On August 2, 1979, I remember the news that afternoon at 6 saying that a plane crash happened in Canton Ohio and Thurman Munson was dead. It was shocking because he was only 32 years old and catcher for the Yankees.
While I was watching the 77 and 78 World Series there was one player I dreaded seeing at-bat with men on…, not Reggie Jackson…it was Thurman Munson. He is the only then Yankee player that I liked and respected.
Thurman is more remembered today for how his life ended than being a very good baseball player. He didn’t look like a prototypical Yankee. He was short and squatty with a sometimes difficult personality. He never did hit with a lot of power, the most home runs he ever hit in a season was 20. He ended up with a career batting average of .292 and an OBP of .346…very good for a catcher in that time period or now.
He was born in Canton Ohio in 1947 and grew up in a dysfunctional family. He kept progressing at baseball and attended Kent State. He was drafted with the 4th pick of the draft by the Yankees in 1968. He played with the Yankees from 1969 – 1979. Munson won Rookie of the Year in 1970. He was a 7-time All-Star and an MVP in 1976. Thurman hurt his shoulder in the mid-seventies and had problems throwing the ball to second but he played through it all.
He had a rivalry with Carlton Fisk with the Red Sox and was fun to watch play. He was grumpy with reporters but good with kids and teammates. Former GM Gabe Paul said, “Thurman Munson is a nice guy who doesn’t want anyone to know it.”
He missed his family and wanted to be at home. He learned to fly and bought a prop plane so he could go home every night after a game. He kept progressing from plane to plane until he bought a Cessna $1.4 million twin-engine jet. He was practicing takeoffs and landings that day and came in and clipped some trees. He had three passengers, David Hall, and Jerry Anderson.
The plane caught fire as soon as it landed. Munson was conscious but had suffered serious spinal damage and couldn’t move. Anderson and Hall tried to pull Thurman to safety but the main door was jammed. Munson’s legs were trapped inside the crushed fuselage and wouldn’t budge. By the time the two men burst through the emergency exit, the smoke had consumed the entire plane. Hall and Anderson jumped out of the jet barely surviving. Thurman was dead at 32.
At the time I thought Thurman would be in the Hall of Fame. His numbers at the time of his death were comparable to Carlton Fisk. Munson appeared on the ballot in 1981, two years after a plane crash ended his life, and never got more than 15.5% of the vote.
Here is a list of his accomplishments from Wiki…but remember he was passed in many categories after he died.
- 1st all time – Singles in World Series, 9
- 10th all time – Batting average by catcher, .292
- 11th all time – Postseason batting average, .357
- 11th all time – Caught stealing percentage
- 16th all time – On base percentage by catcher
- 20th all time – OPS by catcher
- 24th all time – Slugging by catcher
- 26th all time – Hits by catcher
- 26th all time – Runs by catcher
- AL Rookie of the Year (1970)
- AL MVP (1976)
- 3× Gold Glove Award
- 3 AL Pennants
- 2 World Series titles
- 7× All Star