Tuesday, February 2, 2010

15 Days Until Spring Training: Thurman Munson

Aside from the natural ability to hit and play the position, Thurman Munson had plenty of characteristics that perfectly suited him to be the Yankees' catcher. He was pugnacious, rugged and passionate, willing to sacrifice his body on any given play. He was simultaneously proud and humble, holding the game of baseball in the highest regard. Furthermore, he had a mean-ass mustache and hated the Red Sox. Boy, did he hate the Red Sox. I'd like to think that if he was alive today, old Squatty Body would have rather liked the name of this blog.

The above sequence is from a game at Fenway, on August 1st, 1973. Stick Michael was up to bat in the top of the 9th with the score tied, and failed to make contact on a suicide squeeze, unleashing Munson down the third baseline towards Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. Munson led with a left forearm and Pudge went low, sending the two tumbling over home plate. Fisk held onto the ball, Munson was out, and they quickly got to their feet and began exchanging blows.

Munson and Pudge had a contentious rivalry which extended beyond your typical rival hatred. Although some elements of the feud may have been exaggerated in Munson's biography written by Christopher Devine, there was a legitimate dislike between the two that was exacerbated by the teams they played for.

Perhaps the seeds of Munson's hatred of Boston were planted, like mine, in the time he spent there as a young man. In the summer of 1967, Joe "Skippy" Lewis, manager of the Chatham A's of the Cape Cod Baseball League offered Munson a spot as their starting catcher, along with a side job with the Chatham Parks Department for $75 a week. In 39 games that summer, Munson hit .420 as a catcher, .65 higher than any other other player in the league and was named MVP of the league. Now, the winner of the CCBL batting title receives the Thurman Munson Award.

It was during his time on the Cape that he was discovered by the Yankees. They selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 1968 Amateur Draft, gave him a $75,000 signing bonus and a $500 per week salary.

Munson made his debut in 1969 but appeared in only 26 games. In 1970, he won Rookie of the Year, netting 96% of the vote after batting .302/.386/.415. While remaining solid behind the plate, Munson had two years in 1971 & '72 where he was above league average, but unspectacular offensively.

Although it was not recognized as such by the MVP voting, 1973 was Munson's finest year as a hitter. He raked 29 doubles, 20 homers and hit .301/.362/.487, good for a 141 OPS+. That season was also the beginning of Thurm's three year Gold Glove and six year All-Star appearance streaks. In each of those six years, Munson placed in the MVP voting and played 144 games or more behind the plate.

He was named Yankee captain in 1975, claiming a post that Lou Gehrig vacated with his farewell speech in 1939. In 1976, Munson clocked 17 homers, 27 doubles, drove in 105 runs and was rewarded with the AL MVP, receiving 18 out of a possible 24 first place votes. A testament to his hard-headed, competitive nature, that year he stole 14 bases but was caught 11 times. In fact, over his career, he was actually caught more than he was successful, stealing only 48 bases in 98 tries.

Munson was behind the plate for Ron Guidry's legendary 1978 season, where he went 25-3 with a 1.74ERA. Guidry later said about Munson, "I went through the whole year never shaking him off one time. He always knew when to say something, and when to shut up."

Munson had three children who lived with his wife in Canton, Ohio, where he grew up. He often grew homesick and decided to take flying lessons to make it easier to commute back and forth to see his family. On August 2nd, 1979, he was practicing take-offs and landings at Akron-Canton Regional Airport when he met his untimely end.

On the approach to the runway, Munson dropped the flaps on the wings of his Cessna Citation I/SP, but waited too long before giving the plane more power. As a result, the aircraft came up well short of the intended target. Munson had failed to fasten his shoulder strap, was paralyzed during the initial impact and trapped inside the cockpit when the plane finally came to a rest after rolling and sliding for over 500 feet. His flight instructor, David Hall and his friend Kenny Anderson attempted to free Munson, but the plane caught on fire and they were forced to retreat. His last words were "Get me out of here! Please get me out!" A tragic and powerless cry for help that in no way reflected the way he lived. He was 32 years old.

Munson's funeral was held four days later on August 6th in Canton, Ohio. Lou Pinella and other Yankees spoke while Bobby Murcer delivered the eulogy that morning. That same day, the team took the field back in the Bronx to face the Orioles. Ron Guidry started but through the top of the 7th, the Yanks were down 4-0. Then with two outs in the bottom half of the frame, Bucky Dent worked a walk. Willie Randolph followed with a double, bringing up Murcer. Facing Dennis Martinez, Murcer blasted a three run shot, bringing the Yanks within one.

Guidry remained in the game, holding the O's at 4 through the tops of the 8th and 9th. Just as it was in the 7th, Bucky Dent reached base on a walk in the 9th, putting the tying run on base. Next up, Willie Randolph laid down a bunt in an attempt to move Dent over but Tippy Martinez made a throwing error that allowed the runners to advance to second and third. This brought up Murcer once again and he poked a single to left which drove in the tying and winning runs. Guidry got a complete game win and Murcer drove in all five runs for the Yankees.

Despite it's brevity, Thurm's career was one of constant success. In each of his nine full seasons as a player, he captured either the Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, MVP, or a World Series Championship.

When someone dies young, they are enshrined in our minds in their youth. There is a different legacy left than when we watch a person decline with age, grow frail and forget people's names. We see the sad portrayal of modern day Muhammad Ali, but only remember the dynamic vibrance of a prime Jimi Hendrix.

Munson's number was retired immediately after his death and an empty locker with the number 15 was kept in the Yankees Clubhouse through the closing of the Old Stadium. Written by George Steinbrenner, his plaque in Monument Park reads:
Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next ... Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.
The 30th annual Thurman Munson Awards dinner will be held tonight at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan and will honor Joba Chamberlain, Darryl Strawberry and Lou Pinella, among others. The foundation has raised over $10M for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities since its inception.


  1. They did hate eachother, but I think there was respect for Munson on Fisk's part. And, I believe, Fisk was devastated when he learned of Munson's death.

  2. Great post Jay.
    I was only 13 years old when he died. I remember that day like it was yesterday.

  3. I was born a decade after Munson passed away, but without a doubt he's my all-time favorite Yankee. He represents everything a true Yankee should be and there'll never be another like him.

    Great post.

  4. Echo Wendy. I was 11 in '79 and still recall that day like a sledgehammer to the head. He was my favorite Yankee then and still is to this day. Thanks for the memories.