For Yankee fans from the 1970s, August 2 is the melancholiest date on the calendar. Every year on that date, the phone lines to sports talk shows are jammed with fans remembering Thurman Munson. It has been 40 years since Munson’s tragic death from a flying accident. No matter. Memories of the man and his career remain evergreen. At Yankee Stadium, he takes his place as the Yankee of the Decade from another glorious era in the team’s history.
Munson had his statistics. During his All-Star career, he had more hits in his first 10 years than any other catcher in baseball history. But stats don’t tell the Munson story. He was a reluctant team captain, but that appointment in 1976, at the suggestion of team owner George M. Steinbrenner, gave the Bronx Bombers the lift they needed. After 12 years in baseball exile, the Yankees, from 1976 to 1978, ran off three consecutive division titles, three straight pennants and two World Series crowns. Munson was catcher and team leader. Those who saw Munson play can never forget him. In his prime, he was a .300 hitter who drove in buckets of runs. He was one of the great all-around catchers in baseball history, defensively, offensively and on the base paths. Cooperstown has yet to catch up to his career. Someday it will.
The youngest of four siblings, Munson came up hard in Canton, Ohio, the son of a demanding truck driver who spent most of his time on the road. A three-sport star at Canton’s Stark High School, Munson chose to play college ball at nearby Kent State University, where he could stay close to his high school sweetheart, Diane, who later would become his wife and mother to the couple’s three children. Munson was scouted on by former Yankee star Gene Woodling. The latter disregarded the traditional evaluation, simply writing SIGN HIM on the scouting report. Which the Yankees did.
Munson became the Yankees’ indispensable man as they clawed their way to respectability during the early 1970s. He joined Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Ron Blomberg, Mel Stottlemyre and Sparky Lyle on a team that was playing winning baseball. In 1970, Munson was voted Rookie of the Year. In 1971, he made his first All-Star team. In 1976, he was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. Munson was caught up in unwanted controversies: Contract disputes with front office, feuds with Reds’ manager Sparky Anderson and with his teammate, Reggie Jackson, over an ill-advised Sport magazine interview the latter had given.
In time, Munson tasted real glory. Ralph Houk once called him the greatest clutch hitter he had ever seen—and The Major had seen them all. Munson hit safely in 15 of 16 postseason games, a string chock full of memorable moments. In the pennant-deciding game five of the 1976 American League Championship Series (ALCS) series, Munson went three for four with several key RBIs. The next year, after the Yankees lost game one to Kansas City in a return match, Munson had three big hits to lift the Yankees into a tie for a series they would win in five games. In game one of the 1977 World Series, he had an RBI double that gave the Yankees a late-inning lead. On it went. In 1978, his biggest home run. Trailing Kansas City, 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth and with the series tied one game apiece, Munson came up against righty Doug Bird with White on first. Munson asked Jackson about Bird. “Just go on there and knock the hell out it,” Jackson advised. Munson hit a Bird fastball out of the park to the very depths of Death Valley in left field, 430 ft. from home plate.
“That home run was the greatest individual baseball feat I ever saw,” sportswriter Henry Hecht said decades later. “Thurman was physically incapable of hitting a ball like that anymore because he was a broken-down catcher by then. I’m still in awe of what he did—because he couldn’t do it.”
Then came the World Series. In Game Four, the Yankees, down 2-1 in games, trailed the Dodgers 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth. Munson rapped a two-out, game-tying double off reliever Terry Forster. The Yanks then won on Lou Piniella’s game-winning single in the bottom of the 10th inning. The next day, Munson had his greatest World Series game, going three-for-five, with five RBIs in a 12-2 shellacking of the Dodgers. In his final World Series at bat at Yankee Stadium, Munson hit a long, run-scoring double to score Paul Blair from first base. And I mean long. In today’s stadium, it would have been a home run and six RBI-day for the captain.
Munson was the backstop who handled a pitching staff that included such Cy Young Award winners as Ron Guidry and Sparky Lyle and Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Rich Gossage. He was one of the greatest base runner catchers ever. Munson had an unerring ability to consistently make it from first to third on a single. He set the aggressive style those Yankee teams were known for. Another moment. On the last day of the 1978 regular season, the Yankees and the Red Sox were tied for first place. Boston was hosting Toronto. The Yankees were entertaining the Cleveland Indians. In the first inning, Munson was on third with one out. Piniella lifted a fly ball out to short right field. Munson feinted towards home once, he stopped and feinted again. And again. The third time, he took off for home and beat the throw.
“It was the first run of the game, and had it been the only run, it would have won a division title and been remembered as one of the great plays in baseball history,” recalled Martin Apple, Munson’s biographer. “Alas, great plays are sometimes lost to circumstance, and when the Yankees lost the game, Munson’s play was lost to history.”
But we happy few do remember.
In 1977, Munson took up flying to spend more time with his young son, Michael, who needed his father around. On an off day, he took his newly purchased jet up for a test run. Northeast Ohio is Cleveland Indian country. It wasn’t Munson’s fault that the Tribe failed to scout and sign him. New York will always claim him. For the past 39 years, the city has been home to an annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner, held in conjunction with the AHRC New York City Foundation. Past recipients of Munson Awards have included Jorge Posada, another former Yankee catcher whose career was particularly inspired by Munson’s example.
“New York got him right,” Diane Munson told the media at an Old Timers Day several years ago. That same day, something else happened. Michael Munson took his fiancé to his father’s plaque in Monument Park. He got on his knees and proposed. Thurman Munson as a family man had come to a happy ending.