The Off-Season: What If?
By Tim Kabel
November 22, 2021
Last week, I wrote an article entitled “What if?” I listed several events from Yankees history and asked what if they either did or didn’t happen. The purpose was to ponder and speculate about what might have been. I decided that periodically during the offseason, I will select one of the “what if?” subjects and address it in its own article. For today I have selected:
What if Thurman Munson never climbed into that plane on August 2, 1979?
I specifically posed the question this way because I didn’t want to ask what if Thurman Munson had survived the plane crash because there is evidence that had he done so, he would have been paralyzed. Instead, I would like to speculate about what might have happened had he never climbed into that plane and crashed. In other words, what if the Yankees’ captain had not died at age 32 in 1979? What would have happened that year and beyond?
At the time of Thurman Munson’s death, the Yankees were in fourth place in the American League East, 14 games behind Baltimore. In 1978, they famously overcame a 14-game deficit to catch the Boston Red Sox and force that epic playoff game in Fenway Park. After Munson’s death, the spark and enthusiasm went out of the team. They finished the season in fourth place, 13 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. Could the Yankees have rallied and made a tremendous comeback for the second year in a row? It is possible but, I believe they would have come up short, even if Munson had not died.
A more compelling argument could be made regarding the Yankees’ performances in 1980 in 1981. In 1980, the Yankees were managed by Dick Howser, and won 103 games. They finished in first place and once again, as they had from 1976 through 1978, they played the Kansas City Royals in the playoffs. This time, however, they lost. In fact, they were swept by the Royals in three games. Would Thurman Munson have made a difference in that series? You could certainly argue that point. After all, in the three seasons when they played the Royals with Munson on the team as a leader, they won every playoff series. Who can forget the 460-foot home run Munson hit off Doug Bird in the 1978 playoffs? He was a tremendous clutch player and an amazing leader. Again, it’s speculation but it is certainly possible that had Munson been alive, the Yankees might have prevailed in that series and possibly defeated the Phillies in the World Series.
In 1981, the Yankees made it to the World Series, where they were beaten by the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a strange year, due to the strike that shortened the season. The Yankees beat the Brewers and the Oakland A’s in the playoffs to advance to the World Series. Again, the question is, would Munson have made a difference in the World Series? Remember, as the catcher and captain of the Yankees, he helped lead the team to the World Series three straight years from 1976 through 1978. In ’77 and ’78, they beat the Dodgers. Could one man make a difference in a World Series? Yes, he could because, if the Yankees had won one of the games that they lost, there would have been a 7th game, and anything could have happened. So, it is possible the Yankees could have won as many as two more World Series if Munson had been alive.
There are other questions about what would have happened if Thurman Munson had lived past 1979. How long would he have played.? He was 32 in 1979, but was plagued by injuries affecting his knees and his shoulder. We all know how much he wanted to be home. Would he have retired early? Would he have become a free agent and signed with the Indians? Would he have stayed with the Yankees and played more games as a designated hitter? I tend to think he would have stayed with the Yankees and if the team had had continued success, he might have played until the mid 1980s. His career would have overlapped Don Mattingly’s. It would have been interesting to see them play together. It would have also been something to see Munson play with Dave Winfield. I think at the very least, he would have provided Yankees’ fans with many more great moments. I believe he would still have had his number retired by the Yankees and he would have received tremendous ovations at various ceremonies and Old Timers’ Days. if Thurman Munson had been able to avoid further injuries, he probably would have posted very impressive career numbers when it was all said and done.
Would Thurman Munson have made the Hall of Fame if he had a lengthy career? It is possible, especially if the team had won more championships. A lot would have depended on the numbers he posted over a full 1979 and beyond. His offensive numbers tailed off in 1978, mostly due to injuries. That year, he drove in 71 runs and only hit six home runs. His average dipped below .300 to .297. At the time of his death in 1979, he was hitting .288. Could he have pulled that up? Yes, of course he could have. It’s possible he could have put up solid offensive statistics for several years. He was also an excellent defensive catcher and a tremendous leader. Predicting whether he would have made the Hall of Fame after a hypothetical extension to his career is beyond my ken. At the very least, the argument for Munson’s election to the Hall of Fame would have been strengthened had he played five to seven more years. If Munson had stuck around as long as Carlton Fisk, who I believe is still playing somewhere, it would be quite likely that he would have been elected. However, I believe there would have been another element to Munson’s career that could have ensured his entry into the Hall of Fame.
If Munson had lived and played at least until his late 30s, his children would have been older and presumably, his desire to be at home frequently would have lessened. With grown children, his wife could have lived with him in the community where he was playing. I believe that with Munson’s wealth of baseball knowledge, passion for the game, and mutual, if grudging affection with George Steinbrenner, he would have eventually managed the Yankees. Don’t forget, it was George Steinbrenner who insisted Thurman Munson be the first Yankees’ captain since Lou Gehrig. He saw and admired the leadership skills that Munson possessed. Again, there are no guarantees, but I think it’s safe to say Munson might have been very successful as a manager. After all, he was successful at just about everything else he did. Had he managed and achieved success, it is possible that he could have made the Hall of Fame in the same manner that Joe Torre did; putting up splendid career numbers that fell just a little short and then adding in a lengthy and successful career as a manager. Would Munson have fared any better as manager than the other 972 people who managed for George Steinbrenner in the 80’s and early 90’s? I think he might have because of his relationship with the Boss and his personality. Although he was gruff and irascible, he was a leader, and he shared a bond with Steinbrenner. He did not have the deep character flaws that plagued Billy Martin, so it is unlikely that he would have engaged in brawls with players and other such things that led to Martin’s numerous firings. It’s possible that Munson could have been at least as successful a manager as his friend Lou Piniella, who was much more volatile than Munson. Munson probably would have started out as a coach for the Yankees when his playing career was over and then quickly transitioned into a managerial role. I feel fairly confident in saying he would not have gone the same route as Bobby Murcer, and become an announcer.
It is pure speculation to discuss what would have happened or could have happened if Thurman Munson had not perished tragically in that plane crash in 1979. I put forth my ideas about what might have happened.
What do you think?
One thing we can all agree on is that we wish he never climbed into that plane no matter what actually would have occurred in the rest of his career.