He is now selling cars in Minnesota, but 39 years ago, Brad Gulden was a young catching prospect called up to the Yankees after Thurman Munson died.“It was really quite weird but a heck of an experience,” Gulden said.The date August 2, 1979 is in the memories of many Yankees fans of a certain age. That was the day Munson was killed in a plane crash in Ohio while practicing takeoffs and landings.“Thurman was a great guy,” Gulden said. “I knew him pretty well in spring training. Me and him got along really well.”
Gulden played at Chaska High School in Minnesota and was drafted by the Dodgers in 1975. He made it to the majors in 1978, appearing in three games with Los Angeles.In February 1979, Gulden was traded to the Yankees for Gary Thomasson.Gulden joined a Yankees team that had won the previous two World Series titles and three American League pennants. Of course he wouldn’t be starting. The Yankees had Munson, the 1976 AL MVP and heart and soul of the team.“Me and him hit it off right away because I think we kind of played the same way and we had we he called the same ‘squatty body’, Gulden said. ‘He said ‘God, that kid looks just like me.’ I said, ‘Really? No I don’t.”Gulden didn’t make the team out of spring training, and was sent to Triple-A Columbus. The 1979 was a lost year for the Yankees. Bob Lemon was replaced by Billy Martin as manager. Goose Gossage missed several months after hurting his thumb in a fight with teammate Cliff Johnson.And the Orioles were dominating the division.
On August 1, the Yankees beat the White Sox 9-1 at Comiskey Park. Munson started at first base, but was removed after striking out against Ken Kravec in the third inning. He had been fighting knee problems during the season, and over the previous few seasons, he played at first base and in the outfield.Then the next day, the Yankees captain was gone.
Gulden was taken out of the Columbus game and sent to the Bronx. While mourning the loss of Munson, there was also a competition between Gulden and Jerry Narron to see who would be the number one catcher.“That’s what happens when you get called up and you have an opportunity to play,” Gulden said. “You do your best and everybody wants an opportunity to play and all you need is a chance.”The first game after Munson’s death was on August 3 at home against the Orioles. The Yankees took the field with Narron staying behind to leave home plate vacant.
“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy,” Gulden said. “Home plate empty like that. The people loved Thurman, he was my icon.”A moment of silence was followed by a standing ovation that lasted nearly 10 minutes. “I can’t remember how long home plate sat empty but it was a long time,” Gulden said.Even as a 23-year-old, he felt accepted by veteran leaders like Bobby Murcer, Lou Piniella and Craig Nettles. “They were great to me,” Gulden said. “They welcomed me in. Even Reggie Jackson. All those guys that were a part of the system there, and they knew what happened, a sad, unusual thing.But they all treated me with respect and just brought me in.”
Gulden was able to be around a coaching staff that included catching legends Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. “He never paid for a meal in his life,” Gulden said of Berra.Narron started the first game after Munson’s death, but Gulden started six of the next seven. At the time, Billy Martin was quoted as saying, “I’ve been playing Gulden more because of his quicker release, and he has a little better arm.”Gulden got along with Martin, who was in the second of five stints as Yankees manager. “He was tough on younger players but he taught you a lot and he was very honest with you and if you don’t play well, you’re not going to play,” Gulden said of Martin, who became his friend and would hang out with him in the winter.Gulden hit .163 in 40 games with the Yankees, and the team acquired Rick Cerone to be the new catcher.After the 1980 season, Gulden was traded to the Mariners in exchange for Larry Milbourne and a player to be named later. In May 1981, it turned out Gulden was the player to be named later as he returned to the Yankees.He would play for the Expos, Reds and Giants before retiring. Gulden turned down a coaching opportunity and moved on from baseball.He still watches and follows the game but his post-playing career has seen him become a firefighter and salesman.
And he’s the answer to a Yankees trivia question.