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Card-by-Yankees Card: The 1977 Topps Set, Card #170, Thurman Munson (Article 32)

by Paul Semendinger



Of the Yankees of my childhood, I suppose that the three I write about the most are Graig Nettles, Reggie Jackson, and Thurman Munson.

Graig Nettles was my favorite player. I opine on this pages (and in my new Yankees book The Least Among Them – coming in April 2021) that Nettles deserves to be recognized in Monument Park. Why he is not there is a mystery.

Reggie was REGGIE! When I watched him hit three balls into the World Series night in 1977, my baseball fandom was cemented. I already rooted for the Yankees, but watching Reggie hit those bombs made me a Yankee fan for life. All Yankees, to me, were larger than life, but Reggie Jackson was bigger than them all.

And then there was Thurman Munson. If you grew up as a Yankees fan in the 1970s at all, you loved and greatly respected The Captain. Thurman was the heart of the Yankees. He was spoken about with reverence. Everyone spoke this way – from the announcers to the fans. Always. Thurman Munson was tough. A gamer. He hit in the clutch. He called great games.

In many ways, Thurman Munson was the Yankees.

Munson’s 1976 season was the year before I became a Yankees fan, but somehow I knew that Thurman Munson was the MVP. It just happened that way. If you knew baseball, you knew Thurman Munson was the best.

I remember learning a lot about baseball by watching Thurman Munson and listening to the announcers.

Great players drive in runs (or so they said) – and that’s just what Thurman did. He drove in over 100 runs in 1975, 1976, and 1977.

Great players, they said, hit .300. Thurman certainly did. In addition to driving in 100 runs in each of those seasons, 1975-1977, Munson also hit over .300 those same years.

(As I recall, Munson was the first Yankee to bat over .300 and drive in over 100 runs in three consecutive seasons since Joe DiMaggio.)

I also learned that a team’s best all-around hitter bats in the #3 spot in the batting order. That was exactly where Thurman batted. He came-up immediately after Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph and just before Reggie Jackson.

A lot of the traditional baseball narratives were taught to this young fan through watching Thurman Munson.

I know today that many of those narratives are also questioned. Batting average and RBI’s don’t mean as much. The Yankees’ best hitter, Aaron Judge, bats second… Still, there was a lot of logic and reasoning behind what they said. I still think the team’s best hitter should hit third. And, while I (of course) understand OBP, SLG, OPS, wOBA, WAR and all of that, I’d happily take a .300 hitter on my team who drives in 100 runs.

Has there ever been a bad hitter who hit .300 and drove in 100 runs year-after-year-after year?

And Thurman Munson son did all of this while playing catcher and catching (seemingly) almost every single game.

***

Thurman also taught me about life and how precious it is.

Fleeting…

I have written this before, but it is because of Thurman, I learned that our heroes die.

As an eleven-year-old, I thought the Yankees were superheroes. In many ways they were no different than Superman or Batman. The Yankees could do anything. I thought they had real super powers. Just think about what I saw as my baseball fandom was emerging:

Reggie hitting three home runs in one game

The Yankees winning the World Series

Ron Guidry setting a strikeout record and going 25-3

Bucky Dent hitting a magical homer

Graig Nettles diving all over the place making catches no one thought possible

The Yankees winning another World Series

These guys really did have super powers. Any one of them could rise up and save the day. And they did.

I thought it would go on like that forever. Why wouldn’t it?

And then August 2, 1979 arrived…

***

I didn’t think superheroes or Yankees could die, but one just did.

Thurman Munson.

Thurman Munson… died?

What?

***

41 years later, I still don’t believe it.

***

I remember the day like yesterday…

I was playing in my front yard. My next door neighbor came over. He said, “Did you hear that Thurman Munson died?” I said, “No way.” And I remember also saying, “You shouldn’t even joke about something like that.”

He then said, “I’m not joking. He died in a plane crash.”

The world was a different place in 1979. There was no Internet. There was no 24-hour news. It was late morning or the middle of the afternoon, when I was told this. The TV news wouldn’t be on until until 5:00.

But I had to find out – right then. Thurman Munson couldn’t be dead. I thought this was just a crazy thing. Everyone was wrong. There was no way Thurman Munson could be dead. No way. At all.

I didn’t own a transistor radio. The only radio I knew about that worked was the one in my dad’s Volkswagen Beetle. We rushed to the car, sat down in the front seats and put the radio on. (For whatever reason, the radio always worked in the Beetle, even without turning the ignition key.)

Moments later my dad saw us sitting in the car listening to the radio. He demanded that we get out. “You’ll wear down the car’s battery. Get out of the car and go play.”

“But Dad,” I said, “Thurman Munson just died.”

“What?”

Even my dad couldn’t believe that a superhero could die…

***

I don’t remember much else. I remember being in my living room with the TV on and watching the news reports.

“Thurman Munson has died in a plane crash.”

It didn’t seem possible. How? Why?

I also remember that the next day our family was supposed to be going on a big camping trip with a bunch of other families from town. I remember asking if we should cancel it. I figured that life had to stop.

Thurman Munson was dead.

We went camping. I don’t remember anything about it.

My parents didn’t often buy the New York Daily News, but I remember having the newspaper from that next day. I recall the sad Bill Gallo cartoon with Thurman’s face in Heaven.

I remember not understanding or believing it.

A month later, one of my great aunts died.

A month after that my Grandpa died.

Once death came, it came and came and came.

These are the things that stick with us. Once we start to comprehend death, we also start to understand life.

We lose the innocence and the naiveté of childhood, we are no longer little kids.

Superheroes aren’t real.

And Yankees don’t live forever…

I still wish I hadn’t learned those lessons on August 2, 1979.

***

I think there are many Yankees fans, like me, that still don’t fully comprehend the whole death of Thurman Munson.

It still doesn’t seem real. It still seems so absurd.

And I think there are many fans, just like me, that are also still sad about it… who also want to bring our aunts back, and our Grandpas, and the catcher…

Rest in Peace.

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