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Remembering the Great Thurman Munson 40 Years After His Tragic Death

Following a successful career as a journalist, graphic designer, and marketer, Gary Kauffman is now a freelance writer.

A file photo provided to me by the New York Yankees many years ago. It hung on my wall for many years.

A file photo provided to me by the New York Yankees many years ago. It hung on my wall for many years.

I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

—Don McLean, American Pie

On Feb. 3, 1959, a plane crash killed musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. I was exactly one month old, so I don’t recall anything about it, although the crash was immortalized as the day the music died in Don McLean’s epic song, American Pie.

20 years later, another plane crash stunned me and felt much more to me like a day that the music died.

The Tragic Announcement

It was Aug. 2, 1979. I had just come home from a factory where I worked the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college. Mom’s radio on the kitchen table was tuned to the local station and during a break between songs, the DJ solemnly read the news flash: Thurman Munson, star catcher for the New York Yankees, had died in a plane crash in Ohio.

My brothers and I were stunned. In some ways, it was more than the death of a star player on my favorite team. It was the death of a big part of my childhood.

The Decline of a Dynasty

By the time I was old enough to follow baseball, the great Yankees dynasty had crumbled. Instead of playing for first place as they had from the 1920s to 1964, they were playing to stay out of last place. Mickey Mantle was a shell of his former greatness. We were saddled with hoping players like Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone could replace him. In 1967, guys like Steve Whitaker and Charley Smith, who I have no recollection of, were starters.

Teams like the Orioles, Red Sox and Tigers made trips to the World Series while our Yankees languished in eighth or ninth place in the standings. In order to relive at least a little of the Yankee glory, my brothers and I were left leafing through my dad’s treasure trove of 1950s baseball magazines and hearing his stories of Mickey Mantle hitting a home run in literally every game he ever attended.

New Heroes

When Mantle announced his retirement before the 1969 season, things seemed even gloomier for us Yankee fans. But there was a bright spot, another kid from Oklahoma named Bobby Murcer, who stepped into the Yankee spotlight and stole our hearts. The following year, a brash young catcher named Thurman Munson joined the team and won Rookie of the Year honors.

Suddenly, my brothers and I had real heroes to root for. Murcer and Munson, our own M&M boys, a centerfielder and catcher in the mold of Mantle and Berra. The Yankees were still on the mediocre side but at least we had real stars to root for. I had a picture of Murcer taped to my bedroom wall and for my 15th birthday in 1974, I decorated my own cake, recreating a picture I had of Munson, his face in profile, mask on his head and his 15 displayed on his back.

Munson, with his bushy hair and walrus mustache, and his squat, burly body that that seemed ill-suited for the game of baseball, became something of an everyman with his fierce, aggressive attitude. If Munson could excel at the game then maybe I could too, with just enough practice. So life was getting better for a Yankee fan.

A screen shot of Munson coming to the plate in the one-game playoff with Boston in 1978.

A screen shot of Munson coming to the plate in the one-game playoff with Boston in 1978.

Glory Years

But the first stunning blow landed on Oct. 22, 1974, when the Yankees traded Murcer to the Giants for Bobby Bonds. I still remember that day like a punch in the gut. How could the Yankees betray me like this? He was going to be a hometown hero in the vein of DiMaggio and Mantle.

But at least we still had Munson, and he was getting better. In 1975, he batted .318 with 12 homers and 102 RBIs. The next year he hit .302 with 17 homers and 105 RBIs, earning the American League MVP award. More importantly, he led the Yankees to the World Series, their first appearance in the fall classic that I could recall (I was 5 when they played the Cardinals in 1964 and I remember nothing of that Series). The Yankees lost in four straight to The Big Red Machine, but Munson was a star, hitting .529 and reaching base safely in all four games.

In 1977, although Reggie Jackson claimed to be the straw that stirred the drink, Munson was the team leader. He once again had a great offensive season, hitting .308 with 18 homers and 100 RBIs. In 1978 injuries took a toll on his offense, slumping to .297 with 6 homers and 71 RBIs, although he still played in 154 games. In both seasons, he was a key to the Yankees defeating the Dodgers in the World Series, hitting .320 in both.

Unique Among Catchers

Munson’s batting averages may not be as impressive today, but for a catcher to hit over .300 as many times as he did was a rarity in the 1970s. The last full-time catcher to hit .300 before Munson's rookie season was Joe Torre in 1966, and only 10 catchers had hit over .300 between 1947 and 1966 – three times by Roy Campanella and twice by Yogi Berra. Munson’s .318 average in 1975 was the highest by an American League catcher since Berra’s .322 in 1950 (Manny Sanguillen hit .328 and Ted Simmons .332 in the National League in 1975).

Munson was also a good contact hitter. His season-high in strikeouts was 70 in 1978, although he topped 60 just three other times. In 1976 he struck out just 38 times in 665 plate appearances, or once every 17.5 plate appearances. For his career, he walked 438 times and struck out 571 times. In addition, he was considered among the elite defensive catchers, often compared to contemporaries Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk.

But the wear and tear of catching started to take a toll and the Yankees looked for other spots to use him. In 1978 when Jackson was suspended for a dugout altercation with manager Billy Martin, Munson played 13 games in right field. One of those games was on July 22 in old Comiskey Park in Chicago. I sat in the front row in right with a clear close-up view of the number 15 on his broad back.

Munson's Career Stats

YearGABRH2B3BHRRBIsAvgOBPSlgOPS

1969

26

86

6

22

1

2

1

9

.256

.330

.349

.679

1970

132

453

59

137

25

4

6

53

.302

.386

.415

.801

1971

125

451

71

113

15

4

10

42

.251

.335

.368

.703

1972

140

511

54

143

16

3

7

46

.280

.343

.364

.707

1973

147

519

80

156

29

4

20

74

.301

.362

.487

.849

1974

144

517

64

135

19

2

13

60

.261

.316

.381

.697

1975

157

597

83

190

24

3

12

102

.318

.366

.429

.795

1976

152

616

79

186

27

1

17

105

.302

.337

.432

.769

1977

149

595

85

183

28

5

18

100

.308

.351

.462

.813

1978

154

617

73

183

27

1

6

71

.297

.332

.373

.705

1979

97

382

42

110

18

3

3

39

.288

.340

.374

.714

Total

1423

5344

696

1558

229

32

113

701

.292

.346

.410

.756

A Season in Decline

In 1979, the season started poorly for the Yankees and Baltimore built a sizeable lead on them. One bright spot, at least for me, was that on June 26, the Yankees traded a minor leaguer to the Cubs for Murcer. Once again, Murcer and Munson were reunited.

But things weren’t going great for Munson, either. He was slumping at the plate. Munson, who turned 32 on June 7, could probably see the end in sight, at least as a catcher. After catching all season, the Yankees moved Munson to first base on July 29 and 30, had him DH on July 31 and then play first again on Aug. 1 in Chicago.

The Day the "Music" Died

Meanwhile, he had developed a passion for flying. He purchased a $1.25 million jet and took flying lessons. Thursday, Aug. 2 was an off day for the Yankees before a big four-game series with Baltimore and Munson drove from Chicago to his hometown of Akron to inspect his new plane.

When he ran into his flight instructor and a fellow pilot, he decided to take it for a spin. But as he tried to land about 20 minutes later, tragedy struck. At first an electrical failure on the plane was cited as a cause for the accident, but later it was determined to be pilot error due to his inexperience. The plane crashed and began to burn. The two passengers were able to scramble to safety.

But the crash broke Munson’s neck and paralyzed him. He was unable to move to save himself and the passengers couldn’t release him from the plane before fire and smoke forced them away. According to the coroner’s report, Munson asphyxiated from the smoke and his body was badly burned.

A Fitting Tribute Game

The Yankees dropped the first two games to the Orioles before winning 3-2 on Sunday. Munson’s funeral was held on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 6. Murcer delivered the eulogy for his longtime friend. The Orioles offered to postpone the game that night, which was scheduled to air nationally on Monday Night Baseball. But the Yankees knew the fiery tempered Munson wouldn’t want his death to keep them from playing and decided to play the game.

Things looked bleak for the Yankees. Heading into the bottom of the seventh, they trailed the Orioles 4-0. Then with two outs, Bucky Dent walked, Willie Randolph doubled and Murcer smashed a three-run homer. Still, the Orioles had not lost a game all season when they led after seven innings, and with ace reliever Tippy Martinez on the mound, the Yankees’ prospects didn’t look promising.

But Dent led off the bottom of the ninth with another walk. When Randolph put down a bunt, Martinez threw the ball away, allowing Dent to go to third and Randolph second. That brought Murcer to the plate again. This time, he laced a hit down the leftfield line, bringing in both Dent and Randolph, giving the Yankees a gritty win Munson would have been proud of.

The author near a memorial plaque for Munson at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

The author near a memorial plaque for Munson at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

The Legacy Lives On

That fall I had the chance to interview Tommy John (he was being honored as a distinguished alumnus at Indiana State University, where I was a junior and an ace reporter for the student newspaper). John won 21 games that year, having joined the Yankees as a free agent before the season began. John said that even though they trailed the Orioles by quite a bit in the standings, Munson’s presence always kept them in a never-give-up spirit. But that changed after he died, and the Yankees’ hopes of a fourth straight World Series died with Munson.

Even now, 40 years later, Munson’s death still hangs heavy over Yankee fans of that era. We’ve had plenty of heroes to cheer for since then, from Don Mattingly to Derek Jeter to Aaron Judge. But there was something about Munson’s grit—his everyman presence—that resonated with so many of us. And even though the “music” died that August day in Ohio, a little glimmer of him still lives on in each of us.