designated hitter. In constant pain, he sometimes found it difficult to crouch behind the plate. Yet he remained a superb catcher whose mere presence and tenacity got the best out of his pitchers.
Yankees ace Ron Guidry always insisted Munson deserved half the credit for the left-hander's Cy Young Award season of 1978 (25-3, 1.74 ERA, nine shutouts).
"I went the whole year never shaking him off one time," Guidry once recalled. "He always knew exactly when to say something and when to shut up. I don't remember him ever chewing [teammates out] and pointing fingers [during a slump]. He'd just say, 'We're not playing as a team we're better than this.' "
Munson batted .297 that season, though his homers fell off to six and his RBI to 71, and the Yankees won their third straight pennant and second straight World Series. The following year, he was batting .288 through 97 games when a nine-game road trip ended Aug. 1 with a sweep of the White Sox in Chicago. He received permission from the club to fly home and spend the day off with his family, although his love for piloting always made Steinbrenner nervous.
On Saturday night, July 31, Munson and outfielder Lou Piniella stayed with Murcer, who had a home in Chicago. After Sunday's series finale, Murcer and his family drove Munson to a private airport.
"I will never forget that night," Murcer said. "It was dark, and we went down to the end of the runway, and he took off in this plane. I could not believe how powerful the plane was and Thurman up there all by himself."
Munson landed safely in Ohio, then returned to the airport the next day to practice takeoffs and landings because he had spent less than 40 hours in the air with his new jet. Suddenly, the Cessna plane stalled while landing, scraped some trees and crashed into a cornfield with its wings shorn off. Two other passengers, a friend and a flight instructor, survived and began attempting to drag Munson from the wreckage. He was calling for help when jet fuel leaked and the plane exploded.
Munson's body was so badly burned that he had to be identified by dental records. He had a broken jaw, a broken rib, a bloody nose and a bruised heart among other injuries.
At the request of Munson's widow, Diane, the Yankees played the Orioles the next night as scheduled probably the most emotional occasion at Yankee Stadium since the fatally stricken Gehrig's famed farewell ("I am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth") July 4, 1939. The Yankees lost 1-0, but probably most of the crowd of 51,151 didn't care or even notice.
Before the game, the Yankees stood at attention as a portrait of Munson appeared on the video screen. "It seemed like the tribute lasted forever," Jackson said. "Players had their heads bowed, and they were crying. It was horrible."
Said Randolph: "When you [lose] a leader like that, there's such a void. You keep thinking, 'This can't be happening. We just wanted to get the season over with and go home."
Three days later, on Aug. 6, the Yankees chartered a plane to attend Munson's funeral in Ohio, where Murcer and Piniella delivered eulogies.
"The league told us if we didn't get back for [that night´s] game, we'd have to forfeit it," Steinbrenner said. "I told them to stick it."
The Yankees did return in time and defeated Baltimore 5-4. Murcer drove in four runs and had a game-wining homer. Undoubtedly, Munson would have approved.
To this day, Thurman Munson's locker remains empty in the Yankees' crowded clubhouse a silent tribute to a man whose life and apparent march to the Hall of Fame ended much too early.
Yankees Remember Munson Tragedy
By Hal Bodley,
The New York Yankees were enjoying a day off after a nine-day road trip on Aug. 2, 1979, when the Cessna Citation jet piloted by Thurman Munson plunged to the ground in a fiery crash 1,000 feet short of the runway at Canton-Akron Airport. Saturday's death of St. Louis pitcher Darryl Kile was the first of a major-leaguer during the season since the tragic death of the Yankees' gruff, competitive catcher-captain. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, a Munson teammate, says the Cardinals have a difficult road ahead. "Our season was shot after Thurman died," Jackson said Sunday.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was in his New York office that Aug. 2 when Jack Doyle, an old friend and the airport manager, phoned with the news.
"I was stunned, absolutely stunned," said Steinbrenner, who had tried to convince Munson to give up piloting his plane. "I reached out for some of my players with the news. It was just awful. It's hard to explain how devastating it was for the Yankees."
Steinbrenner says from what he knows Kile, like Munson, was an outstanding person. "I never met him, but he must have been a hell of a individual," he said. "It will be a tough thing for the Cardinals to get over. It will weigh very heavily on the players."
At the request of Munson's widow, Diane, the Yankees played the day after his death. They lost to the Baltimore Orioles 1-0. A Yankee Stadium crowd of 51,151 was on hand for an emotional tribute to Munson, who'd turned 32 two months earlier.
"It seemed like the tribute lasted forever," Jackson said. "Players were standing on the field with their heads bowed, crying and weeping. It was horrible."
The Yankees starters stood at their positions, and the other players stood on the dugout steps. "When his portrait and a message of inspiration appeared on the giant TV screen, there was an outburst of applause," Jackson said.
Willie Randolph, the Yanks' second baseman then and now a coach, says bouncing back won't be easy for the Cardinals. "It was very difficult for us," Randolph said. "We were in shock. We were in disbelief."
Randolph agrees that after winning three consecutive American League pennants and two World Series, the Yankees' hopes were dashed in '79.
"I don't think we ever regrouped," Randolph said. "We were unable to rebound. Two weeks later we were still in a fog. When you have a leader like that, there's such a void. You keep thinking, 'This can't be happening. No way. I just saw the guy yesterday.' We just wanted to get the season over and go home."
Jerry Narron, now the Texas Rangers manager, was a rookie catcher who took over for Munson.
When the Yankees took the field Aug. 3, Narron didn't immediately go behind the plate, standing on the dugout steps during the tribute. "Everybody looked up to him and everybody was close to him," he said. "It was like losing somebody in your family."
The Yankees chartered a plane for the trip to Canton and Munson's funeral Aug. 6.
"The league told us if we didn't get back in time for the game we'd have to forfeit it," Steinbrenner said. "I told them if that happened to stick it. If we hadn't gone, I think it would have hurt the team even more."
Teammates Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer delivered eulogies. Not only did the Yankees make it back to New York for the series finale against the Orioles, but they won 5-4 in dramatic fashion. Murcer drove in four runs and blasted a game-winning homer.
Steinbrenner sat with the late Howard Cosell after the team arrived back in New York.
"He told me, 'Your guys are going to be dumbstruck out there today.' I shot back, saying, 'You don't know the inner strengths of these kids, these players. You wait and see.' Murcer had one of his best games."
Randolph thinks "getting back onto the field that night helped us with our grief, but it wasn't easy and it won't be easy for the Cardinals."
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
August 19, 2003
Smacks of irony
Has this got the potential for a Battle of the Bands on Conan O'Brien or what?
One of the really good bands out of New York is Carlton Fisk.
One of the hot new bands in Boston is Thurman Munson. Here are some introductory notes from their band leader Scott Williamson (honestly, that is his name):
"We've been a band for almost three years ... all original material. A little Beatles, a little Dylan (word wise) a little dance beat and a whole lot of texture. One might pull Phish influences as well, but we're not that quirky. I'm from Maine, everyone else is from Massachusetts. The name came from a long frustrating period of time when we couldn't think of one. We almost became "Describe a Giraffe.
"I've actually painted inside Carlton Fisk's home in New Hampshire. I reside in Canton, Mass. and Thurman Munson lived in Canton, Ohio. None of that has any relevance to our name though. It just came to Paul, our drummer on the T. It was vague enough so we stole it. Our favorite pun; "come catch a Thurman Munson show!"
Carlton Fisk -- the band -- is based in New York, but led by Steve Sykes, who is from Hanover, Mass. Their first disc -- "Smacks of Irony" -- has actually been quite successful.
.The Gruff One
Issue: August 2, 1999
Thurman Munson died 20 years ago, August 2, 1979, while practicing touch-and-go landings at the Canton-Akron (Ohio) airport. He was 32. Munson was one-third of what possibly was the greatest catching threesome to play in the same era--himself, Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk. Bench was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1989, and Fisk likely will get in next year.
There no way to tell what Munson would have done had he been able to finish his career; all we can do is go by what he did in 11 seasons. Essentially, he did more in those 11 years than Fisk managed in more than 20. Fisk was the more dramatic of the two, and is known best for his homer in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Munson didn't have the same flare, but he had a knack for winning.
They both were named American League Rookie of the Year--Munson in 1970 and Fisk in 1972. Munson was the A.L. MVP in 1976, the same season he was named the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939. Fisk was never an MVP. Munson led New York to three World Series appearances, winning two (1977 and '78) and hitting .373 in 67 Series at-bats. Fisk never won a World Series.
When they were in the league together, Munson was named to more A.L. All-Star teams (7-6), won more Gold Gloves (3-1) and was named to The Sporting News postseason A.L. All-Star team more often (4-2).
This isn't to say Fisk doesn't deserve selection to the Hall of Fame, because he does. Someday, Munson deserves his place Cooperstown.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Sporting News Publishing Co.- COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group
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The House That Thurman Munson Built
by Michael Paterniti
September 1999, Volume 132 Issue 3
Trust me, he said, and the last great brawling sports team in America did. Twenty years after Thurman Munson's death, Reggie, Catfish, Goose, Gator, the Boss-and a nation of former boys-still aren't over it.
I give you Thurman Munson in the eighth inning of a meaningless baseball game, in a half-empty stadium in a bad Yankee year during a fourteen-season Yankee drought, and Thurman Munson is running, arms pumping, busting his way from second to third like he's taking Omaha Beach, sliding down in a cloud of luminous, Saharan dust, then up on two feet, clapping his hands, turtling his head once around, spitting diamonds of saliva: Safe.
I give you Thurman Munson getting beaned in the head by a Nolan Ryan fastball and then beaned in the head by a Dick Drago fastball-and then spiked for good measure at home plate by a 250-pound colossus named George Scott, as he's been spiked before, blood spurting everywhere, and the mustachioed catcher they call Squatty Body/Jelly Belly/Bulldog/Pigpen refusing to leave the game, hunching in the runway to the dugout at Yankee Stadium in full battle gear, being stitched up and then hauling himself back on the field again.
I give you Thurman Munson in the hostile cities of America-in Detroit and Oakland, Chicago and Kansas City, Boston and Baltimore-on the radio, on television, in the newspapers, in person, his body scarred and pale, bones broken and healed, arms and legs flickering with bruises that come and go like purple lights under his skin, a man crouched behind home plate or swinging on-deck, jabbering incessantly, playing a game.
I give you a man and a boy, a father and a son, twenty years earlier, on the green expanse of a 1950s Canton, Ohio, lawn, in front of a stone house, playing ball. The father is a long-distance truck driver, disappears for weeks at a time, heading west over the plains, into the desert, to the Pacific Ocean, and then magically reappears with his hardfisted rules, his maniacal demand for perfection, and a photographic memory for the poetry he recites... . No fate, / can circumvent or hinder or control / the firm resolve of a determined soul.
Now the father is slapping grounders at the son and the boy fields the balls. It is the end of the day and sunlight fizzes through the trees like sparklers. As the boy makes each play, the balls come harder. Again and again, until finally it's not a game anymore. Even when a ball takes a bad hop and catches the boy's nose and he's bleeding, the truck driver won't stop. It's already a thing between this father and son. To see who will break first. They go on until dusk, the bat smashing the ball, the ball crashing into the glove, the glove hiding the palm, which is red and raw, until the blood has dried in the boy's nose.
I give you the same bloody-nosed boy, Thurman Munson, in a batting cage now before his rookie year, taking his waggles, and a lithe future Hall of Famer named Roberto Clemente looking on. Clemente squints in the orange sun, analyzing the kid's swing, amazed by his hand speed, by the way he seems to beat each pitch into a line drive. If you ever bat .280 in the big leagues, he says to Thurman Munson by way of a compliment, consider it a bad year.
When the Yankees bring Thurman Munson to New York after only ninety-nine games in the minors-after playing in Binghamton and Syracuse-he just says to anyone who will listen: What took them so long? He's not mouthing off. He means it, is truly perplexed. What took them so goddamn long? Time is short, and the Yankees need a player, a real honest-to-God player who wants to win as much as blood needs oxygen or a wave needs water. It's that elemental.
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A Letter from the Veterans Committee in reference to Thurman Munson and the Hall of Fame.
We are in receipt of your letter. Thank you for taking the time to express
your views to the Baseball Hall of Fame. We will be sure your suggestion is
documented in our Veterans Committee files and taken into consideration.
All players, including Thurman Munson, who played in at least 10 major
league seasons, as well as those from the 19th century, who are not on Major
League Baseballs ineligible list, and who are not being considered by the
Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA, are eligible for election
by the new Veterans Committee - even if they did not receive votes on more
than 5 percent of ballots cast by the BBWAA. Managers, umpires and
executives with 10 or more years in Baseball are also eligible.
According to the Rules of Election, Mr. Munson was eligible for
consideration by the BBWAA for 15 years. During that span of time he
garnered votes, though never more than the 75 percent required for
induction. At this time, Mr. Munson is eligible for consideration by the
Hall of Fame Committee on Baseball Veterans, but not the BBWAA. Remember
only 1 percent of those to have worn a major league uniform -- one in 100 -
have a plaque in Cooperstown.
Please note that, though Mr. Munson is not a member of the Hall of Fame, he
is represented here at the National Baseball Museum. The Museum has in its
collection: a batting helmet from the 1970's, a free standing sculpture of
glass, wood and bronze created by Steve Linn, baseball cards and posters. On
loan, we have a catchers mitt and mask that came from Gene Michael, which he
used during his career with the Yankees.
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He's a Dish Only Behind the Plate
Thurman Munson has a squatty body and a prickly personality, but he is a catcher without peer, a .302 hitter and the best bet to win the MVP award
by Larry Keith
Issue date: September 13, 1976
At 29 years of age and late in his seventh major league baseball season, Thurman Munson of the Yankees is finally learning to relax. He is still no Mr. Congeniality, but he is becoming less the cranky, what-the-hell-do-you-want misanthrope of earlier years. Just the other day Munson signed an autograph, gave a civil answer to a reporter's question and allowed as how he was not the only catcher in organized baseball. The best, he said, but certainly not the only one.
And the truth is, Munson is the best and probably has been for the last two seasons. As if Munson's own mounting accomplishments were not proof enough, it should be pointed out that the Reds' sore shouldered Johnny Bench appears to be in decline, Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox is constantly in disrepair and Cardinal Ted Simmons and Pirate Manny Sanguillen do not have Munson's all-round abilities. It is public acceptance of the notion that Munson is the No.1 big-league catcher and perhaps even the Most Valuable Player in the American Leaguethat has encouraged him to reveal a better side.
By becoming the best at his position, Munson is following a Yankee tradition that began with Bill Dickey and has continued with little interruption for 47 years. Dickey begat Yogi Berra, who begat Elston Howard, who begat Munson. It is the baseball equivalent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, none of whom ever hit .300. Consider, too, this startling statistic: in the 43 years the All-Star Game has been played, a Yankee catcher has been named to the American League team 42 times. None of this has been lost on Munson, who notes that Dickey's birthday occurs just one day before his, that Howard has given him special batting advice and that Berraheaven forbid!has "charisma." (Berra , in turn, notes that the 5'10", 195-pound Munson has a Berra body.)
Munson may soon belong to an even more exclusive club. In the history of the American League, a catcher has been named Most Valuable Player only five times: Mickey Cochrane of Detroit in 1934, Berra in '51, '54, and '55 and Howard in '63. Now Munson has a good chance of winning the award. MVPs are traditionally from championship teams who have good years. Munson qualifies on both counts. At the end of last week, the Yankees had the widest divisional lead (11 1/2 games) in either league, and Munson's .302 average, 87 RBIs, 13 homers, 14 stolen bases and excellent catching have been major factors in building that margin. The only thing that could block Munson's selection is the equality of talent on the American League's two first-place teams. Centerfielder Mickey Rivers (.310, 65 RBIs batting leadoff, 89 runs, and 41 steals) and First Baseman Chris Chambliss (.294 and 87 RBIs) of the Yankees and Third Baseman George Brett (.331 and league leading 178 hits) and Centerfielder Amos Otis (.288, 74 RBIs and 16 homers) of the Royal will contend with Munson for the honor.
Even Fisk gives grudging support to Munson's candidacy. "Yeah, I guess he's the most logical choice," he says. This is a significant endorsement, because Fisk and Munson are not what you would call the friendliest of enemies. Their rivalry began in 1972, when Fisk was Rookie of the Year. "For a while it was like I didn't even exist," Munson recalls bitterly. "He got all the publicity and most of the All-Star votes. I don't hold it against him personally, but he's never been as good a catcher as I am. If we were on the same team, I might even like him, but he'd have to play a different position."
Munson has the credentials to back up his boast: he is well into his fourth season as a .300 hitter, and with only seven errors he could win his fourth consecutive Gold Glove Award. In July he played in his fifth All-Star Gamethough only his second as the starter. These are only the most obvious reasons. Baseball insiders stress his durability, his consistency, his aggressiveness and his intelligence in handling pitchers. When Detroit's Ralph Houk was managing the Yankees six years ago, he called Munson "just about the best young catching prospect I've ever seen." Today Houk considers him "the best in the league, without question. He can steal a base, go from first to third on a single, break up a double play, hit for average and drive in runs. He'll hit behind the runner and hit to all fields. He's a good thrower. And he's a winner, very competitive, the Pete Rose type." As such, he may be the only man alive who can get two hits while still suffering from the after affects of being beaned by Nolan Ryan, which is exactly what Munson did two weeks ago.
Munson has done all of this and more in the Yankees' quest for their first pennant since 1964. His batting average has been over .300 since mid-May, reaching a high of .339 after a phenomenal three-game July stretch during which he had 10 hits and 10 RBIs in 13 trips to the plate. His RBI total puts him among the league leaders and his 13 home runs (including an 11th inning shot that beat Kansas City 1-0 to break a Yankee slump in early August) top the league's catchers. "I played just as well last year," Munson says. "The only reason I'm getting more recognition now is that we're winning."
New York manager Billy Martin agrees. Before the season, he made Munson the first team captain of his managerial careerand the Yankees' first since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939. Munson's response may have been constituted the most candid acceptance speech ever. "I'll be a terrible captain," he said. "I'm too belligerent. I cuss and swear at people. I yell at umpires, and maybe I'm a little too tough at home. I don't sign autograph like I should and I haven't always been very good with writers." So why did Martin appoint this ill-tempered wretch? "Thurman goes all out all the time," Martin says. "He deserved the recognition." Munson would not dispute that. "I should have been named long ago," he says.
Munson's outspokenness makes him a difficult person to know and even more difficult to like. But few of his outbursts should be taken very seriously. "Bleep Abner Doubleday," he said recently, for no apparent reason except that there was no suitable target around.
Naturally, he is understood best and appreciated most by his teammates. Dock Ellis, who has reestablished himself as a pitcher of merit after being banished from Pittsburgh, calls Munson "The Brain." "His knowledge of the hitters helped me get off to a fast start," says Ellis, who has a 14-6 record. "He has me throwing a lot more sinker balls, too. And several times he has talked the manager into keeping me in the game when I knew Martin really wanted to pull me."
Reliever Sparky Lyle says that pitchers like Munson because "he calls the game based on who the batter and pitcher are, not what he might be looking for if he were the hitter." It is a responsibility Munson takes seriously. "Knowing the hitters is what makes a good catcher," he says. "It's not how many runners you throw out or how many balls in the dirt you block."
Among the Yankee pitchers, Catfish Hunter is probably friendliest with Munson. When Hunter was being pursued as a free agent last year by the Yankees, Munson called him at home everyday. "Drove me crazy," Hunter laughs. When the Catfish was finally landed, he quickly grew close with Munson, who became a fishing buddy and apartment mate when Hunter's family returned to North Carolina before the 1975 season ended. Since then they have bought homes near each other in New Jersey. "Thurman's the only player I've ever seen who busts his butt all the time," says Hunter. "Of course, I like to get on him a lot by saying he was the only guy in the league who never hit a home run off me. But he says it's because I was always knocked out before he had a chance to bat. When I played against him, I never knew he was this good a guy."
Well, if not good, certainly better than he used to be. It is no coincidence that Munson started to mellow just when he began to receive increased recognition. Now that people are telling him how good he is (instead of the other way around) he has fewer self doubts and less reason to hide behind a supercharged ego. "I'm changing. I'm more mature. I accept things better," Munson says. "Egotism is a front for insecurity."
Diane Munson, who knew her husband when he was a three-sport star back home in Canton, Ohio, says Thurman has always thought highly of his athletic skills. "But he wasn't always so grouchy," she says. "He'll growl and swear rather than dealing with a situation directly. He even scares me at times. He'll leave the house for a game and kiss all the kids, then when he comes home, he's completely different. Sometimes when we're in public I just cringe at the way he acts."
Diane, who is as friendly and open as Munson can be irritable and withdrawn, has put up with Thurman since she was 10 years old. "I knew I loved him then, and I must admit that I really pursued him," she says. "It helped that I was a tomboy. I would go on his paper route with him and play catch in the yard. It took him a while to discover I was a girl. Sometimes, just to impress his friends, he'd call me a pest. Things finally began to change when we got to high school. He was always playing some kind of sport, and to stay in shape he would run the mile to my house, kiss me and run right back home."
The Munsons were married in September 1968, after Thurman dropped out of Kent State and began his professional career as the Yankees' No. 1 draft choice. Ninety-nine minor league games later, he was New York's regular catcher. "I want to be as good as I can as fast as I can," he said that first seasonand he attained his goal even though it took him a while to get started. He was batting around .240 just before the All-Star break, when Houk called him into his office and said, "Don't worry about your hitting. You can help this club even if you bat only .250." This is a common sentiment in baseball, which is probably why there are so many weak-hitting catchers. But Munson would have none of it. "Dammit," he told his startled manager, "I can hit .300 in this league." Which he did, finishing at .302 and becoming the first catcher ever to win the American League Rookie of the Year award.
The next season, 1971, was different. Munson's average plunged top .251. It was of little solace to him that he tied Howard's Yankee catching record by committing only one error. He was greatly distressed an his confidence, Diane says, was "destroyed. He would stand in front of the mirror at home swinging his bat and wondering what he was doing wrong. He would say, 'Maybe I'm not the player I think I am.'"
Munson has not doubted himself since, increasing in confidence and self-esteem while waitingimpatientlyfor everyone else to give him his due. Any lingering inferiority he might have felt had less to do with his performance on the field than with the image reflected in his mirror. "My build works against me," he once said. "I'm a short, chunky guy, I'm not the athletic hero type. Fisk is tall, lean and more attractive."
In a football locker room, the thick-bodied, mustachioed Munson would look right at home. But baseball players remark how unsuited he seems for their game. "Hey, Bussy," outfielder Lou Pinella yelled as the team rode to a spring training game, "let the walrus off at Sea World." Score one for Pinella, but Munson can give it back double when he wants to. "I like to dig at people," he says. For him it's a test to see how strong they are. If they can take it- or come back with suitable insults of their own- he respects them. "I like strong, independent people," he says. "That's the way I like to think of myself."
That's Munson, all right. A man's man and one of the boys. No phony sophistication. "Strictly meat and potatoes," says his wife. "We're so down to earth, we probably repulse people."
If Munson wanted to, he could cut a more genteel figure. It is ironic, but true, that nasty old Thurman, who looks like a walrus and gets his uniform dirty faster than anybody else on the tam , is one of the wealthiest men in the major leagues. This has little to do with the four year, $720,000 contract he signed before the season began. During the negotiations, he made it clear that he would not mind being traded to Cleveland, where he could keep a closer watch over his extensive real estate holdings in Canton.
The twinkling initials in Munson's pinkie ring are made of diamonds. Add it all up and he's worth over a million dollars. His business career began at the same time as his baseball career. He took his bonus money and bought a piece of property which Diane says, "no one thought was worth a thing." Six months later Munson sold it for a $12,000 profit, and a wheeler-dealer was born.
"I've got silent partners who have given me advice," he says, "but know I know the business well enough that I can make most decisions on my own. You see so many guys who leave baseball with nothing. I never wanted that to happen to me. Security is very important."
Security is the one thing he has plenty of. Plenty of money in the bank, a few base hits and first place in the standings can do that for a man. Which is why, if you look very closely these days, you might see Munson cracking a smile behind that cold steel mask.
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O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto
Phil "The Scooter" Rizzuto was shortstop during 1950's Yankees dynasty, later became "Voice of Yankees" on WPIX local NYC radio and TV stations. His was the fatherliness I never had in the home. This book is broadcast transcripts broken into linebreaks making true American poetry. Example:
...You know, it might,
It might sound corny.
But we have the most beautiful full moon tonight.
And the crowd,
Enjoying whatever is going on right now.
They say it might sound corny,
But to me it's some kind of a,
Like an omen.
Both the moon and Thurman Munson,
Both ascending up into heaven.
I just can't get it out of my mind.
I just saw that full moon,
And it just reminded me of Thurman.
And that's it.
August 6, 1979
Baltimore at New York
Ron Guidry pitching to Lee May
Fifth inning, bases empty, no outs
Orioles lead 1-0
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New York Magazine Cover Story
George Steinbrenner: Damn Yankee
On Thanksgiving day, 1976, I flew to Chicago to meet Reggie Jackson. It was like a raffle. You went if you were interested in Reggie. We made a pact that day. That was the biggest fish Ive landed. So we had Reggie, and we had Thurman Munson. And we had controversy. Boy, did we have controversy! That was the year  when I literally had to separate Reggie and Munson. It was at Dennys restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. I took em to breakfast with me, and I said, You guys are either gonna get together and play together, or youre gonna be sorry you ever came to the Yankees. I went through too fucking much trouble to get you, Reggie.
[In Game Six of the World Series against the Dodgers, when Jackson hit three home runs] I can remember Reggie running around the bases. As he came around second base, he looked up to where I sat. I dont know whether it was to say, There you are, you dumb son of a bitch, or You made the right choice. But I was standing right on the railing -- I just threw my hands up. I never felt so good. Because I had been crucified by the press that year for sticking with Reggie.
Firing [manager] Billy Martin, that was a low point. Because he said some things that I think he regretted saying. It was for his own sake. I mean, the drinking just destroyed the man, and in the end it killed him. But I was still a loyal friend to Billy -- always will be a loyal friend to Billy. To the day he was buried, I was there for him in many ways.
When we found out we had to play Boston [in a one-game playoff that determined which American League team would play in the 1978 World Series], I was really down. Id even called my friend Billy Weinberger at Ballys [Casino] in New Jersey. And I said, Billy, if its a coin flip [to determine the site of the playoff game], what should we call? Are there any figures that tell you which way to go? He says, Well, heads wins a tiny bit more than tails. So we called heads. And we didnt win. The night before the game, Ron Guidry says, What are you all worried about? I said, Oh, youre not, I suppose, huh? Well, weve got to go up there and kick some ass! Guidry says, Relax! Im gonna win this one for you. I never forgot that. And he called it. He pitched a helluva game that day.
Winning two championships made people give me a little more respect. You look back and see how few teams in the modern era are able to win two in a row. We did it. Toronto did it. I dont think that anybody else has done it. But sitting there in October 1978, after winning twice, I wouldnt have guessed it would be another eighteen years until we won the World Series.
Interviewed by Chris Smith -From the April 6, 1998 issue of New York Magazine
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MY LONGSHOT FOR THE HALL
By CHARLES JAY, Editor/Publisher, TotalAction.com
July 26, 1999
In about another week, it will be 20 years since Thurman Munson's private Cessna fell to the ground, killing the Yankee catcher in the midst of a baseball season.
And it's quite clear that the writers who cover the game of baseball and vote for the Hall of Fame have forgotten him a little more with each passing year.
It seems everybody who follows the Hall of Fame passionately has their own hopeless cause - a "pet" person, whom they would like to see inducted but who may never be. Of course, for a while, Orlando Cepeda and Phil Rizzuto filled that role for many people, until they were rescued by the Veterans Committee.
My guy is Thurman Munson.
I'll be the first one to tell you that on the basis of sheer numbers (113 homers and 701 RBI), Munson did not compile sufficient career stats to merit induction into the Hall. Obviously, some of that was a by-product of his premature death, and to younger fans, who are buried in the culture of the rather gaudy batting statistics that permeate the game today, his offensive production may seem meager.
But while election to Cooperstown largely rests on a resume which is defined by home runs, RBI, base hits, and batting average, there should also be room for what baseball is all about - and which is all-important when you're a catcher - and that is winning.
On that measure, Thurman Munson comes up anything BUT short.
There is no question that during his years with the Yankees, Munson was the emotional leader. Even through all the wild spending on free agents by George Steinbrenner, and the addition to the team of people like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, and Bucky Dent, Munson was a constant anchor, and despite the remarks Jackson made upon his arrival, Yankee players knew that it was Munson who was indeed "the straw that stirred the drink".
Thurman Munson played nine full seasons in the major leagues and parts of two others. In his first full season he was named the Rookie of the Year in the American League and hit .302 for the season, back in the days when .300 meant something.
In those nine years he was named to the AL All-Star team six times. He won the Gold Glove three times. He hit .300, no small feat for a catcher, five times. He won the American league's Most Valuable Player award in 1976, one of only eight catchers ever to be so honored, and could have just as easily won it the year before as well. He drove in 100 runs for three straight years, which is something very few catchers have been able to do.
And Munson saved his best for when it really counted - post-season play. Munson hit .339 in three AL Championship Series, and a huge .373 in World Series play, with 25 hits in just 16 World Series games. In his first ALCS, in 1976, he made two errors. He never made another error in the post-season again. Munson broke or tied ten different World Series records in his career. In point of fact, Munson was actually very productive in the time he played.
Was Munson the best catcher in baseball? Well, that's not a fair question, because at the time he was in big leagues, Johnny Bench was around, and Bench may have been the best ever to play the game. But while Munson and Carlton Fisk were both active at the same time in the American League, most people were of the opinion that Munson was the better player. And Fisk will be a Hall of Fame inductee next year.
Munson comes up big on the intangibles. In a fifty-year period, there were only two players who were named captain of the Yankees - Lou Gehrig and Thurman Munson. Not even DiMaggio, Berra, Dickey, or Mantle were accorded that honor. And as Yankee captain, Munson stewarded the team to three American League pennants and two world championships.
When Munson died, there was widespread mourning. The Yankees felt so strongly about attending his Canton, Ohio funeral en masse that George Steinbrenner was fully prepared to forfeit a game against the Baltimore Orioles that evening. Former teammates like Sparky Lyle, Paul Blair, Bobby Bonds, Scott McGregor, Rick Dempsey, Mike Heath, and Cliff Johnson and Doc Medich took the day off from their teams to attend. Joe Torre left his job as manager of the Mets for a day to attend. Umpires Rich Garcia and Bill Haller attended. So did Muhammad Ali. That's RESPECT.
Bobby Murcer, who spoke at the funeral, said "He was #15 on the field and he will be #15 at the doors of Cooperstown." The Yankees retired his number almost immediately. In some of the New York papers they were wondering whether Munson might be accorded the same honor as Roberto Clemente - immediate induction into Cooperstown.
As it turns out, that would have been Munson's best chance. Because after all the sorrow wore off, apparently the writers remembered that Munson was the churlish, moody individual who was easily the least cooperative Yankee. And few writers are going to go out of their way to champion the cause of a player who generally looked upon them with such disdain.
I can't completely blame them, but I'd have hoped they'd come around eventually.
Bill James, a writer I respect, had this to say about Munson's candidacy: "Players in most cases have to be evaluated by what they actually did, not by what they would have done or might have done. I'll make an allowance for certain types of career gaps - military service, players in mid-career before the color line was broken, and perhaps one or two other things. Munson's situation is an injury, an extreme injury, but an injury."
I have two problems with what he said:
1) What Munson was able to accomplish was plenty, despite the shortness of his career.
2) Not making an allowance for premature death is just as insensitive as if you told the player with military service that he should have dodged the draft, or suggested to a black player that he should have had the good sense to be born white.
It doesn't wash. I like to look at things from a more human point of view. And from where I sit, Thurman Munson, a man who had an impact on every team he played on, deserves a plaque on the Cooperstown wall right next to those he out-shined, including the Roger Bresnahans, the Ray Schalks, and the Rick Ferrells. Because he simply belongs in that company; indeed, in better company.
Let's hope that someday the Veterans Committee sees it that way.
COPYRIGHT 2001 TOTAL ACTION INC.
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All Roads Lead to October
Boss Steinbrenner's 25-Year Reign Over the New York Yankees
by Maury Allen
Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street was not modeled after Thurman Munson of the Yankees. He easily could have been.
"He's not moody," relief pitcher Sparky Lyle, a good pal of Munson's, once said of him. "Moody means you're nice some of the time."
"When he gets on a waitress in a restaurant," his biographer Marty Appel (Bob Fishel's successor under George Steinbrenner as Yankees PR director) once said, "Diane spends the rest of the night making up for him."
Diane Munson was an attractive woman, a grade-school sweetheart, a devoted wife, and the mother of their two daughters and a hyperactive four-year-old son.
Munson had joined the Yankees out of Kent State University, scene of a bloody anti-Vietnam War demonstration between students and the Ohio National Guard. He had played outstanding baseball in the Cape Cod League for college students in 1968, been drafted by the Yankees, assigned to Binghamton where he hit .301 in seventy-one games, moved up to the Syracuse club in 1969, and brought up to the Yankees after only ninety-nine professional games.
Bill Clinton was not the only youngster in the late 1960s to dance around his military obligations. Major League baseball teams constantly changed the military status of their players and moved them from one reserve unit out of the area to one in the area with a few quick phone calls and enough tickets left for the officers at the big league will-call windows.
Shortly after he came to the Yankees, Munson's reserve unit was moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey. That meant he could fulfill his military obligations in the reserve and stay out of the Vietnam draft. It also meant he would be available for the Yankees for most of their home games.
Munson was unique when he first walked into the Yankee clubhouse. He had none of the awe most players carried when they first appeared at the Stadium - the House That Ruth Built, and DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, and Mantle had brought so much glory to. He seemed incredibly self-confident, as if great success in the Cape Cod League made for an easy transition to big league baseball. There was an intensity about his manner and a total lack of humor. It was as if the mission he was on, success in baseball, was not for a career but for survival. What manner of goblins were marching through the head of this guy?
Yogi Berra had been an odd-shaped Yankee catcher, destined for the baseball Hall of Fame. Munson immediately attracted that same kind of special notice. He was a husky right-handed hitting catcher with a very strong arm. He was a line drive hitter who could smack baseballs to the deepest part of the field. Unlike most catchers, he ran well and would often surprise the opposition by taking an extra base or stealing a base. Manager Ralph Houk, a backup catcher behind Berra in his playing time, drooled over Munson. He saw him as his monument to Yankee lore, as Casey Stengel had always envisioned Mantle. Houk, careful with praise, puffed hard on his cigars, blew smoke through his managerial office, and bragged about Munson. It was as if Houk had admired him the way he admired the guys he fought with in World War II. Instinctively, Houk knew that Munson, if the cause was just, would take a bullet for him or climb a rocky hill as Army Rangers did.
Munson's physique was odd for a professional athlete. He was not tall, trim, and graceful on the field. He appeared shorter than his full height of five feet eleven inches, heavier than his 195 pounds, and wider than a bread basket. Players are notorious for immediately capturing any physical irregularity and using it against a player for comic relief.
A World War II player named Pete Gray batted .218 for the 1945 St. Louis Browns a year after the team had actually won the 1944 American league pennant. Gray had lost his right arm in a childhood accident. Instead of admiring the grit it took to play ball and actually make the big leagues with one arm, his teammates rode Gray mercilessly about his handicap. They called him every rotten name one could imagine for a man with one arm, sort of the white Jackie Robinson, abused for a condition he could not control. Gray had one characteristic in common with Munson. They were both angry, crusty men.
What allowed Munson to deal with the riding was simply the fact that he soon proved to be an exceptional player, and his teammates publicly admired him for that. "I'd play Adolf Hitler," Billy Martin once said, "if he would help us win." Reggie Jackson was about the only player I could recall who, although an exceptional performer, was still detested by most of his teammates.
Fritz Peterson, my pal, was the quickest with the quips about Munson. He tagged him Tugboat, Squatty Body, and Burly Boy after his large girth. Peterson would scout the stores around the Stadium and on the road for postcards of fat men and women. He would send these cards to Munson at the Stadium where Pete Sheehy, subtle and quiet, would manage to put them on top of Munson's fan mail. Peterson once saw a comic book filled with drawings of a fat character named Humphrey Pennyworth. He cut out several of the pictures, pasted them in Munson's locker, and waited for his reaction. Munson, grown used to this ribbing by now, ignored the pictures. If Peterson couldn't get a rise out of Munson for these fat pictures, why bother?
Munson batted .302 in his first full year of 1970 and was named the American League Rookie of the Year. He hit .301 in 1973, .318 in 1975, and .302 in 1976, when the Yankees won their first pen- nant in twelve years. He was named the American League's Most Valuable Player that year and had already been named captain of the Yankees by Steinbrenner, the first captain the team had had since the death of Lou Gehrig in 1941. Not DiMaggio, not Mantle, not Berra, not any of the heroes of previous teams had earned that honor. He took the honor with a growl. All he seemed to care about was the extra $500 he got for the title from the club.
As grouchy by nature as Munson was through 1976, it only grew worse starting in the spring of 1977. Reggie Jackson showed up, announced that he was "the straw that stirred the drink," and became the self-appointed center of the Yankee universe. It didn't matter that Munson had another terrific season with his third straight year over .300 at .308 and his third straight year with one hundred RBIs. Jackson was the story. Jackson was always the story. Munson would march around the clubhouse with a scowl on his face after a Yankee win, maybe a game in which he had delivered the winning hit, and stare over at the crowd of sportswriters around Jackson.
Munson was bom in Akron, Ohio, on June 7, 1947. His father was a German imrnigrant who had come to the United States as a small child, retaining all the traditional Teutonic stiffness of the German nature. He was incapable of any softness, gentility, or ability to communicate with his son. He worked as a cross-country track driver and was away a good part of the time. His mother was gentle and kind but seemed to retreat into a shell when her husband came home. Munson turned early to sports, was outstanding in every game he played, and soon recognized that baseball was his best game.
The Munson household was always tight with money and that became a motivation for athletic success. Munson later became difficult in salary negotiations with the Yankees, pushing hard for every penny he could get and investing carefully in shopping centers, land deals, and local real estate. Munson and teammate Lou Piniella, a business whiz, often exchanged ideas about how to make their baseball salaries grow dramatically.
Late in 1977 Munson took up flying private planes. He took lessons from friends in Akron and soon purchased his own small private plane. While most ballplayers rent homes in the cities they play in, Munson preferred to keep his family back home in Ohio. He flew home to Akron from New Jersey's small Teterboro Airport, a center for private planes, as often as he could manage. He spent those off days with family, friends, and Ohio business associates.
The flying added to the tension in Munson's life. He was always checking schedules, the weather, and the lateness of games. Extra inning games, unfortunately too common, annoyed him beyond belief. While he continued to play remarkably well for the 1977 and 1978 Yankees, his anger became more obvious.
I had given up trying to talk to him after games by then and had just decided, as was always possible, to write around him. If he won a game with a big hit I might write about the batter before him. If he threw out a key runner attempting to steal a base against him I would write about the great tag at second base. If he had little to do with the winning or losing of the game if was always easy to march to Reggie's locker and listen to his lecture for a while.
He had a run-in with a fan in Minnesota who aggressively pursued him for an autograph. He stomped around the clubhouse shouting curses when sportswriters whom he had ignored now ignored him after he won a game. He even had hot words with Billy Martin, a devotee and supporter, just before Martin resigned in 1978. Munson had been playing his stereo at an ear-splitting level on a Yankee charter flight. The card players couldn't get him to stop. Someone went up to the first class section, told Martin about it, and asked for his help. Martin asked Munson to lower the volume. Munson refused. Martin and Munson lunged at each other in the aisle of the plane but peacemakers Yogi Berra and Elston Howard calmed things down.
On August 1, 1979, the Yankees ended a series in Chicago. Munson had played first base that day because his aching knees were hurting badly. Catchers need more rest than shortstops and center fielders. Munson knew he could no longer catch every day. His Yankee future had to be at first base or as the team's designated hitter with an occasional catching game.
Fritz Peterson, out of baseball by now, was working as a spokesman for the Baseball Chapel, an organization of the game's religious players. Peterson had found a new wife and religion at about the same time. Peterson called Munson in the clubhouse. He wanted a social visit with his old catcher.
"Can't do it," Munson told him. "I'm flying my plane home right after the game."
Munson had purchased a Cessna Citation twin-engine jet about six weeks earlier for $1.5 million. The stubborn catcher had been warned that the plane was too fast and too sophisticated for a pilot of his skills. Munson, inflexible about this as he was about most things, insisted he could handle it.
He had asked Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, recently returned to the team, if they wanted to fly home to Akron with him on the Monday off day. Each refused because of family obligations.
Piniella recalled, "Thurman was concerned about the how the plane was acting. He also heard about showers in the area and wanted to get home before the showers. "
He flew home without incident, arriving at his Akron home at 3:00 A.M. He got four hours sleep, spent some time with his wife and children, visited with his in-laws who lived nearby and were always kindly to him, and went downtown to Lucia's, a popular hangout.
Two friends, trained pilots David Hall, thirty-two, and Jerry Anderson, thirty-one, agreed to go up with him while Munson practiced touch-and-go landings with the Cessna at the Canton-Akron airport. Munson sat in the pilot's seat of his plane, Hall sat in the copilot's seat, and Anderson sat in the single passenger seat.
They took off at 2:45 P.M. on a clear afternoon. The men in the control tower watched the sleek silver plane with the NY 15, Munson's Yankee number, disappear to the left on a clear, cloudless sky. Munson flew the plane over the Ohio countryside for about fifteen minutes, circled back toward the airport, and called the tower for landing clearance. The plane came in slowly to the airport. Investigators later suggested "pilot error," because the plane was moving too slowly as it neared touchdown.
At 3:02 P.M., a thousand feet shy of runway nineteen of the Canton-Akron airport, the plane sliced into some trees, flew past Greensburg Road, crashed into the ground below a rise that led to the runway, and quickly caught fire. Hall efficiently kicked out the right side door and fell to the ground. Anderson, singed on his hands and neck, stumbled out after him. They turned to look for Munson. He was still in the plane. They ran around the burning plane and looked into the cockpit. Munson's head was tilted sideways. He was motionless. From outside of the damaged plane the two friends tugged and pulled at the catcher. He was harnessed into his seat. They tried desperately to release him. They could not. Suddenly, the fuel was ignited and the plane was covered in flames and smoke.
Detective Williams Evans, called to the scene by a witness from a nearby farm house, logged his arrival at 3:07 P.M. He found Anderson thirty yards from the plane, on his back, gasping for breath. Hall was leaning on a tree some forty yards in the other direction, his clothes charred from the flames, his eyes glassy, his mouth open as he sucked in air. Evans raced to the plane, still smoldering in flames, but couldn't get closer than ten feet.
Firemen arrived at the same time as an ambulance. Both survivors were rushed to nearby Timken Mercy Hospital.
Thurman Lee Munson, thirty-two years old, Yankee catcher and captain, was dead.
Investigators later reported that Munson had died of smoke inhalation. According to the medical examiner's report, released by Anthony Cardarelli, sheriff of Summit County, Munson was dead when the second fire burned up the plane.
Neal Callahan of the Chicago district office of the FAA, notified by the control tower of the crash, was responsible for notifying the Yankees after the Munson family was called.
He put in a call from his Chicago office to the Yankees offices in the Bronx and reached the head telephone operator, Doris Walden, who cheerily answered, "World Champion Yankees."
"I have to speak to Mr. Steinbrenner. It's a matter of life and death," Callahan blurted out.
Walden had heard this kind of excuse before from outraged fans hoping to get through to Steinbrenner. But Callahan insisted it was that serious and she decided to put the call through to Steinbrenner's office. A young man named Gerry Murphy, who had served as traveling secretary and was now Steinbrenner's personal assistant, answered the phone. He heard Callahan again insist he had to speak to Steinbrenner on this matter. He did not wish to reveal these tragic facts to anyone other than the Boss. Murphy hesitated. He knew by now most of the people who could get through to Steinbrenner directly -- limousine pal Bill Fugazy; Jimmy Nederlander, the show business producer and longtime pal; a few team owners and acceptable newspaper men.
Steinbrenner might explode at him if this guy was a phony. He gambled and put the call through. Steinbrenner picked up the phone and heard Callahan identify himself as a representative of the FAA in Chicago. He had bad news.
He said there had been a crash outside the Canton-Akron airport. "Your player, Thurman Munson, he's been killed."
"Are you sure?" Steinbrenner asked. He was shocked, tense, and starting to sweat.
Callahan explained the situation. He told Steinbrenner that friends of Munson were on the plane with him but had escaped death. They identified the Yankee catcher. Steinbrenner, careful now, quiet, in complete control, asked if the family knew about the crash.
"By now they do," Callahan said. "We just dispatched the police to their home."
Steinbrenner's first call went to Billy Martin's apartment in New Jersey. He was out fishing that afternoon with his young son, Billy Joe, enjoying the light breezes on a friend's boat. The ship-to-shore phone rang with an urgent message, "Call George Steinbrenner immediately."
Martin responded quickly. He got his friend to take him in to the nearest dock, bought his son an ice cream, and moved to a pay phone in a luncheonette.
"George, this is Billy. I got your message to call." "We have just gotten some terrible news," Steinbrenner said. "Thurman has been killed in a plane crash."
Both men broke down. Steinbrenner later recalled that Billy could not control himself as he sobbed on the phone. Steinbrenner collected himself enough to issue another order. "Call me later," he said.
Now Steinbrenner began calling his players. He reached Bobby Murcer, Munson's closest friend, told him the news, and quickly accepted Murcer's decision to fly to Canton with his wife, Kay, to help Diane Munson and the children as best they could. He contacted Lou Piniella. "I couldn't believe it, I didn't want to believe it," Piniella later said. "The whole thing seemed like a nigsource.htmare to me. I expected to go into the clubhouse the next day and see Thurman and realize the whole thing had just been a terrible dream."
By now the Associated Press had the story and was moving it across the country. Someone from my desk at the New York Post called with the news. My reaction was bland. Munson was only thirty-two but he had caused a lot of unrest in the homes of a lot of sports reporters. We try to judge players as men, not as athletes. Munson was a great athlete. He was a sour man.
I suddenly thought of a line we sometimes used in the privacy of the press box when a well-known personality died. Jack Mann, a Long Island, New York, Newsday sports columnist, was the originator of the line. Mann had been called at home when Ty Cobb -- a mean, crusty, bigoted, angry man, and the most successful batter in baseball history -- died in 1961 at the age of seventy-four. He was asked to write Cobb's obituary for his paper. Mann acknowledged the writing assignment, but explained to the desk the kind of man Cobb had been and that he would not soften the obit now that Cobb was gone.
"The only difference now," said Mann, "is that he's a dead prick."
The line popped into my head when I heard about the death of Munson but I set about my chore of getting reaction from Yankee teammates. Reaching a big league baseball player on an off day is no easy task. Few stay home for a barbecue with the family. Most go fishing, sailing, or hunting with teammates, shopping for new cars or appearing at shopping centers signing autographs for big bucks. Lou Piniella was home with his family.
"George was all choked up when he told me," Piniella said. "He could barely talk. He was very emotional."
Marty Appel, Munson's biographer and the former Yankees public relations man, recalled that day that he had told Steinbrenner of manager Joe McCarthy's 1941 pledge at Lou Gehrig's gravesite that no other Yankee would ever be named captain of the team. Steinbrenner had defied that tradition in naming Munson the captain in 1976. Now the irony of the early death of the Yankee captain had struck again.
The Yankees were scheduled against the Baltimore Orioles the Friday night after Munson's death. At game time the Yankees ran out to their positions. Like the riderless horse with inverse stirrups at a presidential funeral, there was no catcher at home plate. Each player stood still at his position as Munson's face was flashed huge on the electronic scoreboard. The fans began applauding and would not cease their farewell to their hero until more than eight minutes had passed. Not a player moved. The entire Stadium paid unique tribute to Munson and testimony to his tragic death. Backup catcher Jerry Narron walked quietly to his position behind the plate seconds before the game began.
The players would not talk to the press before the game but a few were willing to express their emotions when it was over. Lou Piniella leaned back in his locker, his handsome face etched with pain, his eyes red, his skin ashen. "We had this fishing trip planned, me and Thurman and Donnie Gullett and Charlie Lau and we were all going down to the Florida Keys and catch us some fish as soon as the season was over. Thurman was the closest friend I ever had in baseball. If there are eighty-one days on the road that we are together there must have been eighty-one nights we ate dinner together. We just loved being together, having dinner, talking baseball, drinking a beer, sharing good times. And the fishing trip ... now there won't be any fishing trip ... "
Both Piniella and Bobby Murcer later told me that Munson had asked them to join him for the trip to Canton from Chicago. Each admitted privately that the real reason they begged off with manufactured excuses about family obligations was their concern about Munson's ability to handle the complicated and expensive new Cessna he had recently purchased. This would all come back hauntingly to me on July 17, 1999, when John F. Kennedy, Jr., crashed off Martha's Vineyard while flying a Piper Saratoga after only one hundred hours of flying time. Kennedy could fly visually but not by instruments. It was Munson's arrogance and Kennedy's insouciance regarding flying that cost both young men their lives.
On Monday the Yankees were flown by chartered jet to the Canton-Akron airport, in sight of the crash, for a short bus ride to the Canton Memorial Civic Center. Diane Munson sat in a side waiting room and was greeted and hugged by the wives of most of her husband's Yankee teammates. They pledged their love and support through tear-filled eyes. The two small Munson daughters sat quietly with their grandparents while young Michael, dressed in a cut-down Yankee uniform number 15, scampered in and out of the room looking at his father's friends.
Lou Piniella read from the Scriptures and then said, "We don't know why God took Thurman, but as long as we wear a Yankee uniform Thurman won't be far from us. As a baseball player he was one of the best competitors. He played rough but fair. He was also a kind, affectionate, friendly man." His voice choked and he walked off the platform.
Bobby Murcer delivered the main eulogy and said, "He lived, he led, he loved. Whatever he was to each of us, catcher, captain, competitor, husband, father, friend, he should be remembered as a man who valued and followed the basic principles of life ...
"As Lou Gehrig led the Yankees as the captain of the thirties, our Thurman Munson captained the Yankees of the seventies. Someone, someday, shall earn that right to lead this team again, for that is how Thurn -- Tugboat, as I called him -- would want it. No greater honor could be bestowed on one man than to be the successor to this man, Thurman Munson, who wore the pinstripes with number 15. Number 15 on the field, number fifteen for the records, number fifteen for the halls of Cooperstown.
"But in living, loving, and legend, history will record Thurman as number one."
Clubhouse man Pete Sheehy locked the clubhouse tight that night, worried more than ever about theft.
Sheehy, on orders from Steinbrenner, had cleaned out Munson's locker. He left only a pinstriped shirt slung over a hanger, the NY facing out, a pair of pinstriped baseball pants hanging loosely on a hook, a Yankee cap on the top shelf, and across from the shirt, his catcher's mask on another hook. Atop the locker was a metal plate bearing simply the number 15.
There it remains, twenty years later, as a new generation of Yankee heroes, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, David Cone, and Scott Brosius walk past the locker through the clubhouse to the trainer's room for treatment and privacy from the press.
Munson's figure still draws huge applause when it appears on the Yankee Stadium electronic scoreboard, and his name is always mentioned on Old Timer's Day. Steinbrenner gave Thurman's son, Michael, a chance at a baseball career by signing the youngster, never considered a pro prospect, and he donates heavily to a dinner in Manhattan in Thurman's honor each winter to benefit ailing children.
The Baseball Hall of Fame ballots for Munson decreased each year after his death, and his chances for enshrinement in the game's Valhalla seem remote.
He hit .292 in eleven big-league seasons, was a fine catcher, had a strong arm, could run exceptionally well, and was a very aggressive player. His legs were tiring in 1979 and his production was in serious decline. No matter how insulted he was by Sparky Anderson's remarks after the 1976 World Series, Anderson was right. Thurman Munson was no Johnny Bench.
I am among the more than 570 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who cast ballots in the annual Hall of Fame vote. I have never voted for Thurman Munson. Gotcha.
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The registration on Thurmans Cessna Citation 501 was N15NY
The catcher who caught the game following the death of Thurman Munson was Jerry Narron.
It was August 6, 1979 when the Yankees attended the funeral of Thurman Munson in Ohio. The eulogy was delivered by Bobby Murcer, who later that night drove in 5 runs for a come-from-behind 5-4 victory against the Orioles.
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Quotes and What they Say
Reds manager Sparky Anderson complimented Munson and said, Please dont embarrass any catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench. - After losing the '76 World Series to the Reds
This guy is as good as Ive ever seen. - Detroit manager Buddy Bell
"Thurman Munson from All Roads Lead to October" - Maury Allen
Looking back, "I was glad we eventually got along." - Reggie Jackson about his relationship with Thurman Munson
Lou Piniella read from the Scriptures and then said, "We don't know why God took Thurman, but as long as we wear a Yankee uniform Thurman won't be far from us"
"I'm not a controversial person. I don't go popping off to the press, I don't look for publicity, and I don't create trouble. I'm the guy Steinbrenner would turn to when he neededan intermediary to settle a dispute with a player". - Thurman Munson
"Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad." - Reggie Jackson
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Munson on ballot, but career too short for Hall of Fame
By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal staff writer
There is an untouched locker for him in Yankee Stadium, a plaque with his name in historic Monument Park there, too.
Fans still come to games wearing the retired, pinstriped jersey No. 15, years after the Aug. 2, 1979, plane crash at Akron-Canton Airport that ended his life at just 32 years old.
No, Thurman Munson hasn't been forgotten -- and although a Baseball Hall of Fame committee has some members who wonder if Cooperstown should remember him, too, it appears when their election results are announced Wednesday, he will be passed over for enshrinement in 2003.
Other top catchers of the same era -- Carlton Fisk of Boston and Johnny Bench of Cincinnati -- are both in the Hall. Bench and Fisk played out their careers until their bodies told them to stop. Longevity became a principal reason why they were enshrined. But Munson's career was prematurely halted, leaving his name stranded on a neatly typed ballot year after year -- never garnering enough of a vote to add one more honor to his resume.
``I knew Thurman well, but to be honest, I didn't vote for him,'' said longtime New York-area sportswriter Jack Lang, who said he voted for just three of the eligible 26 players -- Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva and Joe Gordon.
``(Munson) certainly was a good, serviceable Yankee. And boy, was he tough to get around at the plate, one of the better blockers.
``But the difference to me is that when it comes to the Hall of Fame, we have to distinguish between great and very good. Thurman was not a great catcher, but he was very good.''
Lang wrote baseball in seven decades, beginning in 1946 at the Long Island Press and later with the New York Daily News. He covered the Brooklyn Dodgers until their departure for Los Angeles, the Yankees from 1958 to 1961 and the Mets from their inception in 1962.
So Lang knows baseball, having witnessed a majority of its history unfold right in front of him.
``I didn't feel Thurman was better than Bench or Fisk,'' said Lang, a member of the Hall himself as the 1986 J.G. Spink Award Winner. ``You have to understand, when Thurman died, there was a great push to put him in right away. But the longer he was on the ballot, the fewer votes he got. And a majority of the first few years were purely sentimental votes.''
But Joe Gilhousen, a longtime Munson family friend, counters with the fact no one knows the kind of longevity Munson's career might have had.
``He was on course to have a Hall of Fame career,'' said Gilhousen, 55, whose history with Munson dates to when they were high school teammates at old Canton Lehman. ``The thing that hurt him is simply the fact that he didn't have the opportunity to play long enough to put up the career numbers some of the others did.
``But I'll bet that if you take Thurman's numbers and project them out 15 to 20 years, he's gotta be right there with them.''
Gilhousen, a 30-year baseball coach at GlenOak High, might have a point.
Setting aside projections for a minute, Munson can be compared with rivals over their first 11 seasons.
Munson's career time frame was 1969-79.
The span of 1969-80 (Fisk did not play in 1970) marked the first 10 years of Fisk's 24-year career.
Here's how the numbers pan out:
Of 12 major statistical categories (games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBI, walks, stolen bases, average and slugging percentage), Munson came out ahead in eight.
Munson edged Fisk in runs (696 to 627), hits (1,558 to 1,097), doubles (229 to 207), RBI (701 to 568), walks (438 to 389) and average (.292 to .284).
Awards are another way to compare the two backstops.
Munson was the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year, Fisk followed in 1972. Munson was a seven-time All-Star, Fisk earned the honor 11 times.
Munson was a three-time Gold Glove winner who hit .357 with three home runs and 22 RBI in 30 postseason games, including three World Series.
Fisk hit 72 home runs after age 40 but might be best known for his memorable 12th-inning blast off the left-field foul pole at Fenway Park in the Boston's 7-6 victory over the Reds in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.
Comparisons could go on and on. Numbers are like that, able to be manipulated in both positive and negative ways depending on the desired outcome. Yet, however twisted or compared, the opinion on Munson's place among baseball's best remains open to debate.
Recent rule changes in Hall of Fame election guidelines are the reason Munson and others are on what might be called a ``second-chance'' ballot.
Under regular voting, Baseball Writers Association of America members elect candidates each January. Players must be retired five years before being eligible for consideration.
Two years ago, the Hall's new leadership team made changes specifically designed to ``improve the process, make it more open, more easy for the public to understand and give eligible players with at least 10 years experience, a chance forever.''
The complicated process didn't necessarily make it any easier for a player to get enshrined but did waive the ``5 percent rule'' in order to keep a player from being dropped from the list if he failed to elicit at least 5 percent of the vote.
Now, any candidate named on 75 percent of the ballots will be elected. Those that don't make the cut will simply be added in the mix for the next election.
``In essence, we rescued (Munson) by changing our rules,'' said Jeff Idelson, the Baseball Hall of Fame vice president for communication and education. ``Now, every election, Thurman has in perpetuity.''
Which is just a fancy way to say that Munson's name will never be dropped from the committee ballot, forever living on as a possibility to be elected -- even if by then it's by some grandchildren's grandchildren.
``Under the old rules, Thurman never garnered enough support,'' Idelson said. ``But with these new procedures, we've opened up and streamlined the process, giving hope again to about 1,800 players -- including Thurman Munson.''
Idelson said that while there has not been an organized campaign aimed at getting Munson elected, the Hall often gets calls from fans voicing support for him.
``Mostly, it's from his fans,'' Idelson said. ``Thurman is still very much in the hearts of Ohioans, Yankee fans and New Yorkers.''
And while that's not as prestigious as the Hall of Fame, living on in the hearts and minds of serious baseball people ought to count for something.
Gilhousen said light-heartedly that it just might take a good old grass roots movement to get his good friend recognized in the Hall of Fame. But he quickly turned serious when he suggested how much the gesture would mean to Munson's friends and family.
`Knowing Diana (Munson's widow),'' he said, ``I would think she would be thrilled if he were to be elected.''
November 25th, 1970: Yankee catcher Thurman Munson receives 23 of 24 votes in being named AL Rookie of the Year. Munson batted .302 in 132 games.
June 3rd, 1972: Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson crack 3-run HRs in the Yankees' 8-run 13th inning to beat the White Sox 18-10. Murcer scores five runs on four hits.
August 1st, 1973: Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk brawl at Fenway. With a 2-2 score in the top of the ninth, Munson, attempting to score from third on a missed bunt, crashes into Fisk and they both come up swinging. Boston wins 3-2 in the bottom of the inning.
August 29th, 1973: Thurman Munson gets a tainted first-inning hit as a pop fly drops between two Angels infielders calling for it. It turns out to be the only hit allowed by Nolan Ryan as he beats the Yankees 5-0.
July 19th, 1975: Yankee C Thurman Munson 's first-inning single and RBI against the Twins are nullified because the tar on his bat handle exceeds the 18-inch limit. Catcher Glenn Borgmann gets the putout.
October 21st, 1976: The Reds take a 3-0 lead against Ed Figueroa, but the Yankees close it to 3-2. A 4-run splurge in the 9th, topped by Johnny Bench's 2nd HR of the game, ices the Reds 7-2 win, completing a 4-game sweep of the Yankees. WS MVP Johnny Bench has 2 HRs and 5 RBI,and demolishes the Yankees with .533 hitting. Opposing C Thurman Munson had 6 straight singles to tie a WS mark. The 1976 Reds become the first team ever to go through an entire LCS and WS without a defeat.
August 2nd, 1979: Yankees C Thurman Munson, 32, perishes at Canton, Ohio, in a crash of the plane he was piloting. A crowd of 51,151 will attend the memorial tribute at Yankee Stadium the following day.
October 17th, 1990 : In the first extra-inning WS game since 1986, the underdog Reds beat the As 5-4 in 10 innings to take a surprising 2-0 lead in the Series. Reds OF Billy Hatcher goes 4-for-4 to run his consecutive hit streak to 7, tying Thurman Munsons WS record.
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