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Thurman Lee Munson (June 7, – August 2, ) was a Major League Baseball catcher who spent his entire career with the New York Yankees ( - 1979). A perennial All-Star, Munson was killed at age 32 while trying to land his personal jet. He is the only Yankee ever to win both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards.

Amateur career

Born in to Darrell Vernon Munson and Ruth Myrna Smylie, Thurman grew up in nearby . He graduated from Lehman High School in Canton, where his standout performances in football, basketball, as well as baseball attracted scholarship offers from various colleges. Munson opted to attend nearby Kent State Universitymarker on scholarship, where he was a teammate of pitcher and broadcaster Steve Stone. At Kent, Munson joined the Delta Upsilon fraternity.

In the summer of , Munson joined the Cape Cod Baseball League, where he led the Chatham A's to their first league title with a prodigious .420 batting average. In recognition of this achievement and his subsequent professional achievements, the Thurman Munson Batting Award is given each season to the League's batting champion. In September , he married Diane Dominick at St. John's Parish in Canton.

Rookie of the Year

Munson was selected by the Yankees with the fourth pick in the first round of the 1968 Major League Baseball Draft. In his only full minor league season, he batted .301 with six home runs and 37 runs batted in for the Binghamton Triplets in their final season ( ). He was batting .363 for the Syracuse Chiefs in 1969 when he earned a promotion to the New York Yankees.

Munson made his major league debut on August 8, 1969 in the second game of a double header against the Oakland Athletics. Munson went two for three with a walk, one RBI and two runs scored. Two days later, hit his first major league home run was the second of three consecutive home runs hit by the Yankees off Lew Krausse in a 5 - 1 Yankee victory over the A's. For the season, Munson batted .256 with one home run and nine RBIs. He made 97 plate appearances, but drew ten walks and had one sacrifice fly, which gave him 86 official at bats, and allowed him to go into the season still technically a rookie.

The Yankees used a platoon of Jake Gibbs and Frank Fernández at catcher for most of 1969. During the off season, the Yankees dealt Fernandez to the A's to make room for their rising star behind the plate. Munson responded by batting .302 with seven home runs and 57 RBIs, and making 80 assists en route to receiving the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year award.

All-Star

Munson received his first of seven All-Star nods in , catching the last two innings without an at-bat. An outstanding fielder, Munson committed only one error all season. It occurred on June 18 against the Baltimore Orioles when opposing catcher Andy Etchebarren knocked Munson unconscious on a play at the plate, dislodging the ball. He also only allowed nine passed balls all season and caught 36 of a potential 59 base stealers for a stellar 61% caught stealing percentage.

Munson was known for his longstanding feud with Boston Red Sox counterpart Carlton Fisk. One particular incident that typified their feud, and the Red Sox – Yankees rivalry in general, occurred on August 1, at Fenway Parkmarker. With the score tied at 2-2 in the top of the ninth, Munson attempted to score on Gene Michael's missed bunt attempt. Munson barreled into Fisk, triggering a ten minute bench-clearing brawl in which both catchers were ejected.

Munson made his second All-Star team and won his first of three straight Gold Glove Awards in 1973. He also emerged as more of a slugger for the Yankees, batting .300 for the first time since 1970, and hitting a career high twenty home runs. In , Munson was elected to start his first of three consecutive All-Star games, going one for three with a walk and a run scored.

MVP

Munson batted a career high .318 in , which was third in the league behind Rod Carew and Fred Lynn. For the start of the season, Munson was named the first Yankees team captain since Lou Gehrig retired in . He responded by batting .302 with seventeen home runs and 105 RBIs to receive the American League MVP Award and lead the Yankees to their first World Series since . He batted .435 with three RBIs and three runs scored in the 1976 American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals, and batted .529 with two RBIs and two runs scored in the 1976 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Already down three games to none, Munson went four for four in the final game of the Series at Yankee Stadiummarker to try to avoid a sweep to the "Big Red Machine." Combined with the hits he got in his final two at bats in game three, his six consecutive hits tied a World Series record set by Goose Goslin of the Washington Senators in .

Reds catcher Johnny Bench was named World Series MVP. A fairly obvious comparison of opposing backstops was made to Reds manager Sparky Anderson during the post-World Series press conference, to which, Anderson responded, "Munson is an outstanding ballplayer and he would hit .300 in the National League, but you don't ever compare anybody to Johnny Bench. Don't never embarrass nobody by comparing them to Johnny Bench." Munson was visibly upset by these comments when he got on the mike shortly afterwards.

World Series Champion

Munson batted .308 with 100 RBIs in , giving him three consecutive seasons batting .300 or better with 100 or more RBI each year. He was the first catcher to accomplish the feat in three consecutive years since Yankee Hall of Famermarker Bill Dickey's four straight seasons from -1939, matched only by Mike Piazza since ( - ). The Yankees repeated as American League Champions, and faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. Munson batted .320 with a home run and three RBIs in the Yankees four games to two victory over the Dodgers. The Dodgers had stolen 114 bases during the regular season, yet Munson caught four of six potential base stealers in the first four games of the series to keep the speedy Dodgers grounded in the final two.

The Yankees and Royals faced each other for the third consecutive time in the 1978 American League Championship Series. With the ALCS tied at a game apiece, and trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning of game three, Munson hit the longest home run of his career, a 475-foot (145 m) shot off Doug Bird over Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in left-center field, to give the Yankees a 6-5 win. They won the pennant the next day, and went on to best the Dodgers again for the 1978 World Series Championship.

August 2, 1979

The Yankees had lost three in a row, and were in fourth place, eleven games back of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East heading into the All-Star break in . Despite a .297 average, the wear-and-tear of catching was beginning to take its toll on Munson, and he was overlooked for the American League All-Star team. Frequently homesick, he had a well-known desire to play for the Cleveland Indians in order to be closer to his family, and was also considering retiring at the end of the season.

Munson had been taking flying lessons for a little over two years, and purchased a Cessna Citation I/SP jet so he could fly home to his family in Canton on off-days. On August 2, 1979, he was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Regional Airportmarker with friend Jerry Anderson and flight instructor Dave Hall. On the third Touch-and-go landing, Munson allowed the aircraft to sink too low before increasing engine power, causing the jet to clip a tree and fall short of the runway. The plane then hit a tree stump and burst into flames.

Hall and Anderson both managed to escape the accident with Hall receiving burns on his arms and hands, and Anderson receiving burns on his face arm and neck. Munson, meanwhile, was trapped inside, and was confirmed dead by Summit County sheriff Anthony Cardarelli. It is believed that the inability to get out of the plane, and the ensuing asphyxiation from inhaling toxic substances is what killed Munson, rather than injuries sustained on impact or burns. The crash was attributed to pilot error, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Legacy

The day after his death, before the start of the Yankees' four-game set with the Baltimore Orioles in the Bronxmarker, the team paid tribute to their deceased captain in a pre-game ceremony in which the starters stood at their defensive positions, save for the catcher's box, which remained empty. Following a prayer by Terence Cardinal Cooke, a moment of silence and "America The Beautiful" by Robert Merrill, the fans (announced attendance 51,151) burst into an eight minute standing ovation. Jerry Narron, the man who would replace Munson behind the plate, remained in the dugout, and did not enter the field until stadium announcer Bob Sheppard said, "And now it is time to play ball. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen for your co-operation."

On August 6, the entire Yankee team attended Munson's funeral in Canton, Ohio. Teammates Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, who were Munson's best friends, gave eulogies. That night (before a national viewing audience on ABC's Monday Night Baseball) the Yankees beat the Orioles 5-4 in New York, with Murcer driving in all five runs with a three-run home run in the seventh inning and a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner retired Munson's number 15 immediately upon his catcher's death. On September 20, , a plaque dedicated in Munson's memory was placed in Monument Park. The plaque bears excerpts from an inscription composed by Steinbrenner and flashed on the Stadium scoreboard the day after his death:

On August 1, , the day before the first anniversary of the accident, the Yankees filed a $4.5-million lawsuit against Cessna Aircraft Co. and Flight Safety International, Inc. (the company who was training Munson to fly) with team spokesman John J. McCarty saying "we asked for $4.5 million because that is what Munson would be worth if the Yankees traded him." Munson's widow, Diane, also filed a $42.2 million wrongful lawsuit against the two companies. Cessna offered Munson a special deal on flying lessons if he would take them from Flight Safety. Rather than requiring Munson to take a two week safety class in Kansasmarker, Flight Safety assigned a "traveling instructor" to go on the road with him, and train him between ballgames. The suit was eventually settled out of court.

The locker that Munson used, along with a bronzed set of his catching equipment, was donated to the Baseball Hall of Famemarker, a destination many believe Munson would have reached had his career not been cut short. Despite a packed clubhouse, Munson's final locker position was never reassigned. The empty locker next to current Yankee team captain Derek Jeter's, with Munson's number 15 on it, remained as a tribute to the Yankees' lost catcher in the original Yankee Stadium until the Stadium closed in 2008. Munson's locker was moved in one piece to the New Yankee Stadiummarker. It is located in the New York Yankees Museum. Visitors can view the Yankees Museum on game days from when the gates open to the end of the eighth inning and during Yankee Stadium tours. Munson's number 15 is also displayed on the center-field wall at Thurman Munson Stadiummarker, a minor-league ballpark in Canton. Munson is buried at Canton's Sunset Hills Burial Park.

Munson is survived by his wife, Diana, and their three children Tracy, Kelly and Michael. In January , Michael, opened a baseball-themed sports bar in Canton called Munson's Home Plate Sports Pub. The pub is decorated in baseball memorabilia and photographs from throughout Munson's career.

Career stats

Seasons Games GC AB Runs Hits 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO Avg. Slg. CS% Fld%
11 1423 1278 5344 696 1558 229 32 113 701 48 438 571 .292 .410 44% .982
Munson had a career .357 batting average in the post-season with three home runs, 22 RBIs and nineteen runs scored. His batting average in the World Series was .373.

References

  1. All Roads Lead to October (chapter 10) by Maury Allen, St. Martin's Press 2000 ISBN 0-312-26175-6
  2. ibid., chapter 10, reprinted at Internet Archive's last entry for the ThurmanMunson.com history page
  3. The Frederick Maryland News, August 7, 1980, p. 24.


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