"Our captain and leader has not left us today, tomorrow, this year, next... our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him."
Unlike many of the days noted on this feature, most dedicated Yankee fans know exactly why August 2nd is remembered. August 2, 1979 was one of the worst days in the history of the New York Yankees franchise, and the bad news was something that went far beyond a bad box score, a controversial quote, or even an injury causing an extended stint on the Disabled List. 33 years ago today, the Yankees lost their beloved captain, catcher Thurman Munson, in an airplane crash. He was only 32 years old.
(NYY: 1969-79) In 1976, Thurman Munson was named the Yankees' first captain in 37 years, following in the footsteps of the legendary Lou Gehrig. Although Gehrig's manager, Joe McCarthy, intended for the position to be retired with Gehrig, owner George Steinbrenner decided that if McCarthy and Gehrig saw the way Munson played, they would agree that Munson deserved the honor, though he did not desire it. A terrific catching prospect out of Kent State University, Munson was the #4 overall pick of the 1968 MLB draft, proving that something of worth came out of the crappy late-1960s baseball played by the Yankees. He went straight to AA Binghamton as a 21-year old, and after dominating AAA with the Syracuse Chiefs (.363/435/.529), he was called up to the big leagues for good in late 1969. Munson made an immediate impact with the team, as he helped the Yankees make a thirteen-game improvement in 1970 by putting up a wRC+ of 125 with a .386 OBP and superb defense, winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Though both he and the team regressed somewhat the next year, the Yankees finally had a worthy player to succeed Dickey, Berra, and Howard in their catching tradition. The Yankees couldn't quite reach the top of division, but Munson had arguably his career year in '73, putting up career-highs in homers (20), double (29), slugging (.487), wRC+ (139), and WAR (6.8) while winning the first of three Gold Gloves.
After a couple seasons in Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium was renovated, the team returned in '76 with its newly-named captain and broke their twelve-year playoff drought with a 97-win season and the AL East division title as Munson won the league MVP (though there were probably better candidates on his team). Munson was definitely not intimidated by playoff pressure, as he first hit .435 in the five-game ALCS win against the Kansas City Royals, and then hit .529 against the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Unfortunately, he was the only hitter to do well against the Reds and the Yankees lost the series in a four-game sweep. Munson and the Yankees returned to the World Series the next year and won their first World Series in fifteen years with six-game win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, a feat they would repeat in '78. Munson was the clear leader of a team that was nicknamed "the Bronx Zoo" due to the tense atmosphere of the clubhouse, despite his personal decline in performance after years of catching.
His career came to a stunning end on August 2, 1979, as his fascination with flying planes cost him his life when the plane he was practicing in burst into flames on a crash landing. At only 32 years old, Thurman Munson was gone. His family, teammates, and fans wept, and his close friend and eulogist Bobby Murcer paid the ultimate tribute to him by driving in all five runs and walking off the eventual AL-champion Baltimore Orioles in the team's first game since the funeral. Though they've won 27 World Series and experience many dramatic moments, the Yankees have probably never played a more emotional game. The Yankees retired his number 15 that day as well, and his locker stood unused for the rest of the old Yankee Stadium's existence. (B-Ref) (FG) (SABR Bio)
He was an amazing player, and it's just horrible what happened to such a great person.