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Thurman Munson

Thurman Munson
Catcher
Born: June 7, 1947(1947-06-07)
Akron, Ohio
Died: August 2, 1979 (aged 32)
Canton, Ohio
Batted: Right Threw: Right 
MLB debut
August 8, 1969 for the New York Yankees
Last MLB appearance
August 1, 1979 for the New York Yankees
Career statistics
Batting average     .292
Hits     1,558
Home runs     113
Runs batted in     701
Teams
Career highlights and awards

Thurman Lee Munson (June 7, 1947 – August 2, 1979) was an American catcher in Major League Baseball who played eleven seasons from 1969 to 1979 for the New York Yankees of the American League. A perennial All-Star, Munson is the only Yankee ever to win both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards.

Born in Akron, Ohio, Munson was selected as the fourth pick of the 1968 Major League Baseball Draft. Munson hit over .300 in his two seasons in the Minor Leagues, establishing himself as a hot prospect. He became the starting catcher late in the 1969 season, when the Yankees was reestablishing themselves after a few losing seasons. Munson played his first complete season in 1970, becoming Rookie of the Year after hitting .302.

Munson was killed at age 32 while practicing how to land his Cessna Citation at Akron-Canton Airport. Munson was pinned by debris and killed in the ensuing fire, while his two companions escaped the burned aircraft. His death made national headlines.

Contents

Early life

Munson was born in Akron, Ohio to Darrell Vernon Munson and Ruth Myrna Smylie, the youngest of four children. [1] His father was a World War II veteran who became a truck driver while his mother was a homemaker.[2] When he turned eight, the Munson family moved to nearby Canton, Ohio.[3] He was taught how to play baseball by his older brother Duane, and usually played baseball with kids Duane age, who was four years older.[4] His brother left to the United States Air Force while Thurman was a freshman in high school.[5] He graduated from Lehman High School in Canton, where his standout performances in football, basketball, as well as baseball attracted scholarship offers from various colleges. Munson opted to attend nearby Kent State University on scholarship, where he was a teammate of pitcher and broadcaster Steve Stone.

In the summer of 1967, Munson joined the Cape Cod Baseball League, where he led the Chatham A's to their first league title with a prodigious .420 batting average. In recognition of this achievement and his subsequent professional achievements, the Thurman Munson Batting Award is given each season to the League's batting champion.[6] In September 1968, he married Diane Dominick at St. John's Parish in Canton.

Rookie of the Year

Munson was selected by the New York Yankees with the fourth pick in the first round of the 1968 Major League Baseball Draft. In his only full minor league season, he batted .301 with six home runs and 37 runs batted in for the Binghamton Triplets in their final season (1968). He made his first apperance in Yankee Stadium on August 1968, when the Triplets came to play an exhibition game against the Yankees. [7] He was batting .363 for the Syracuse Chiefs in 1969 when he earned a promotion to the Yankees.

Munson made his major league debut on August 8, 1969 in the second game of a double header against the Oakland Athletics.[8] Munson went two for three with a walk, one RBI and two runs scored. Two days later, hit his first major league home run was the second of three consecutive home runs hit by the Yankees off Lew Krausse in a 5 - 1 Yankee victory over the A's.[9] For the season, Munson batted .256 with one home run and nine RBIs. He made 97 plate appearances, but drew ten walks and had one sacrifice fly, which gave him 86 official at bats, and allowed him to go into the 1970 season still technically a rookie.

The Yankees used a platoon of Jake Gibbs and Frank Fernández at catcher for most of 1969. During the off season, the Yankees dealt Fernandez to the A's to make room Munson behind the plate. Munson responded by batting .302 with seven home runs and 57 RBIs, and making 80 assists en route to receiving the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year award.

1971-1974

Munson received his first of seven All-Star nods in 1971, catching the last two innings without an at-bat.[10] An outstanding fielder, Munson committed only one error all season. It occurred on June 18 against the Baltimore Orioles when opposing catcher Andy Etchebarren knocked Munson unconscious on a play at the plate, dislodging the ball.[11] He also only allowed nine passed balls all season and caught 36 of a potential 59 base stealers for a stellar 61% caught stealing percentage.

Munson was known for his longstanding feud with Boston Red Sox counterpart Carlton Fisk.[12] One particular incident that typified their feud, and the Red Sox – Yankees rivalry in general, occurred on August 1, 1973 at Fenway Park. With the score tied at 2-2 in the top of the ninth, Munson attempted to score on Gene Michael's missed bunt attempt. Munson barreled into Fisk, triggering a ten minute bench-clearing brawl in which both catchers were ejected.[13]

Munson made his second All-Star team and won his first of three straight Gold Glove Awards in 1973. He also emerged as more of a slugger for the Yankees, batting .300 for the first time since 1970, and hitting a career high twenty home runs. In 1974, Munson was elected to start his first of three consecutive All-Star games, going one for three with a walk and a run scored.[14]

MVP

Munson batted a career high .318 in 1975, which was third in the league behind Rod Carew and Fred Lynn. For the start of the 1976 season, Munson was named the first Yankees team captain since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939. He responded by batting .302 with seventeen home runs and 105 RBIs to receive the American League MVP Award and lead the Yankees to their first World Series since 1964. He batted .435 with three RBIs and three runs scored in the 1976 American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals, and batted .529 with two RBIs and two runs scored in the 1976 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Already down three games to none, Munson went four for four in the final game of the Series at Yankee Stadium to try to avoid a sweep to the "Big Red Machine." Combined with the hits he got in his final two at bats in game three, his six consecutive hits tied a World Series record set by Goose Goslin of the Washington Senators in 1925.

Reds catcher Johnny Bench was named World Series MVP. A fairly obvious comparison of opposing backstops was made to Reds manager Sparky Anderson during the post-World Series press conference, to which, Anderson responded, "Munson is an outstanding ballplayer and he would hit .300 in the National League, but you don't ever compare anybody to Johnny Bench. Don't never embarrass nobody by comparing them to Johnny Bench." Munson was visibly upset by these comments when he got on the mike shortly afterwards.[15]

Later career

Munson batted .308 with 100 RBIs in 1977, giving him three consecutive seasons batting .300 or better with 100 or more RBI each year. He was the first catcher to accomplish the feat in three consecutive years since Yankee Hall of Famer Bill Dickey's four straight seasons from 1936-1939, matched only by Mike Piazza since (1996-1998). The Yankees repeated as American League Champions, and faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. Munson batted .320 with a home run and three RBIs in the Yankees four games to two victory over the Dodgers. The Dodgers had stolen 114 bases during the regular season, yet Munson caught four of six potential base stealers in the first four games of the series to keep the speedy Dodgers grounded in the final two.

The Yankees and Royals faced each other for the third consecutive time in the 1978 American League Championship Series. With the ALCS tied at a game apiece, and trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning of game three, Munson hit the longest home run of his career, a 475-foot (145 m) shot off Doug Bird over Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in left-center field, to give the Yankees a 6-5 win.[16] They won the pennant the next day, and went on to best the Dodgers again for the 1978 World Series Championship.

1979

Brad Gulden (with Billy Martin and Catfish Hunter was the catcher who replaced Thurman Munson right after his death.

The Yankees had lost three in a row, and were in fourth place, eleven games back of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East heading into the All-Star break in 1979. Despite a .297 average, the wear-and-tear of catching was beginning to take its toll on Munson, and he was overlooked for the American League All-Star team. Frequently homesick, he had a well-known desire to play for the Cleveland Indians in order to be closer to his family,[17] and was also considering retiring at the end of the season.

Death

Munson had been taking flying lessons for a little over two years, and purchased a Cessna Citation I/SP jet so he could fly home to his family in Canton on off-days. On August 2, 1979, he was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport with friend Jerry Anderson and flight instructor Dave Hall.[18] On the third touch-and-go landing, Munson allowed the aircraft to sink too low before increasing engine power, causing the jet to clip a tree and fall short of the runway. The plane then hit a tree stump and burst into flames.

Hall and Anderson both managed to escape the accident with Hall receiving burns on his arms and hands, and Anderson receiving burns on his face arm and neck. Munson, meanwhile, was trapped inside, and was confirmed dead by Summit County sheriff Anthony Cardarelli. It is believed that the inability to get out of the plane, and the ensuing asphyxiation from inhaling toxic substances, is what killed Munson, rather than injuries sustained on impact or burns. The crash was attributed to pilot error, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.[19]

Legacy

YankeesRetired15.svg
Thurman Munson's number 15 was retired by the New York Yankees in 1979

The day after his death, before the start of the Yankees' four-game set with the Baltimore Orioles in the Bronx, the team paid tribute to their deceased captain in a pre-game ceremony in which the starters stood at their defensive positions, save for the catcher's box, which remained empty. Following a prayer by Terence Cardinal Cooke, a moment of silence and "America The Beautiful" by Robert Merrill, the fans (announced attendance 51,151) burst into an eight minute standing ovation. Jerry Narron, the man who would replace Munson behind the plate, remained in the dugout and did not enter the field until stadium announcer Bob Sheppard said, "And now it is time to play ball. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen for your co-operation."

On August 6, the entire Yankee team attended Munson's funeral in Canton, Ohio. Teammates Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, who were Munson's best friends, gave eulogies. That night (before a national viewing audience on ABC's Monday Night Baseball) the Yankees beat the Orioles 5-4 in New York, with Murcer driving in all five runs with a three-run home run in the seventh inning and a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth.[20]

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner retired Munson's number 15 immediately upon his catcher's death. On September 20, 1980, a plaque dedicated to Munson's memory was placed in Monument Park. The plaque bears excerpts from an inscription composed by Steinbrenner and flashed on the stadium scoreboard the day after his death:

Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next ... Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.

On August 1, 1980, the day before the first anniversary of the accident, the Yankees filed a $4.5-million lawsuit against Cessna Aircraft Co. and Flight Safety International, Inc. (the company who was training Munson to fly) with team spokesman John J. McCarty saying "we asked for $4.5 million because that is what Munson would be worth if the Yankees traded him." Munson's widow, Diane, also filed a $42.2 million wrongful lawsuit against the two companies. Cessna offered Munson a special deal on flying lessons if he would take them from Flight Safety. Rather than requiring Munson to take a two week safety class in Kansas, Flight Safety assigned a "traveling instructor" to go on the road with him, and train him between ballgames.[21] The suit was eventually settled out of court.

The locker that Munson used, along with a bronzed set of his catching equipment, was donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Despite a packed clubhouse, Munson's final locker position was never reassigned. The empty locker next to current Yankee team captain Derek Jeter's, with Munson's number 15 on it, remained as a tribute to the Yankees' lost catcher in the original Yankee Stadium until the Stadium closed in 2008. Munson's locker was moved in one piece to the New Yankee Stadium. It is located in the New York Yankees Museum. Visitors can view the Yankees Museum on game days from when the gates open to the end of the eighth inning and during Yankee Stadium tours. Munson's number 15 is also displayed on the center-field wall at Thurman Munson Stadium, a minor-league ballpark in Canton. Munson is buried at Canton's Sunset Hills Burial Park.

Munson was survived by his wife Diana, and their three children Tracy, Kelly and Michael. In January 2008, Michael, opened a baseball-themed sports bar in Canton called Munson's Home Plate Sports Pub. The pub is decorated in baseball memorabilia and photographs from throughout Munson's career.

He was portrayed in the 2007 mini series The Bronx is Burning by actor Erik Jensen.

Personal Life

Munson was considered an unusual character during his time with the Yankees. He was one of the worst dressed baseball players, prefering unmatched plaids made out of polyester, and refused to wear socks. [22] Among his hobbies included playing billiards and golf. [23]

Notes

  1. ^ Appel: pg. 12
  2. ^ Appel: pg. 15
  3. ^ Appel: pg. 13
  4. ^ Appel: pg. 16
  5. ^ Appel: pg. 15
  6. ^ "Cape Cod Baseball League Thurman Munson Award Winners". http://www.capecodbaseball.org/archives/Records/awards_batting.htm. Retrieved 2009-11-25. 
  7. ^ Appel: pg. 7-8
  8. ^ "New York Yankees 5, Oakland A's 0". Baseball-reference.com. 1969-08-08. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA196908082.shtml. 
  9. ^ "New York Yankees 5, Oakland A's 1". Baseball-reference.com. 1969-08-10. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA196908100.shtml. 
  10. ^ "1971 All-Star Game". Baseball-reference.com. 1971-07-13. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/ALS/ALS197107130.shtml. 
  11. ^ "Baltimore Orioles 6, New York Yankees 4". Baseball-reference.com. 1971-06-18. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BAL/BAL197106180.shtml. 
  12. ^ "The Munson/Fisk Rivalry". http://www.thedeadballera.com/MunsonFisk.html. Retrieved 2009-11-25. 
  13. ^ "Boston Red Sox 3, New York Yankees 2". Baseball-reference.com. 1973-08-01. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS197308010.shtml. 
  14. ^ "1974 All-Star Game". Baseball-reference.com. 1974-07-23. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NLS/NLS197407230.shtml. 
  15. ^ All Roads Lead to October (chapter 10) by Maury Allen, St. Martin's Press 2000 ISBN 0-312-26175-6
  16. ^ "1978 American League Championship Series Game Three". Baseball-reference.com. 1978-10-06. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA197810060.shtml. 
  17. ^ "Catcher Thurman Munson, The Captain, was heart and soul of the NY Yankees". 2009-08-01. http://www.nj.com/yankees/index.ssf/2009/08/catcher_thurman_munson_the_cap.html. 
  18. ^ Brennan, Sean (2009-08-01). "Jerry Narron recalls night he replaced Thurman Munson for Yankees". New York Daily News. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/2009/08/02/2009-08-02_the_mourning_after_munsons_death.html. 
  19. ^ The Frederick Maryland News, August 7, 1980, p. 24.
  20. ^ "New York Yankees 5, Baltimore Orioles 5". Baseball-reference.com. 1979-08-06. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA197908060.shtml. 
  21. ^ "Follow-Up on the News; Munson Case". The New York Times. 1982-05-02. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/05/02/nyregion/follow-up-on-the-news-munson-case.html. 
  22. ^ Appel: pg 6.
  23. ^ Appel: pg. 17.

References

  • Marty Appel (2009). Munson, The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain. New York: Doubleday Books. ISBN 978-0-385-52231-1. 

External links

Preceded by
Lou Gehrig
19351939
New York Yankees team captain
April 17, 1976 - August 2, 1979
Succeeded by
Graig Nettles
19821984
Preceded by
Lou Piniella
American League Rookie of the Year
1970
Succeeded by
Chris Chambliss
Preceded by
Fred Lynn
American League Most Valuable Player
1976
Succeeded by
Rod Carew







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