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  • Writer's picturePaul Semendinger

Thurman Munson and the Hall of Fame

by Paul Semendinger

Originally Published June 7, 2023

***

Background - Over the last few days, Thurman Munson's Hall of Fame case has been discussed a bit on the site. I figured today presented a good opportunity to share my reasoning why I believe Thurman Munson merits inclusion into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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Thurman Munson was born on June 7, 1947. If he were alive, today would be his 76th birthday.


A few weeks ago, Thurman Munson's name came up on Twitter. I engaged in some friendly discussion with some baseball experts and fans regarding Thurman Munson and his Hall of Fame case. Some of that discussion took place on Twitter, some off-line.


In short, I believe Thurman Munson, absolutely, and unequivocally belongs in the Hall of Fame.


What follows are two of the more lengthy arguments I have made for Thurman Munson's inclusion in the Hall of Fame.


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Argument 1 - From an E-Mail I Sent:


In one conversation, I brought up Munson's lifetime WAR which puts him in company with other Hall of Fame catchers. One response that came was a claim that WAR does not properly measure Munson's career. I found (and find) that argument flawed. In order to continue the discussion, one person and I exchanged e-mails.


The following comes from my e-mail response to the idea that WAR shouldn't be used in Munson's case. I then went on to give other statistics and reasons in support of Munson:

The industry standard for comparing players across eras is WAR. For whatever faults WAR has, it has become the most accepted way to evaluate a player's overall worth, value, and ultimately (because this is what it most often comes down to) a player's Hall of Fame candidacy. WAR just isn't a tool, it is THE tool used as a baseline in that determination.

In my opinion, if a person uses WAR to make a case on one player's Hall of Fame worthiness, that measuring tool must then be used for all players that person argues for or against. (One cannot say, "WAR says Player X belongs in the Hall-of-Fame, so I'll use WAR, but I'll argue against WAR when making the claim that Player Z does not belong." The standard is the standard.)

And by that standard, WAR, Thurman Munson ranks as the 15th greatest catcher of all-time. By my definition, that's a Hall-of-Famer. (It would be difficult to argue that in the long history of baseball that the 15th greatest catcher of all-time isn't Hall of Fame worthy.)


Over the years, in addition to WAR, other statistical tools have been developed to try to do an even better job of determining who the greatest players are. All of these also seem to indicate that Thurman Munson was a Hall-of-Fame worthy baseball player.


Here is a short and quick summary of how Thurman Munson ranks all-time by a variety of measurements:

By WAR, Munson ranks 15th all-time

WAR 7 moves Munson to 8th place

JAWS ranks Munson 12th

WAR/162 ranks Munson 9th

oWAR puts him at 16

dWar is less kind - 35th

WAA = 15th

MVP share = 11th


If we look to OPS+, even with a shortened career, Munson ranks above Gary Carter, Bobby Doerr, Robin Yount, Ryne Sandberg, and many others, including even Derek Jeter.


Further, the Hall-of-Fame Monitor gives Munson a score of 90. He comfortably ranks alongside Hall-of-Famers George Kell, Enos Slaughter, Tony Lazzeri, and Lou Boudreau.

The Hall-of-Fame Standards measure is less kind to Munson (he's 410th), but his ranking is identical to Tony Oliva who just got in.


In addition, some players are given consideration for "what might have been." In many of the articles about Tony Oliva, for example, people cited that he would have been that much better if not for his bad knees. People have used, "If not for the strike" to argue that Fred McGriff would have had better numbers. That same standard was also used for Kirby Puckett following his shortened career. The list here is endless, but that same consideration can and should be made for Munson. His best days may have been behind him, but it is possible that he could have had a few more good years, possibly even playing for the Cleveland Indians (close to home) to close out his career.


There is also the question as to whether or not catchers are under-represented in the Hall of Fame. That is a slightly different argument, but, if so, I believe that fact also supports Munson's candidacy. There are only 16 catchers who played in the MLB in the Hall of Fame. Munson ranks with that class. He's in the lower portion, but as we see from the above, he is, nonetheless, in that group.


In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Munson ranks 14th among catchers.

In The Cooperstown Casebook by Jay Jaffe, Munson ranks as the 12th greatest catcher. Jaffe states, "As short-career guys go" he is Hall-of-Fame worthy.

David J. Gordon states in Baseball Generations that Munson (who he ranks 14th at catcher all-time) "Warrants inclusion in the Hall-of-Fame."


These are just some of the experts who make the case for Munson.


Finally, if we look at the Keltner List, Thurman Munson scores a bunch of points there as well. He was a leader on his team, he won numerous awards, he was a winner, he put up impressive (for the time - and especially for a catcher) offensive and defensive statistics, etc... It would be tough to argue that you can tell the story of baseball in the 1970s without talking about Thurman Munson. Finally, by that standard, Thurman Munson just might be the best player at his position who is eligible and isn't yet in the Hall-of-Fame.

***

Argument 2 - A Past Article on SSTN


During the discussion on Twitter, I referred readers to the following article I published here at Start Spreading the News on November 7, 2019.


I will share that article again:


Thurman Munson is on the Hall-of-Fame ballot again. This might be his last chance to get into the Hall.


The question is, does he deserve to be elected?


Let’s explore this together.


The Low Bar

Last year, through a similar second/third/fourth/etc-chance committee, Harold Baines was elected to the Hall-of-Fame. Baines was a nice player, a very good player, in fact, he was an excellent hitter (if nothing else) for a long long time. I don’t think anyone has ever argued that Harold Baines was not a very good baseball player. But, many have argued that Harold Baines was not a Hall-of-Fame player. Even though he’s now a Hall-of-Famer, understanding his election to the Hall is still puzzling.


According to Baseball-Reference, Harold Baines had a lifetime WAR of 38.7. 38.7. That puts him 552nd all-time. That might be good, but it is certainly not great. That 38.7 WAR ranks as one of the worst among any player in the Hall-of-Fame. Baines ranks below such non Hall-of-Fame players as Carney Lansford, Mark Belanger, and even Brett Gardner.


Yes, Brett Gardner. Gardner’s lifetime WAR is 41.6.


By electing Baines, the committee set a low bar for inclusion in the Hall-of-Fame. The simple Hall-of-Fame test now is, “Does the player have a better WAR than Baines? If so, if Baines is in, why not _______?”


Now, granted, that’s far too simplistic, but it does allow at least for the start of an argument as to the relative worthiness of any Hall-of-Fame candidate. (One day we’ll have to compare the careers of Baines and Gardner.) Just for argument’s sake, Paul O’Neill, Darryl Strawberry, David Justice, Jesse Barfield, and even Giancarlo Stanton all have a higher lifetime WAR than Baines. Are any of those players Hall-of-Famers?


One thing is for certain, whatever his merits, they certainly didn’t raise the bar when the enshrined Harold Baines in the Hall-of-Fame.


Going forward, I plan to always base my initial determination on a player’s Hall-of-Fame credentials against the Baines test. On the most basic of levels, as a starting point, I will ask, “Did the player I am examining have a higher lifetime WAR than Baines?” If not, he does not belong in the Hall-of-Fame. If so, it makes sense to dig deeper. We’ll call this, the low bar. Before continuing to look at a candidate, he must be at least as good as Harold Baines.

As we look at Thurman Munson, the first test is that his WAR must be compared to Harold Baines’ WAR.


Thurman Munson’s lifetime WAR was… 46.1. This is good for 370th all-time. Munson is hundreds of players above Baines on the lifetime WAR list. While that shouldn’t be the criteria for election, we can, at least continue the discussion. Munson passed the Low Bar Test.


Other Catchers in the Hall-of-Fame

Now that we can look closer at Thurman’s candidacy, let’s examine how he compares to other Hall-of-Fame Catchers.


The catcher in the Hall-of-Fame with the highest WAR is Johnny Bench who owns a 75.2 lifetime WAR (good for 77th place all-time). Bench is the only catcher to crack baseball’s all-time top 100 players in WAR.


Believe it or not, the catcher who comes in second in WAR ranks just out of the top 100 at 101st. That player is Gary Carter with a lifetime WAR of 70.1.


The following are the next five catchers, in order (with their rank in parentheses):

  1. Ivan Rodriguez, 68.7 WAR (113)

  2. Carlton Fisk, 68.5 (115)

  3. Yogi Berra, 59.8 (191)

  4. Mike Piazza, 59.6 (192)

  5. Bill Dickey, 58.4 (206)

All of those catchers are considered all-time great catchers. They are all in the Hall-of-Fame.


The next list of catchers above Munson includes the following: Joe Mauer (55.0, WAR), Ted Simmons (50.3), Mickey Cochrane (48.5), Wally Schang (48.0), Ernie Lombardi (46.8), and Gene Tenace (46.8). Of these, only Cochrane and Lombardi are in the Hall-of-Fame.


Gene Tenace has a higher lifetime WAR than Thurman Munson? Yikes!


Still, of all the catchers in Major League history, if judging by WAR, Thurman Munson ranks 13th all-time.


Does the catcher with the 13th highest WAR in baseball history belong in the Hall-of-Fame?

By that measure, it’s hard to argue against him.


Hall-of-Famers Below Munson

The following is a list of Hall-of-Fame catchers who have a lower lifetime WAR than Thurman Munson:

  1. Roger Bresnahan, 42.5

  2. Roy Campanella, 37.0

  3. Rick Ferrell, 33.7

  4. Ray Schalk, 33.2

  5. Al Lopez, 21.9

Conversely, this seems to make Munson’s case a little more difficult. Roy Campanella was an all-time great who came to the Major Leagues later in his career due to the “color line.” As such, his lower WAR doesn’t reflect his overall career. Campy was a three-time MVP and an important player on the Brooklyn Dodgers. That only leaves only a handful of Hall-of-Fame catchers with a lower WAR than Munson.


I don’t think the Hall-of-Fame should be in the business of lowering the bar…


Munson’s Revenge

Let’s move on to a more thorough stat, JAWS, to see where Munson ranks against the best of all-time. Because JAWS looks at a few more factors (such a peak years) than WAR does, Munson actually moves up on notch to twelfth all-time (just passing Gene Tenace).


The only non-Hall-of-Fame catchers ranked above Munson all-time are Joe Mauer and Ted Simmons.


That’s pretty exclusive company. It’s hard to argue that the 12th highest ranked catcher in baseball history does not deserve to be enshrined in the Hall-of-Fame.


Digging Deeper

If you look at WAR7, which is a compilation of a player’s seven best seasons, Munson ranks eighth all-time among catchers.


Munson, of course, died tragically in a plane crash during the 1979 season. He was only 32 years-old at the time. While there were reports that he was slowing down, it is fair to assume that he probably had at least a few more good years in him. (Because he wanted to be close to his family, those final seasons might have been with the Cleveland Indians.) In his last two seasons, Munson’s WAR was 3.3 (1978) and 2.4 (1979). Let’s average those two out to 2.85. Let’s then also give Munson just four more seasons before he would have retired as a 36 year-old catcher. Those final four years would have allowed him to accumulate another 11.4 career WAR. (I think this number is very conservative.)


If one gives Munson an additional 11.4 WAR, his new lifetime WAR of 57.5 would bring him to #8 all-time.


#8 – That’s a good number for Yankees catchers.


Other Factors

A baseball player is, of course, more than his numbers. Besides his stats, what else did Thurman Munson bring to his team and baseball in general?


In Thurman Munson’s case, the answer is a lot.


Thurman Munson was the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year.


He won the 1976 American League Most Valuable Player Award.


In a career that lasted only from 1969 to 1979, Munson was a seven time All-Star.


He won three Gold Gloves.


On top of all of this, Thurman Munson was a leader. In many ways, he was the heart and soul of the late 1970s Yankees teams. Munson helped lead the Yankees to the World Series for three consecutive years. He was a two time World Series champion.


Munson died in that terrible plane crash on August 2, 1979. Is it a coincidence that the Yankees didn’t win another World Series until 1996 (when another leader, Derek Jeter, became a full time player)?


Thurman Munson was named the Yankees Captain, a position that no one held after Lou Gehrig. In fact the position was supposed to never be filled again. Thurman Munson was the type of player, the type of leader, that could fill Lou Gehrig’s shoes. That says a lot.


In short, was Thurman Munson part of the story of baseball? ABSOLUTELY.


Was he a franchise legend? ABSOLUTELY, again.


Add it all up, and, for me, it presents a compelling case. Thurman Munson, belongs in the Hall-of-Fame. It’s about time he takes his place among baseball’s immortals.


(It would be pretty great for him a Derek Jeter to both get in during the same year. These were two of the greatest Yankees modern-day leaders who brought them multiple World Championships.)


It’s time for Thurman Munson to (finally) be enshrined in Baseball’s Hall-of-Fame.

16 Comments


Chris D.
Chris D.
Mar 01

I Absolutely agree 💯%.!!! No Question !!

Like

Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
Feb 29

I totally agree about Thurman Munson belonging in the Hall Of Fame. But (if he lived) about him spending his final years as a player as a catcher for the Cleveland Indians? YIKES! Somehow, I think Thurman would be more loyal to the Yankees than that despite his wanting to be closer to home, and he would have played out his final years as a player, as a Yankee. That being said, I have mentioned before what a great manager Thurman Munson would have made. As a MANAGER, he could see have seen him managing teams other than the Yankees, only because managers managing under George Steinbrenner always had a very short shelf life, and like Lou Piniella, he pro…

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Paul Semendinger
Paul Semendinger
Mar 01
Replying to

Jeff,


Unfortunately, that was a big talking point throughout Thurman's last years - that he would possibly finish out his career with the Indians to be close to home.


We can love Thurman Munson as a Yankee, but we also must recognize the truth.

If you watch this clip, after the 1977 World Series, as the team was celebrating, Bill White brought it up:

https://youtu.be/X-ZRwwODYmA?t=166


Here's a NY Times excerpt on this very topic:

https://www.nytimes.com/1979/08/05/archives/munson-wanted-to-play-for-indians-but-loved-game-too-much-to-quit.html


Like

Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Feb 29

I've stated my position on Munson elsewhere and won't repeat it. A small note: Al Lopez got in mostly for his managing -- read his HoF plaque. His teams were the only two that interrupted the Yankees' pennant streak from '49 to '64. He's like Gil Hodges and Joe Torre, where it was the combination of playing and managing.

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fantasyfb3313
Feb 29

there are several players who are not in the HOF that sincerely diminish its standing as a true teller of the story of baseball and the greats of the game


I 100% believe that Pete Rose should be in but at least i understand why some people disagree. I cannot think of a single reason for keeping Munson out and the hall is diminished until he is included. you discuss WAR in your article and obviously we just had another discussion about WAR and the HOF. WAR and basically EVERY other tool is less useful in measuring catchers than any other position. I like WAR7 and other tools that put more weight on peak years. I am not going t…


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Alan B.
Alan B.
Feb 29
Replying to

Pete Rose will get in the year after he dies. They don't want him to be able to celebrate.

Like

fuster
Feb 29

Munson wasn't the best catcher of his time

and wasn't the second best


certainly wasn't the best catcher in Yankee history


but he was greatly loved by the New York fans


and he became quite famous

Like
Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Feb 29
Replying to

From '72-'78, Fisk edged out Munson, 34.4 to 33.8 WAR. Fisk was better in '72 and '77-78; Munson was better in '73-'76.


In '71-'72, Bill Freehan is slightly ahead of Munson, 8.5-7.6.


In 1970, Ray Fosse was the best catcher in the AL. Munson led in WAR 5.5-5.1 only because Pete Rose destroyed Fosse in the All-Star game. Fosse 1970 OPS pre-Rose, .893; post-Rose .713; Munson full-season OPS, .801.

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