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Among Yankees not in Cooperstown, Thurman Munson is most deserving

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There are good cases to be made for several former Yankees to be enshrined in Cooperstown, but none as good as Thurman Munson’s.

Thurman Munson Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images

One of many debates in which baseball fans love to engage involves the Hall of Fame. Based mostly on subjective opinions and biases – heck, even objective measurements such as statistics are selected, weighed, and used subjectively by each of us – we all have players on our hypothetical ballots who we feel should be enshrined in Cooperstown who are not.

As there’s an overwhelming likelihood that if you’re reading this, you’re a Yankee fan, you probably have a former Yankee in mind who you feel was a Hall of Famer, who is not currently enshrined. Having recently been on the Modern Era Hall of Fame ballot, Don Mattingly’s name has come up relatively often. Due to having played during the YES Network era, and having former teammates as current broadcasters, we’ve heard Jorge Posada’s and Andy Pettitte’s names occasionally brought up. Cases can be and have been made for Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph and David Cone as well.

Yet among former Yankees who are not enshrined in Cooperstown, the easiest case to make for a snub is Thurman Munson. Frankly making the case that he is not a Hall of Famer is harder than making the case that he is.

A big obstacle that Munson’s Cooperstown case has yet to overcome is his relatively short career, which suppressed counting stats such as home runs, RBIs and hits — we’ll come back to that one in a minute. A hurdle just as large, however, is his misfortune of playing in an era with so many great catchers. In fact, the late-1960s through the early-1980s might be the best era of catchers in baseball history. Consider that Munson’s peak WAR* is eighth-best among catchers all-time and three of the seven players in front of him – Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Carlton Fisk – were contemporaries. Furthermore, his rank of eighth-highest peak WAR is tops among any catcher who has been eligible for the Hall but has not been inducted, and exceeds that of 10 catchers who are in the Hall already.

*The combined WAR of the player’s best seven seasons

There’s no disputing that Munson’s best was better than the best of most of the catchers who are enshrined in Cooperstown. Yet, similar to how Mike Mussina’s career was overshadowed by pitching in the same era as Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens, Munson’s dominance may have been underappreciated.

The relatively modest career counting statistics is a legitimate issue to raise and address. If you’re someone who heavily weights or even requires a minimum number of home runs, RBIs, or hits for a player to be a Hall of Famer then Munson would never get your hypothetical vote because his career was simply too short to compile cumulative statistics. Except for one.

People often forget that WAR is a cumulative stat, and comes as close as we can to encapsulating everything a player does — hitting, fielding, and running — into one number. And despite having only played nine full seasons and parts of two others, Munson’s career WAR relative to other great catchers is eye opening. Since integration, Munson’s 46.1 career WAR ranks eighth among players who caught in at least two-thirds of their career games; all seven ahead of him are all in the Hall of Fame. Even when we include catchers of bygone eras, Munson’s career WAR exceeds that of five catchers who are Hall members. So if you’re holding your hypothetical vote on Munson back due to his relatively low career statistics, perhaps a reconsideration is in order — in some regards, he compiled as much (or more) as players who are in Cooperstown and did so in less time.

Awards and accomplishments are often factors considered in Hall of Fame discussions, and Munson’s career checks off all those boxes and then some. He won the Rookie of the Year and an MVP award, with two other top seven finishes. He was a seven-time All-Star, a three time Gold Glove award winner, and played on two World Series winners and another pennant winner. The rings didn’t come by way of coattail-riding either, as Munson’s postseason slash line of .357/.378/.496 over 135 plate appearances is superior to his regular season career slash line of .292/.346/.410.

Additionally, if intangibles are a factor for you, Munson’s were unparalleled according to his teammates. In my conversation with former Yankee Ron Blomberg, the original DH explained Munson’s leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, and his baseball intellect — specifically with regards to helping pitchers — improved the team to an extent that couldn’t be measured. (I wrote about my conversation with Blomberg and his new book about him and Munson here.)

Perhaps the best way for me to convince you that Thurman Munson should be in the Hall of Fame is to compare him to a player with whom we’ve all seen and with whom we’re all familiar: Buster Posey. If I asked you, “If Buster Posey retired today, would you consider him a Hall of Famer?”, I’m not a polling data scientist, but I’d bet a large sum of money that the majority of baseball fans would say “Yes.”

Perhaps surprising to some, when we look at the careers of Posey and Munson’s side by side, they are eerily similar in ways we all (including official Hall voters) typically use to measure Hall of Fame worthiness:

First, let’s look at some stats:

Posey-Munson Stats

Stat Posey Munson
Stat Posey Munson
Games 1,307 1,423
WAR 43.4 46.1
peak WAR 36.6 37
Hits 1,437 1,558
HR 152 113
RBI 699 701

That’s very close. What about awards and accomplishments?

Accomplishments

Accomplishment Posey Munson
Accomplishment Posey Munson
MVPs 1 1
Top 10 MVP finish 2 2
Rookie of Year 1 1
Gold Gloves 1 3
WS Rings 3 2
All-Star nods 6 7

Again. Munson and Posey (to this point) have had very similar careers.

It must be noted, with due respect to Posey’s catching contemporaries, that none of them will ever be confused with Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk. This is a very important point when considering the context: Posey’s career is unquestionably* the best for a catcher from 2010 – 2021, but it certainly would not have been had it taken place in Munson’s era. “Not as good a career as Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk” is not something that should be held against a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy, but it may have been in Munson’s case.

*With the caveat that Joe Mauer was not a full-time catcher throughout most of that time period.

Again, to this writer, it would be harder to argue Munson is not Hall of Fame worthy than he is. Which begs the question, “Will he ever be inducted?”

The easy answer is “Unlikely.” Munson never received much attention from baseball writers when he was first eligible and not much more since being considered by veterans committees. Due to the fact that committees and policies with Hall of Fame voting procedures have changed quite often, such things need to be written in pencil, not pen, but as currently scheduled, he won’t be eligible again on the Modern Era ballot until December 2023.

Time has helped some players earn eventual induction, however, and here’s hoping that’s the case with Munson as well. Modern analytics will certainly help as the likes of Jay Jaffe (the creator of the JAWS metric) and the smart folks at HallofStats.com both feel Munson is induction worthy. Plus, former players such as the aforementioned Ron Blomberg bringing attention to the case will help Munson’s chances as well.

Thurman’s tragic passing was certainly one of those “I remember where I was when I heard” moments for Yankee fans fortunate enough to have seen him play. A plaque in Cooperstown for him would be great to see for Yankee fans, as he’s as deserving, if not more than any Yankee who is currently on the outside looking in.