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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #15 Thurman Munson

The captain led the Yankees to glory, before leaving us far too soon.

Thurman Munson

Full Name: Thurman Lee Munson
Position: Catcher
Born: June 7, 1947 (Akron, OH)
Died: August 2, 1979 (Summit County, OH)
Yankee Years: 1969-79
Primary number: 15
Yankee statistics: 1,423 games, 5905 PA, .292/.346/.410, 113 HR, 696 R, 701 RBI, 116 wRC+, 46.1 rWAR, 40.9 fWAR

Biography

To tell Munson’s story, we have to start at the end, baseball’s own version of The Day The Music Died. An aspiring pilot, he wanted to be able to fly home to Ohio on off-days, and after a year of training, bought a Cessna jet with Yankee blue cabin. While practicing “touch and go” landings, Munson came down too quick, too fast, crashing the Cessna and dying on August 2, 1979.

It’s almost fantastical to imagine the death of a player in-season, much less the captain of the defending World Series champions. I remember José Fernández dying in late 2016, the confusion and sheer disbelief that a player who was so electric, so alive on the mound was gone. That confusion, all the noise, must have been tenfold at a time before the internet. A day later, eight Yankees took the field for the top of the first, leaving the catcher’s box empty.

Fred Stanley Pauses in Front of Munson’s Locker

To say that Munson’s Yankee impact goes beyond his statline is perhaps the biggest understatement in this series. Reggie Jackson may have been the straw that stirs the drink, but Thurman was the glass, the bartender, and the whole damn bar. He was the protagonist of a franchise rebuilding its image and its own self-belief, and I’ve got 3,000 words to try and properly contextualize his historic placement in the franchise.

The All-American

Every biography or retelling of Munson’s story notes that he and his father had, at best, a difficult relationship. A long-haul driver, Darrell Munson held his son, and especially his son’s baseball play, to the highest possible standard. Affording no credit for positive play, and only criticism at mistakes or missteps, it’s easy to see where Thurman’s hard nosed, win-at-all-costs attitude came from.

A three-sport star at Canton, Ohio’s Lehman High, Munson moved behind the dish in his junior year as the only player that could handle starter Jerry Pruett’s fastball. By his own accord, the switch to catcher was less about Munson’s passion for the position, and more about the guaranteed opportunity to mash.

“I just let my development as a catcher come naturally. Defense wasn’t that important to me then, I just loved to hit and it didn’t matter where I played in the field.”

While a better football prospect — more than 80 schools offered him a scholarship, compared to a trio of baseball programs — proximity to his then-girlfriend Diana, and the full ride offered by Kent State to go mash won out.

Like many of the players in this countdown, Munson probably could have had a professional career in another sport. I’m comparing him now to Dave Winfield, who I profiled earlier in this series, and Winfield was such a freak that he would have been a star in just about anything he did athletically. Munson was a great athlete, but so much of what made him a star, and higher on this countdown than Winfield, was that je ne sais quoi he brought as a leader. I don’t know if that translates as well to other sports. Ironically, the same desire to be close to those he loved would be the biggest blessing, and curse, for the Yankees in the Munson era.

Thurman was a star at Kent State, the first All-American in the school’s history. More than 55 years after being drafted in his junior year, his .390 career average is the highest in school history.

Seemingly drawn toward militant authority figures, Tugboat’s professional edge was honed by joint football and baseball coach Richard Paskert, who may have been nicknamed “Moose,” but from everything I could find about him, was far more like a bulldog with a complex or two.

With the fourth overall pick in the 1968 MLB Draft, the Yankees asked Munson to swap his Kent State pinstripes for Yankee blues. A stroke of luck prevented a second, more macabre draft, as while being required to register with the draft board as the Vietnam War reached its apex, a bone spur in Munson’s ankle made the now-professional baseball player ineligible for service in Southeast Asia.

Assigned immediately to Double-A Binghamton, Munson’s .859 OPS made eyebrows raise throughout the Yankee org, as their first-round pick was clearly signaling he would move through the system quickly. Six spring training games with the big boys convinced the brass he was ready for Triple-A, and by August 8, 1969 — 9 years, 51 weeks before his final game — Thurman Munson was a Yankee.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees

Hit the Ground Running

One of the real great things to see in sports is when teams clear a lane for a young player — the Yankees tried this in 2021, punting on someone like Corey Seager in order to reserve space for Anthony Volpe. The 1969 bet was somewhat more successful, as the Yankees dealt away co-starting catcher Frank Fernández that winter, making it obvious that Munson was a real part of the future.

While Fernández was adjusting to his new digs, Thurman was playing with Roberto Clemente in Puerto Rico, where the future Hall of Famer told the rook that a season with an average below .280 was a failure. That both players, whose stars burnt out too early, shared time in winter league ball is one of baseball’s eerie coincidences.

All the Walrus did to reward the faith of the Yankee front office was win Rookie of the Year. As Clemente advised, he hit .302 with an .801 OPS. This was the trough period for the Yankees after that unbelievable post-WWII dynasty, but a 13-win improvement over the 1969 record showed fans there was some hope on the horizon. The new core of the t-am may have included Roy White, Mel Stottlemyre, and Bobby Murcer, but Munson would soon bring them all together, and then some.

The next season saw the rise of Munson’s great rival, Red Sox backstop Carlton Fisk. The first unanimous AL Rookie of the Year, Fisk had cups of coffee in 1969 and ‘71, but now the AL nemeses both featured stars and natural leaders at the backstop position. For a competitor like Thurman, the animosity was virtually immediate.

Every series features a press packet, given to writers and broadcasters so they have those little factoids and points of interest in their coverage. Ahead of a midseason showdown with the Sox, Munson got ahold of PR director Marty Appel’s packet, which showed him trailing Fisk in assists by one. Cornering Appel in the clubhouse, Tugboat let the man know just what he thought of that ranking.

“What’s the idea of showing me up like this?” he demanded. “You think for one minute he’s got a better arm than me? What a stupid statistic!”, proving that truth that all athletes can’t stand the nerds. The next game, Munson dropped the third strike of the game’s first strikeout, throwing to first to retire the runner. He did that twice more over the course of the game — maybe he had particular issues receiving the ball that day, maybe he was proving a point. How peeved Munson must have been that Fisk made the All Star team in 1972, the only season from ‘71 onward — save for his final — that Thurman wasn’t named to the Midsummer Classic.

Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk

By 1973, things were beginning to boil over. On August 1, the ninth inning of a tie ball game, Munson broke for home on a missed suicide squeeze, and didn’t slow down at all.

A collision at home plate led to cleared benches and one of the most legendary brawls in Yankee history. That Munson was the instigator — whether he had the “baseball” right to or not — was a perfect microcosm of his role with the organization. As the Yankees climbed back to relevance, he was in the middle of it all. You could call it gruffness, you could call it a chip on his shoulder, but he believed he and his team were the best on the field.

So central was he to the direction of the Yankees that in 1976, owner George Steinbrenner named him captain, the first since Lou Gehrig stepped down from the club on April 30, 1939. Even for a player with Munson’s natural confidence, that kind of weight led to him initially turning down the responsibility; the Boss stuck it on him anyway. Like the abovementioned, permanent desire to be closer to home in Ohio, the parallels between the tragic ends of Munson and Gehrig’s careers loom large in the history of the game.

Fire and Fiery

1976 would of course feature another famous fight between the AL East rivals.

At the risk of sounding like a child, it’s hard to pull together that this is what baseball looked like pretty much every day. I think the handwringing we sometimes hear about how players today are too friendly with each other is a bit overblown — players have always been friends with guys who weren’t on their teams, but the Sox and Yankees of the time hated each other. These kind of emotions went beyond the normal “us against the world” psychology that athletes need to drum up for themselves.

In the midst of all this, Munson just kept on making All Star games, appearing in each contest from 1973-78, along with a trio of Gold Gloves. (Fisk never won another after ‘72.) Whatever emotions he brought to the field, they didn’t take away from his play; indeed, they must have fueled it. One wonders if that chip on his shoulder didn’t add a mile or so per hour to his throws down to second, like when he led the league in CS% in 1975.

Munson wasn’t quite as proficient at nailing runners the next season, but the weight of the metaphorical captain’s C didn’t hold him down. Brawls aside, the campaign represented the long-teased return to the top of the baseball table for the Yankees, as Munson was named AL MVP — the Yankees’ first since fellow backstop Elston Howard in ‘63 — and the team won the division for the first time in his tenure. With career highs in RBI and stolen bases, and fully entrenched in the role of team leader, Munson was a natural choice — even if George Brett probably had a better case. Nobody tell Tugboat that, it wasn’t like the Yankees/Royals rivalry needed any more gasoline.

If there’s one true maxim in Yankee history, it’s that you’re paid for what you do in October. Munson’s first taste of postseason baseball went down smooth, with a blistering 202 wRC+ in a successful ALCS and somewhat bitter World Series loss to the Big Red Machine. That Munson was once again contrasted with a legendary catcher in the Fall Classic in Johnny Bench made for an exciting matchup, even if it went just four games. Bench batted .533 in the Series to Munson’s .529.

That experience would be valuable for the Walrus and his crew, as they were about to embark on something close to a dynasty — though not without conflict between the face of the franchise and the team’s newest, shiniest toy. After negotiating a new contract, five years at a quarter million per, Munson revealed that owner George Steinbrenner verbally guaranteed that the catcher would always be the highest-paid player on a team he owned.

Then the Boss signed Reggie Jackson to an incentive-laden deal that, if all elevators were hit, would pay Reggie more than the team captain. With how proud a person Munson was, you can guess how well that went over. Steinbrenner attempted to hold a peace meeting, but Jackson gave that famous “straw” quote and claimed he would never have allowed the Reds to sweep if he had been on the team a year earlier. The Bronx Zoo was in full effect.

Playing through a series of injuries, including a staph infection that left him on the sidelines for a week, Munson had another typically strong season as all that off-field drama had little effect on the team’s play. One hundred wins, with Munson, Jackson, Graig Nettles and Sparky Lyle all finishing in the top 10 of MVP votes (and Sparky winning Cy Young), the squad was well-prepared for a deep October run.

World Series - New York Yankees v Los Angeles Dodgers, October, 1977 Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The ‘77 World Series was Jackson’s time to shine, to the tune of a 1.792 OPS, more than twice Munson’s own strong .890. The embattled pair did go back-to-back in Game 5 though, with Reggie’s bomb setting the stage for his three-homer night in the clincher.

Despite the team success, the drama and the distance from home had begun to wear on Munson. His pining for a trade to Cleveland became more incessant and that winter, he pursued his pilot’s license. How much that discontent finally ate into Munson’s performance in 1978 is up for debate. The catcher did lose 100 points off his OPS, struggling to find the power he had shown in previous seasons, but of course that year is about so much more than any one player’s slash line.

You know about being 14 games back.

In the first half, the Red Sox were well deserving of being in first place in the AL East. With a +132 run differential, they looked like the class of the league, and while the Yankees were no slouches themselves, the difference was stark. Then, of course, came August and September, the Boston Massacre, Bucky f’n Dent, and all the rest. Munson himself improved down the stretch, bumping his wRC+ by 13 points in the second half and bringing his “me against the world” attitude to full force in the clubhouse.

That chip on Munson’s shoulder was one of the driving forces behind all the friction we saw in the 70s. Fisk and Bench, the Steinbrenner guarantee and accusing Reggie of dogging it, all came from an attitude that Munson was both that good and working harder than everyone at the same time.

Athlete psychology is a fascinating thing. That same fire that put Munson at odds with so many others throughout his career was probably the same fire that got him into the majors in the first place. The biggest differentiator between the guys that make it and the guys that don’t is often that sheer, usually uncomfortable, force of will. Munson had it in spades, and while it caused sparks to fly throughout his life, it’s also exactly what you need when you’re 14 games back and an AL East title seems impossible.

With the division title in his pocket, Munson engineered another ALCS triumph over Kansas City, on both sides of the ball after the series was knotted at a game apiece.

Ho-hum, another 130 wRC+ postseason, chucking guys out on the basepaths, and the Yankees had their second straight World Series. Munson was granted the opportunity to record the final out, as he snared Ron Cey’s popup off Goose Gossage to seal the deal.

The End

According to Reggie’s own biography, Jackson was convinced to fly with Munson on that new-to-him Cessna jet early in the ‘79 season. Munson complained of frequent issues with the plane, including a faulty altimeter.

With bad knees finally catching up with him, it was becoming likely Thurman’s days behind the plate were numbered. By June, the recently-rehired Billy Martin was speculating in the press that the Yankee captain would DH and spot at first for the rest of the season, but Tugboat still caught in 88 of the team’s 97 games before that fateful offday.

Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer were all asked to accompany Munson on that last flight to Canton, although they all turned their captain down. Trepidation about the state of that Cessna drove most of the decision, and the two survivors of the crash detailed they felt Munson miscalculated his altitude, coming down too early on a runway 50 feet higher than the field the wreck came to rest on.

By all accounts, Munson’s last words were “Are you guys OK?”

Captain to the end, even while trapped in a burning plane, with a cervical fracture that would have made it impossible to escape, Thurman Munson was thinking about the other two in the aircraft.

When the heartbroken Yankees took the field for their first game without him, they left home plate vacant for several minutes as the crowd let out a cathartic cheer and thousands wept in the Bronx. They lost 1-0 that night, but they somehow won on the same day they buried him, flying to and from Ohio.

Murcer gave the bat he used to deliver the walk-off to Thurman’s widow, Diana. Munson’s No. 15 had been immediately retired, and a year later, a plaque was dedicated to him in Monument Park. Rather than the classic rundown of a great Yankee’s highlights, it simply displayed the message that appeared on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard during that first game without him:

“Our captain and leader has not left us—today, tomorrow, this year, next... our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.”

The captain’s locker was left empty for almost 30 years. It was holy ground in the Yankee clubhouse even as the team celebrated four more titles at the old ballpark. That locker has since been moved, in its entirety, across the street to the Yankee Museum at Yankee Stadium III. It’s a permanent homage to the team captain, even as the kids who wept at the news in ‘79 have had kids of their own and some of those kids probably have kids; the name Thurman Munson becomes an echo of history.

I’m an analytics guy. I like WAR, K-BB%, and FIP. Yankee history is littered with the importance of numbers — 714, 61, 652 and of course 27. There is no number that sums up Munson. His case for Cooperstown is borderline, though maybe, if he had never crashed that plane, he would have ended up there. He has just three instances of black ink on his Baseball Reference page, twice for leading the league in caught stealing behind the plate, once for passed balls. (Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe would put him in though, for what it’s worth.)

In a sense, none of that matters when thinking about Thurman Munson, though. He was the captain of a near-dynasty, the face of a Yankees team that fought itself back to respectability after several seasons of irrelevance. He was the hero for countless Bronx kids getting into baseball. His life ended far too soon, and we never got the moments at Old-Timers’ Day that some of the other greats on this list have. But that he died trying to learn how to balance being a good father, a good husband, and a star baseball player may tell you all you ever need to know about Thurman Munson.

New York Yankees
Gene Michael, Piniella, Murcer, and Diana Munson
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Staff rank: 15
Community rank: 16
Stats rank: 21
2013 rank: 17

References

Appel, Marty. Baseball Research Journal: “The Day Thurman Munson Taught Yankees’ P.R. a Lesson”, 1984

Baseball Reference

Carroll, Charlotte. Sports Illustrated: “Bill Lee: 1973 Sox, Yankees Brawl ‘Looked Like Two Hookers Fighting on 45th Street’”, September 20, 2018

Epstein, Dan. Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76” Macmillan Books, 2014

ESPN Original Productions: “The Bronx is Burning” 2007 TV miniseries

FanGraphs

Jackson, Reggie & Mike Lupica. Reggie: The Autobiography, Villard Books, 1984

Jones, Chris. ESPN Magazine: “The Things We Forget, Part 10: Thurman Munson’s old locker in Yankee Stadium”, December 4, 2008

Keenan, Jimmy and Frank Russo. SABR Bio

Loumena, Dan. LA Times: “Reggie Jackson tries to set record straight on Thurman Munson quote”, October 5, 2013

New York Daily News Staff: “25 years later, Thurman Munson’s last words remain a symbol of his life”, August 1, 2009

Previously on the Top 100

16. Aaron Judge
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