A few days ago, we looked back on the sudden death of Yankees captain Thurman Munson on August 2, 1979. Today, we go back in time 33 years again, to the incredible events of August 6, 1979. As the previous article mentions, the Yankee organization was absolutely floored by the news. The team was already struggling to keep up with the Baltimore Orioles, who held a double-digit lead on the division despite the Yankees' efforts to win a fourth consecutive American League East crown. Owner George Steinbrenner replaced manager Bob Lemon in mid-June with the team just three games over .500. Lemon's mind was often away from the field, as he coped with his own personal tragedy--his son Jerry died at age 26 shortly after the Yankees won the '78 World Series. Former Yankee manager Billy Martin was going to replace Lemon after the '79 season anyway, with Lemon moving to the front office, but Steinbrenner reinstalled him as manager earlier than planned. The move did not help much, and the season was truly crippled once the team lost its leader on August 2nd.
The team flew to Munson's home of Canton, Ohio for his funeral on the morning of August 6th, despite the fact that they were in the middle of a four-game series at home with the division-leading Orioles. Steinbrenner, Martin, and everyone in the Yankees organization agreed that it was much more important to be there for Munson's young family. Two of Munson's closest friends, Lou Piniella and the recently-reacquired Bobby Murcer, eulogized him and fought back tears as they gave speeches in his memory (Piniella clip, Murcer clip). Murcer said, "Thurman Munson wore the pinstripes as number 15, but in living, loving, and legend, history will forever remember my friend as number one." After the emotional affair, the team flew back to New York to play a night game against the Orioles. They remembered him again in a pregame ceremony as a message flashed on the scoreboard stating "Our captain and leader has not left us today, tomorrow, this year, next... our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him." The team took the field, but catcher Brad Gulden left home plate vacant for a moment in memory of Munson. The Yankees pitched defending AL Cy Young Award winner Ron Guidry against 24-year-old Nicaraguan righthander Dennis Martinez, "El Presidente." The game was broadcast nationally on ABC, and the Yankees put on quite a show in the captain's memory.
The Orioles played typical Earl Weaver baseball through the first six innings as they shut the Yankees down through six inning and crushed a few home runs to jump out to a four-run lead. DH Lee May sent a Guidry pitch over the left-field wall for a solo homer in second inning, and he came around to score on a sacrifice fly by second baseman Rich Dauer after doubling in the fifth. The Orioles made the score 4-0 when right fielder Ken Singleton, who would finish second in the AL MVP voting in '79, lined his 28th homer of the year into the right field stands, also scoring center fielder Al Bumbry. Martinez allowed four hits and three walks through six innings, but the Yankees did not capitalize on any scoring opportunities.
The Yankees cut down a fifth Oriole run at the plate in the top of the seventh when Dauer, on third base, tried to score on a grounder to third baseman Graig Nettles. Gulden, the Yankees' new catcher, tagged him out and the threat officially ended when Oriole catcher Dave Skaggs flew out to right field. Martinez appeared on his way to another scoreless inning in the seventh after two quick outs, but he walked light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent and surrendered a double to second baseman Willie Randolph. With runners on second and third, Murcer stepped to the plate with a chance to do some damage. The Yankees officially brought him back in late June thanks to a trade with the Chicago Cubs, but he had yet to play like the hitter of old with the Yankees, batting just .220/.282/.250 with no homers in 110 plate appearances. Against Martinez though, Murcer connected on a pitch and sent it into the right-field stands, just as he used to do while with Munson at the old Yankee Stadium in the early '70s. The three-run homer made the score 4-3 and brought the Yankees back into the game.
The score stayed that way into the ninth inning. Guidry pitched all nine innings for the Yanks, limiting the powerful Oriole attack to four runs on nine hits with nine strikeouts. A different Martinez was on the mound for Baltimore in the ninth, lefthanded bullpen ace Tippy Martinez, a former teammate of Munson's from '74-'76. Dent walked to lead off the frame, then advanced to third base when Randolph laid down a bunt that Martinez threw down the right field line. Two men were in scoring position for Murcer. It was surprising that Martin left Murcer in to hit against Martinez with the righty threat Piniella on the bench, especially since Murcer was never very good against southpaws. Martinez got to two quick strikes on him, but Murcer sent his 0-2 pitch to the opposite field for a two-run single, scoring Dent and Randolph to stun the Orioles and win the game.
Murcer later remarked about the improbable at bat, "I didn't feel like he was going to get me out. I felt like I was going to hit the ball hard, and I did. It just shows the integrity and maturity of our club. The winning attitude, we haven't lost it." He later gave his bat from the game to Munson's widow, Diana. It was arguably the finest moment of the five-time All-Star's career.
"Captain: the Thurman Munson Story"- YouTube
MLB.com Thurman Munson Retrospective
YES Network's Bobby Murcer tribute.