Make no mistake about it, Thurman Munson was the “balls” of the New York Yankees during the 1970s.
Reggie Jackson may have been the “straw that stirs the drink” during his playing days in the Big Apple; but Munson was the soldier who stood on that wall, carrying on the legacy of the Pinstripes.
I was a 12-year-old kid at a baseball camp in Pennsylvania when I heard that Munson lost his life in a plane crash – I was devastated.
It was the summer of 1979 and the Yankees were long out of contention in the American League East by the time August rolled around. The Bombers were coming off back-to-back World Championships and three consecutive American League titles, but hopes of another comeback like 1978 was doubtful.
Rich “Goose” Gossage injured his thumb in a locker room brawl with Cliff Johnson forcing Ron Guidry to leave the starting rotation and become the closer after winning 25 games and the CY Young in 1978; Reggie Jackson spent three weeks on the DL because of a hamstring injury; the Yankees fired Bob Lemon and then re-hired Billy Martin for a second of five stints as Yankee manager and on August 2, 1979 the unthinkable happened – the Yankees lost their “heartbeat.”
As a young kid who grew up only 15 minutes from Yankee Stadium, I couldn’t come to terms that one of the my Yankees was gone. How could it be?
On August 6th, the day Munson’s teammates said farewell to their captain, the Yankees played their first home game in front of a national TV audience against the Orioles. I’ll never forget watching Reggie, Thurman’s adversary, in tears in right field; the eerie silence and the standing ovation that lasted almost 10 minutes and the emptiness behind home plate
Jerry Narron had the daunting task of being the Yankee catcher that night. “This man would fly home just to be with his kids and his wife,” Narron said in March 2007 while still managing the Reds. “I don’t think a lot of people remember what a great baseball player he was; an MVP award winner, was going to hit .300 every year, he was the backbone of that ball club and if his life wasn’t cut short he would have been a Hall of Famer.
Bucky Dent, who was the Yankee shortstop from 1977 through 1982, was shaken when he heard the news. “That was one of the toughest night I ever had in sports, when I heard that Thurman crashed,” Dent said from Steinbrenner Field in March 2007. “I was in the Twin Towers having dinner and came down and the parking attendant said it’s a shame what happened to Thurman and I said, “What are you talking about?” He [the attendant] said he got killed in a plane crash and it kind of buckled my knees; it was something I hoped as a player I would never have to go through again.”
Former catcher and manager Jeff Torborg, joined the Yankees as a coach right before Munson was killed. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place that night,” Torborg reminisced fondly of Munson. “I remember the first time we met, he called me “meat” and we almost had a fight in the pre-game drill. That was just the way he was, I learned to respect this man tremendously. When I was managing Cleveland, we were trying to keep the Yankees from winning the pennant [in 1977]. I would pitch around him all the time and it would tick Reggie off because I would pitch to Reggie, figuring we could strike him out because he had more of a hole in his swing. Thurman would hit the ball to right field anytime he felt like it. He was on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Munson stats & career accomplishments:
- 1970 Rookie of the Year
- 1976 MVP
- 7-Time All Star,
- 3-time Gold Glove catcher
- .292 career Avg.
- Three-consecutive 100 RBI seasons
- Batted .529 in 1976 World Series and had a .357 career post-season average with 22 RBI’s in 30 games