Tuesday Discussion: Remembering Thurman Munson
It was 43 years ago today that Thurman Munson tragically passed away.
Our writers share their thoughts, memories, and more regarding Thurman Munson.
Cary Greene - I remember Thurman Munson as an all-time great Yankee and he is indeed one of the greatest catchers not only to have ever played the game, but who I had the distinct honor of watching play.
On Aug 2, 1979, New York Yankees captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash near the airport in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. During my lifetime and Lou Gherig’s famous farewell speech aside, Munson’s passing was the most somber moment in Yankee history. Ron Guidry once said, “It was as if something had been taken away from us and we’d never be able to replace it.”
The 1979 Yankees will go down in my memory as the greatest Yankee team of all time. They didn’t win the World Series that year, without the player Howard Cosell called, “the pride of the New York Yankees.” The black armband to me is the all-time most significant honor I’ve ever seen a human being given. As Guidry said, “We got goosebumps for all the wrong reasons.”
Munson played for only 11 years but there is no telling what he would have done if he had not died prematurely. Munson was a seven time All-Star, a league MVP, a three time Gold Glove winner, a Rookie of the Year and a two time World Series Champion. His slash line was .292/.346/ with a .756 OPS.
Munson's quiet leadership in the clubhouse and his gritty, consistent play on the field won him the 1976 MVP. He led the Yankees to the American League championship and its first World Series appearance in over a decade. While they lost that series to "The Big Red Machine", the team's success would only continue to grow over the next three seasons. Thurman Munson would captain the Yankees to the 1977 and 1978 World Championships. He hit .308 in '76 and .297 in '77 including .320 in both World Series. As captain of the New York Yankees, Munson established himself as the heart and soul of one of the franchise's most successful eras. Fans readily identified with his down-to-earth, blue-collar style of play. That’s what I loved about Munson more than anything. He was a seemingly normal dude, with his signature handlebar mustache and his ability to relate to the pitching staff and gain their ultimate trust. He would sit in the dugout and demand more from his pitchers, constantly challenging them to be better and do better.
Munson was a player who got the job done. It might not have always been pretty either. But he got the job done.
Fans today may not realize how good Hall of Famer Don Sutton, of the Dodgers, truly was. The heart of the Yankee lineup, with Munson batting in front of Reggie Jackson, formed a walloping 1-2 punch that opposing pitchers would ultimately crumble to when it mattered most.
Munson’s career WAR was 46.1 and if we add another seven to ten years to Munson’s great Yankee career, his WAR would easily have been in the 60 to 65 range, maybe even higher!
We’re seeing this year, how incredibly valuable a good defensive catcher is. Who would have thought Jose Trevino would have become an all-star with the Yankees? If you never saw Munson play, imagine a catcher who could impact the game in similar ways that Trevino can, but who also was an even better hitter. Munson really was the heart and soul of the New York Yankees. His passing will forever haunt baseball fans, myself included.
Mike Whiteman - I became an active Yankee fan starting in 1979 - ten years old. The season was not progressing like I expected it would as the team was mired in the middle of the AL East pack. I knew enough though to know that guys like Guidry, Jackson, Munson and Nettles had won before, and were sure to get things together and win it again.
Then on August 2nd some of my buddies stopped by the house to tell me about Munson's death. I was stunned. The athletes we rooted for, whose baseball cards we collected, weren't supposed to die.
I remember watching games afterwards and rooting for Brad Gulden (remember how he would stick his leg out while behind the plate?), but he was no Munson. Through the years, I've developed even more affinity for Munson, and am hoping we see him in the Hall of Fame soon.
Ed Botti - Thurman Munson was my guy as a young man. He came up when I was just a little leaguer and passed away in my High School years. He was everything you would want out of a sports role model. He was tough, he was clutch, he was into most of the pop culture of the late 60’s and 70’s, he was the consummate leader, he was always accountable, and he was a winner.
I saw him play in person many times, and he never disappointed. Even in a game where he did not contribute offensively, he controlled the game defensively. He never took a single pitch off. He set the tone for those great mid to late 1970’s teams. A Team loaded with ego’s and personalities, all were subordinated to Thurman’s presence and leadership.
Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing Ron Blomberg for an review of his new book. Ron was one Thurman’s best friends and roommate on those early 1970’s teams. All of the attributes I described above, were all confirmed by Ron, and then some.
Any Yankee fan that was around in those days, can tell you exactly where they were when the news came down. He was that impactful!
Chris O'Connor - I am far too young to have ever seen Thurman Munson play, but from everything that I know and have read, he seems to have epitomized what it means to be a Yankee. A team captain and two-time World Series champion, Munson was not only an excellent defensive catcher and above-average hitter, but he raised his game in the bright lights of the playoffs. In 30 career postseason games, he slashed .357/.378./496 for a 148 WRC+. That is what Yankee fans care about. There is a reason that Derek Jeter is a far more popular Yankee than Alex Rodriguez, despite A-Rod being an objectively far superior player: Jeter raised his game in the playoffs and won more. While the Yankee brand has historically been attached to money and star power, from Babe Ruth all the way to Aaron Judge, it is about winning more than anything else. From what I understand, personal statistics were not as important to Munson; nobody wanted to win more than him. I cannot imagine what his death was like for his friends, family, teammates, coaches, and Yankee fans everywhere, but the fact that we continue to be affected by it 43 years later speaks to his impact on the New York Yankees.
James Vlietstra - Munson passed away when I was 1, so obviously I have no memory of him playing. However, he has been revered as the Yankees Leader and Captain of the championship teams of the late 70s.
Teammates such as Bobby Murcer , Willie Randolph, and Ron Guidry always sang his praises.
His next opportunity to be considered for election to the Hall of Fame is December of 2024. His many accolades include ROY, MVP, 7x AS, 2x WS.
Paul Semendinger - I have written about this before, but I was devastated and confused. In shock. I had just tuned 11-years-old and was full fledged into the Yankees. My neighbors, older and much cooler than me gave me a Thurman Munson poster a few years before that proudly hung in my room. I thought the Yankees were superheroes. I couldn't understand it when he died. How could this great Yankee be gone?
I'm still sad today. Thurman Munson was one of the greats - a hero of my childhood.
He belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Derek McAdam - Although I never had the opportunity to see Thurman play, there is no question that he is one of the greatest Yankees ever. Munson was a Rookie of the Year, MVP, three-time Gold Glove and two-time World Series winner, in addition to being named an All-Star seven times in his 11 seasons. Thurman put together an incredible resume and was on pace for a spot in the Hall of Fame when tragedy struck 43 years ago today. Many of my relatives remember exactly where they were when they heard the dreadful news, which just shows how iconic of a figure Thurman was. His legacy will live on for a very long time.
Tim Kabel - Thurman Munson was my favorite baseball player when I was a kid. In fact, watching him play was what turned me from a casual observer of the game to an actual fan. I had his poster in my room. I received his autobiography as a birthday present. I even named my cat Thurman.
I can still remember the joy I experienced watching him play. Whether it was all those clutch hits, the toughness he showed as a catcher, or moments like that home run against Doug Bird in the playoffs. I can also remember the tremendous sorrow I felt when he died so tragically. I was 14 years old at the time and I was devastated. I remain a Yankees’ fan and I have had other favorite players over the years but, there will only be one Thurman Munson.
I’m not sure if he seems greater than he truly was because of his tragic death. It really is not important. He was my favorite player. He was a great player. He was a Yankees’ legend. I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Andy Singer - I never had the pleasure of watching Thurman Munson play ball. The entirety of my experience with Thurman is from stories my Dad told me as a kid, Yankee Classic re-runs, documentaries, and stories told at Old Timer's Day in the presence of his wife, Diana Munson. What has become relatively certain for me is that Munson surely would have been one of my favorite players. Munson's grit, will to win, willingness to do everything he thought was right to win a ballgame, and his outward commitment to family are all things that would have made him the type of ballplayer for whom I would have rooted.
While I understood the sadness that came from Munson's untimely passing, I can't honestly say I could feel all of the feelings that people who watched him play felt until more recently. Jose Fernandez's untimely passing in a boating accident in 2016 changed that for me. I fell in love with Fernandez's style of play, and at the time, I was playing ball with a predominantly Cuban-American baseball team, all of whom revered Fernandez. Tears flowed down my cheeks freely when I learned of Fernandez's death, and in that moment I understood how Yankee fans felt almost 40 years prior.
In terms of Munson's legacy, I think you can draw a direct lineage between Munson's attitude and the dynasty teams of the late 90s. Don Mattingly largely maintained Munson's ethos despite the fact that the Yankee teams around him fell woefully short of his standards, and in turn, Mattingly passed on that style of leadership, grit, and determination to Derek Jeter and the young core of those great Yankee teams. Without Munson, I'm not sure we have the most recent Yankee Dynasty. For Munson, it wasn't about becoming a star; it was about doing everything in his power to help the team win, traits that have been passed on to all of the great Yankees that have played in New York since. Thurman may be gone, but his spirit truly does live on, whether modern fans recognize it or not.