Full disclosure: As a longtime Cleveland baseball fan, I have never found it easy to say anything nice about the New York Yankees, but if there was one individual in all my years of being a fan who has been able to bridge that natural rivalry, it would be Akron native Thurman Munson.
You probably are aware that Munson died on August 2nd, 1979 in a plane crash in Green Ohio, near his home in Canton while practicing takeoffs and landings with his Cessna Citation. Munson had been flying for just over a year and this latest plane (his fourth) was outfitted with "Yankee blue" interior and was primarily going to be used to fly his family back and forth from New York to Canton.
But, before we go much further on the end of Munson’s life, there is so much more to tell about his remarkably well-lived 32 years.
The Life of Thurman Munson
Born in Akron in 1947, Munson became a three-sport standout athlete and was named all-city and all-state in football, basketball, and, of course, baseball.
Learning the game of baseball from his older brother Duane and his friends was a large part of the reason Munson particularly excelled on the diamond; he spent much of the time playing the game early on against older and stronger competition.
It certainly paid off, as he was the fourth overall pick in the 1968 draft and quickly rose to the major leagues. And after taking over as the Yankees starting catcher in late 1969, he was named Rookie of the Year in 1970.
So strong was his leadership and influence to the Yankee organization on and off the field, he was named captain in 1976, the first Yankee to be bestowed that honor since the great Lou Gehrig. Just two examples of the influence Munson had on the organization would be his prodding of owner George Steinbrenner to sign Reggie Jackson and his ability to call a game, leading to the outstanding lefty Tommy John signing with Yankees.
Munson married his childhood sweetheart Diana in 1968 and they had three children in their 11 years together. Their son Michael also played professional baseball in the Yankee and Giants organizations.
Munson’s legacy remains as strong as it is today because of the way he lived his life as a loving husband and father, a tremendous teammate and leader on and off the field, and being an ambassador for the game of baseball.
His locker in the Yankee clubhouse was never reassigned as a fitting tribute to this tragic loss. In 2008, when old Yankee stadium closed, the entire locker stall was moved in one piece to new Yankee Stadium and placed in the team’s museum.
On August 6th, 1979, the entire Yankee team attended Munson’s funeral service in Canton and then returned to New York to resume their four-game series with the Baltimore Orioles that night as part of ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. A large national television audience tuned in, myself included (I remember it well), to see how the Yankees could possibly have their minds on baseball.
But true to the spirit of their departed captain, they came through in the bottom of the ninth on a two-run single by Bobby Murcer to win 5-4 in dramatic fashion. Ironically, just hours earlier in Canton, Murcer tearfully delivered one of a series of eulogies to his lost friend and captain.
There were two other people on the plane that fateful day: instructor Dave Hall and friend Jerry Anderson. Both survived with minor injuries, and Anderson later credited Munson’s calm under pressure, staying firmly at the controls until the very last second, as saving his and Hall’s life.
Why Isn't Munson in the Hall of Fame?
Munson enjoyed a very productive career, with a career slash line of .292/.346/.410 and a 116 OPS+ - not too shabby at all for a catcher. And from 1975 to 1977, Munson hit .309/.352/.441 with 47 home runs and 307 RBI, winning the AL MVP award in 1976. He was a seven-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and won the World Series twice in 1977 and 1978.
So why isn't he in the Hall of Fame?
In fact, Munson was never even close to being voted in by baseball's writers, which is a shame. The major culprit - in the eyes of the Hall of Fame voters at least - was the fact that he only played ten full seasons (with 97 plate appearances in 1969), which won't put him among the top catchers in many major statistics. But it's clear that for the duration of his career, Munson was one of the best catchers in all of baseball.
From 1970 to 1979, Munson had the third-highest batting average among catchers, the third-most RBI, the third-most doubles, the fourth-most doubles, the most singles, and the fourth-most stolen bases. If Munson had lived and played for a few more seasons, there is no doubt he would be considered among the best catchers to ever play the game.
A Final Note on Munson
We always like to leave you with a little something to think about, or a tidbit you probably never knew, so here is one final thought on Munson.
If you have ever wondered where Reggie Jackson got the nickname “Mr. October,” you guessed it - it was Thurman Munson. Even though their relationship as teammates didn’t get off to the best start, they came to respect each other deeply for what they meant to the organization, and Munson came up with the simple term of endearment that remains with Jackson so strongly today.