Thurman Munson was much more than a tragic hero and captain of the New York Yankees' clubhouse. He was an elite catcher with a rifle for an arm and a consistently dangerous threat at the plate for a decade. To this day, it remains a rarity for catchers to do both, but Munson was simply quite talented. Munson began the '70s with American League Rookie of the Year honors, and he was named an All-Star seven times. He was also the '76 AL MVP and a career .292/.346/.410 hitter with a 116 wRC+. A career 44% caught-stealing rate demonstrated that the three Gold Glove awards won were no fluke.
Even though Munson's statistical career year came in anonymity on a fourth-place Yankee squad in '73, his performance during the Yankees' AL three-peat years of '76-'78 put him on the national stage. He was a terrific playoff hitter, never batting less than .275 during the six playoff series in which he appeared. Overall, he batted .357/.378/.496 in 135 plate appearance against three great teams--the Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Kansas City Royals. Munson was a big reason why the Yankees never lost an ALCS to the Royals with him on the team.
Munson's finest moment in the playoffs came in '78, an atypical championship October for the Yankees in that it was overshadowed by the memorable AL East comeback and Bucky Dent's one-game playoff homer in Boston against the Red Sox. The Yankees did not magically receive the World Series title after the win at Fenway though; they had to first take down the Royals in the ALCS for the third straight season. The rivals split two in Kansas City before returning to the Bronx for Game 3.
Although he was only 25, KC third baseman George Brett was already a Yankee nemesis, and his talents were on display in Game 3. Brett tied an ALCS record with three homers in one game, taking Catfish Hunter deep on solo shots in three straight at-bats. Despite Brett's long-ball theatrics, the Yankees scored four runs off Royals starter Paul Splittorf into the top of the eighth. Flamethrowing closer Goose Gossage was in the game, but an Amos Otis double followed by a Darrell Porter single tied it up. A few batters later, Porter had moved to third on a Clint Hurdle single and he scored on a groundout to give the Royals a 5-4 lead. Five outs from pushing the defending champions to an elimination game the next day, manager Whitey Herzog pulled Splittorf in favor of reliever Doug Bird following a single by veteran Roy White. The switch was a bit of an odd move, as Bird had not pitched well in '78 and Munson was coming up next, a .316 lifetime hitter against Bird to that point. Needless to say, Munson made the Royals pay in a big way.
It was a tremendous drive simply to get over the left-center field fence 430 feet away. but Munson surpassed even that. The two-run clout came to rest in Monument Park, the first of only a couple in the 33-year history of the remodeled Yankee Stadium to go so far. In Marty Appel's tome on Yankees history, Pinstripe Empire, he noted that the drive landed (appropriately) by the Babe Ruth monument approximately 475 feet away. More importantly, the two-run homer gave the Yankees a 6-5 advantage.
Given a second chance, Gossage did not let the lead slip away, even retiring the scalding-hot Brett on a fly ball before ending it. The tables had been turned on the Royals, and facing elimination themselves the next day, they lost. The Yankees were AL champions, and they won a six-game Fall Classic against the Dodgers to win their second straight title. It was the last October of Munson's life.