Thursday, August 02, 2012


It can still bring a tear to the eye.  He was one of ours; a hitting machine and a gruff SOB who was the very heart of three straight American League Champion and two World Champion teams.

And - just like that - he was gone, 33 years ago today.

Thurman Lee Munson.

It was a sports fans moment.  A moment you remember exactly.  The details, oh so fresh.  Plane crash.  Canton, Ohio.  Channel 5 (WNEW) from New York, breaking in with the news at about 4:30 in the afternoon.  A Thursday.  The rest of the story is quite familiar.  There were games to be played, and a funeral to attend, ending that night with Thurman's good friend, Bobby Murcer, homering and driving in five runs to beat the Orioles - the eventual American League Champions - 5-4.

The franchise took a long time to recover.  Yes, they won the AL East in 1980 and went to the World Series in 1981, but things were strange.  The 80's had a malaise hanging over them for the Yankees, until the euphoria of 1996, when a kid named Jeter (who won Rookie of the Year, just as Munson did in 1970) helped the team back to nirvana.

Munson's locker stayed in the locker room of the old Stadium - a place that I stood right next to once, but didn't dare go in.  Oh no.  And have no doubt that the team and players treated that as hallowed ground.

The Yankees moved it to the new Stadium in 2009, where it sits in the Yankees Museum.  When I first went in, there was no sign to explain to visitors.  To be honest, none was needed.  The older fan could tell the kid (or the newbie) who that stark white booth with the number "15" on it belonged to.

He only played 11 years.  There were rumors he wouldn't catch again, and that he would take his talents to Cleveland beginning in 1980.  Indeed, in his last game, at Chicago on August 1, 1979, he played first base.  I remember the game clearly - such a strange sight to see.  The Yankees won the game 9-1, and Munson went 0-1, with a strikeout in his final at-bat.  He left the game in the bottom of the third, replaced by Jim Spencer.

The inclusion of players like Ron Santo can help reopen the case of Munson for the Hall of Fame.  Many say that his time has passed; there's no hope for him to gain the recognition.  Certainly there are those that will carry his torch.  Remember that comparing a catcher to a player like Santo, who was a third baseman, isn't necessarily fair.  Catchers aren't - and shouldn't be - judged only on their offense.  Consider the backstops of the era, and Munson holds up just fine.  Who is going to say that Thurman Munson was no worse than the third best catcher of the 70's, behind Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk (both Hall of Famers)?  Take a look at this page.  Who is better?

Munson won the Rookie of the Year in 1970.  He won the 1976 American League MVP.  They say that Curt Schilling (a premier gasbag) is going to make the Hall of Fame based on his stellar postseason performance.  Well Munson hit .373 in three World Series, and .357 for his postseason career (of which he played 30 games).  His OPS (ugh) in those three World Series was .909.  Add in three Gold Gloves in the era he shared with Fisk.

Look, I'm not trying to make a plaque for him, but let's give him some proper credit and consideration.  That, to me, is what the inclusion of Ron Santo did.

Munson's number 15 hangs in Monument Park.  His presence still looms large.  Fans - now fathers and even grandfathers - remember and talk about him.  I posted that picture at the top of this post on my Facebook post, and within a half hour, there were seven likes and three comments.  We all still remember him and, truly, have a hard time coming up with a loss in baseball that hit us as hard - along with Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente, of course.  This is said with absolutely no disrespect to names like Lyman Bostock (murdered), Addie Joss (meningitis), Darryl Kile, and others.  Lastly, no disrespect to Ray Chapman, hit by a pitch in the temple in 1920 - still, the only major leaguer to die on a field.

But this is about Thurman Munson.  Our guy.  Our leader.

Our Captain.

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