Thurman Munson: Still Mr. Yankee!

Thurman Munson left us too soon. May he always be remembered. Photo Courtesy: Bearden
Thurman Munson left us too soon. May he always be remembered. Photo Courtesy: Bearden

By Will Martin

You’ll hear about undeniable truths in life in which there is no avoid. You reside in Canada it will behoove you to learn to love hockey and lacrosse-two sports that were birthed there. If ever you move to Texas you will learn to love football in the fall. Otherwise you’re on the outside looking in.

Growing up in the early years on the East Coast it was drummed into you that you either liked the Yankees or Mets or Red Sox. There was no intermingling whatsoever.

1969-1979 that was a no brainer for this guy. It was the team with all the pride, tradition, cantankerousness of an owner and five time skipper, headlines, and big money athletes.

The Dallas Cowboys had nothing on those teams! Not with Reggie Jackson, Jim Hunter, Lou Piniella, Billy Martin, and George Steinbrenner to kick around.

You also had a catcher who often played hurt, often played in the shadow of another ballplayer (Carlton Fisk), was anything but friendly. When it was time to play ball, he played. He played hard, and he played Yankee baseball the right way!

His name was Thurman Munson. The first team captain since Lou Gehrig to have that distinction. Perhaps it should surprise no one that after his tragic death 35 years ago today it took until 1996 for the Yankees to get back to their winning ways through a reformed and refreshed farm system.

Born in football country-Akron, Ohio-baseball was his first love. Played his collegiate ball at Kent State in the late sixties before joining the Yankees in 1969 and played in New York for 11 seasons. His rookie season 1970 he made only one error in over 600 chances.

Playing under the umbrella of greats like Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra it didn’t take long for Thurman Munson to cement his legacy and reputation as a leader and as a player in Gotham City.

1979 I had just moved to northern Illinois after 15 years of life in Northern New Jersey. Spoiled by three straight World Series visits and back to back titles in 1977 and 1978. It just so happened that the Yankees were in town for a three game set before heading home to play the Baltimore Orioles that August 3rd weekend.

1977 was the start of the era of the free agency system that you now see so regularly now. Reggie Jackson was in the first of a five year contract for roughly three million. George Steinbrenner promised Thurman he would always be the highest paid Yankee. When Reggie and Don Gullett got million dollar offers Munson seethed.

1975 Thurman played on a third place team under Bill Virdon and Billy Martin. 190 hits, 12 homers, 102 RBIs. The first of three straight 100 RBI seasons. 1976 he cranked out 17 homers and 105 RBIs in winning the A.L. MVP award. 1977 he would get exactly 100 ribbies while playing 149 games, some at DH and most at catcher.

A four year stretch where he attained 190, 186, 183 and 183 hits. The anchor behind the plate who closely modeled the style of play Billy Martin expected. The competitor who played whether hurt or not.

1978 despite a slew of injuries he managed to play 154 games in a season his Yankee team fell 14 games behind the Boston Red Sox. After a four game sweep by a combined score of 42-9 at Fenway (Best known as the Boston Massacre in baseball circles) and a four game sweep of the Red Sox, the Yankes and Red Sox were in a dead heat.

Ron Guidry was a Cy Young Award winner that year with a 25-3 record an ERA at 1.74 and nine shutouts. ‘Louisiana Lightning’ will be the first to tell you that he was successful because of following Thurman’s lead behind the plate.

That year Ed Figueroa became the first Puerto Rican pitcher to have a 20 win season. Credit that to Thurman Munson.

August of 1978 a suddenly healthy Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter would go 6-0 with a 1.84 era to help bring the Yankees back into the pennant race.

Dock Ellis had a career year with Munson leading him in 1976, going 17-8 before his mouth got him traded to Oakland in late March 1977.

On an October afternoon in 1978 in the Bronx (when George Brett had a three homer game) it was a 430 foot monster blast that Thurman Munson hit off Doug Bird into the monuments in left field, the deepest part of Yankee Stadium that gave New York the impetus to get past the Royals and then fall behind 2-0 to the Dodgers before winning four straight and taking the World Series.

Thurman Munson was many things. He was also a born leader who wanted to remain anonymous away from the playing field.

He lived for his wife Diana and his kids. For the many players who opted to want to play around Munson was always about his family first.

Hence the obsession with flying in 1977 so he could go see his family on off days despite the many protestations by friends and family to the contrary.

Each year on August 2 at 4:02 pm I think back to the memory of that tragic moment. I then proceed to remember the good things Thurman Munson did as a ballplayer and as a Yankee.

I idolized #15. He was game, he was clutch despite always being in the shadow of Carlton Fisk. The better looking, graceful, and taller catcher the Red Sox had for a decade before his move to the White Sox in 1981.

That rivalry was one brought on by Curt Gowdy calling Red Sox games and also being a part of the NBC ‘Game Of The Week’ program each Saturday. From all that I can recall as a teen having seen and read there was a mutual respect by both ballplayers towards one another.

This story from ten years ago best illustrates the final moments of Thurman’s life.

I still can’t believe Thurman Munson has now been away 35 years! You best believe his name still resonates within baseball circles, especially the old timers who were playing in that time frame.

Yes, he indeed was surly with the media in the #1 market. I remember in 1978 he pre-channeled his Arian Foster when telling the media, “I’m just happy to be here!” to which the media got angry and resentful.

Oh well…

To my Texas brethren I also remind you that the man who replaced Thurman behind the plate after that crash went on to manage here in Arlington in 2001 and 2002. His name was Jerry Narron. Even he can’t talk about that day without getting emotional.

After his passing his locker  was left intact with #15 still hanging alongide his chest protector, cleats, and the like. Yankees who have donned the uniform have been made aware of who this kid from Akron/Canton Ohio was, what he was about, and what he accomplished through hard work and persistence.

Baseball could use a few more people like Thurman Munson. If alive he would have loved the play of Michael Young, Ivan Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter to name a few.

We still remember. I still remember the consummate ballplayer and New York Yankee.