Yankees Are Still Touched by Memory of Munson
Ten years after a plane crash ended Thurman Munson’s life, he remains a Yankee.
His corner locker in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse contains only an empty chair, a mirror, and above, a small plate with his retired number 15.
“That locker symbolizes Thurman and is there for his memory,” said Yankee broadcaster Bobby Murcer, a teammate of Munson’s who delivered one of the eulogies at the catcher’s funeral. “Thurman is there and will always be there.”
Munson died on Aug. 2, 1979, when his twin-engine Cessna crashed near Akron-Canton airport as the 32-year-old Yankee captain practiced takeoffs and landings near his Ohio home on a day off.
Since then, 19 different players have caught for baseball’s most successful team but none have had the effect of the burly, barrel-chested Munson, who helped the Yankees become the last team to win back-to-back World Series in 1977 and 1978.
“Right now, the Yankees have yet to replace him and they may not ever,” said Murcer, who was reacquired by the Yankees from the Chicago Cubs several weeks before Munson’s death. “He was a very special player and those type of players don’t come along very often.”
Selected by the Yankees in the first round of the free agent draft in 1968, Munson became a stalwart behind the plate and in 1976, was named the team’s first captain since Lou Gehrig.
During his 11-year career, the 5-foot-11-inch Munson played in 1,423 games, 1,278 as a catcher. A .292 hitter with 113 home runs and 701 runs batted in, he was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1976 and the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1970.
But his value to the Yankees transcended his numbers.
“In a real tough situation, it was not Reggie (Jackson) you feared most, it was Thurman,” said Steve Stone, a college teammate of Munson’s at Kent State in the late 1960s and a 1980 Cy Young award winner with the Baltimore Orioles. “Thurman would always find a way to get the runner home. Whether it was with the arm or the bat, he found a way to beat you.”
Playing with an assortment of chronic injuries, Munson always gave the proverbial “110 percent” on the field.
“This was a guy who absolutely detested losing,” said Stone, who played with Munson the shortstop in the 1965 Ohio state high school all-star game. “He always gave everything he had and for that he was appreciated by teammates and even opponents. You should have seen him in college.”
Billy Martin, who managed Munson during the catcher’s most prolific years, grew quite close to his captain and reportedly “wept like a baby” when he was informed of his death.
“I still get choked up every time I see his picture. I loved the kid,” said Martin, who has managed the Yankees five different times. “He was a great competitor and a great athlete and he always busted his tail for me. He was every manager’s dream.”
Jim “Catfish” Hunter, one of the first big-name free agents wooed by Steinbrenner, credited Munson with making him a better pitcher.
“That little fat boy could do it all. He helped me a lot when I came over here,” said Hunter, who pitched for the Yankees from 1975-79 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. “You walk by and see his locker and think about it...but you hate to think about it.”
Since 1979, there has been only one World Series appearance -- a 1981 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers -- for the team with 22 World Series victories.
“You were dealing with a tremendous chemistry that involved a lot of people in addition to Thurman,” said Chicago White Sox manager Jeff Torborg, a Yankee coach in 1979. “But it went when Thurman went.”
In 1980, the Yankees won 103 games enroute to the American League East title but the Kansas City Royals swept them in the playoffs.
Since then, the 1980s have been a decade of futility -- the first one since the 1910s in which the Yankees have not won a World Series.
“In the last 50 years, there have really been only four Yankee catchers -- Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra and Thurman,” said Murcer. “He made a difference here.”
Yet despite his achievements in New York, there was still talk of Munson asking to be traded to the Cleveland Indians, presumably to be closer to his wife and three children in Canton.
His wife Diana, now 40, said that stemmed only from his desire to be closer to his family, not a yearning to leave the Yankees.
“I don’t think he ever could’ve given up the Yankee pinstripes and I’m not sure the Yankees could’ve given him up either,” said Diana, who still lives in Canton with their children, Tracy, 19, Kelly, 17 and Michael, 14. “He loved playing for the Yankees. He loved the tradition. I think they both needed each other.”
Thus, Munson took up flying, a hobby that led him to purchase the jet which ultimately cost him his life.
Memories of the weekend following Munson’s accident remain vivid for many.
On Friday Aug. 3, before the Yankees-Orioles game, words chosen by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner were flashed on the scoreboard.
“Our captain and leader has not left us today, tomorrow, this year, next...Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him,” it said.
With every starting Yankee -- except a catcher -- on the field, Munson’s portrait was shown on the center field message board and a moment of silence was requested.
But New Yorkers are not known for keeping quiet.
“The fans started to cheer and they didn’t stop,” recalled Stone, who was standing on the third base line with his Oriole teammates. “It went on and on and on. It was one of those rare moments you don’t forget.”
The ovation by the crowd of 51,151 lasted more than eight minutes, as many in the crowd could be seen wiping away tears.
“I still get goosebumps thinking about that night,” said Torborg, who had been hired days before as a Yankee coach. “It was a tremendous spontaneous outpouring by the fans for a player they knew was very special.”
Brad Gulden, then 23, was the catcher the Yankees recalled from the team’s Triple-A affiliate at Columbus to replace Munson. He and the club’s other catcher -- Jerry Narron -- had the onus of replacing the captain.
“It was tough because the guys didn’t say much to me,” Gulden recalled from his hometown of Carver, Minnesota. “That night when home plate was left empty, I was in the dugout and I didn’t know whether to stand up or sit down or what to do. I was nervous even though I wasn’t starting.”
Narron started that first night but Gulden, who eventually played for six teams in a seven-year career, made his first major-league start the next day.
“There was a lot of pressure. It was a scary situation, said Gulden, now a fireman in Carver, a town of about 1,000 located 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis. “It was one of the hardest things that I ever had to deal with. After all, Thurman was such a great leader and all of a sudden he was gone.”
But the weekend’s drama was not over.
On Monday, the entire team flew to Canton to hear Murcer and fellow Yankee Lou Piniella -- Munson’s two closest friends -- deliver eulogies at the funeral.
Then they flew back to New York to play a night game because, said Diana, “Thurman would’ve wanted it that way.”
The Yankees trailed the Orioles in the nationally televised game 4-0 when Murcer hit a three-run homer -- his first since returning the Yankees -- in the seventh inning.
Then in the ninth with runners on second and third, Murcer delivered a two-run, two-strike opposite field single to win the game 5-4.
“There is no way to explain what happened,” said Murcer, who fell into Piniella’s arms in the Yankee dugout following the game-winning hit. “We used every ounce of strength to go out and play that game. We won it for Thurman.
“After that night, I never did use that bat again,” he added. “I gave it to Diana.”
The only current Yankee who played, albeit briefly, with Munson is reliever Dave Righetti, a rookie in spring training 1979.
“I was just a kid then but I remember being told by Gator (Ron Guidry) that Munson was the one who got him to throw the way he did,” said Righetti, referring to Guidry’s Cy Young-winning 25-3 season in 1978. “He (Guidry) said that Thurman was planning to do the same thing with me.”
Righetti, a Yankee veteran at 30, remains aware of the shrine-like aura of the Munson locker.
“I make sure guys don’t go in that locker because most don’t even realize that it says “15" up there,” he said. “They go and comb their hair in there and I say ‘hey, do you know who’s locker that is?”’
John Stearns, catcher for the Mets in 1979 and now a Yankee coach, agrees in the importance of the locker’s presence.
“I really looked up to Thurman as a guy I’d wanted to play like,” said Stearns, 37, whose career was cut short by injuries. “I remember playing at Shea Stadium the day he died when the message came over the scoreboard. I had trouble finishing the game. Lee (Mazzilli) was hitting when it flashed on the board and he had to step out and compose himself.
“I think about him a lot over here since I go by his locker often,” added Stearns. “His presence can be felt...he’s around.”
A short video is shown at Yankee Stadium between innings featuring footage of Munson, accompanied by Ronnie Milsap’s melancholy ballad, “It’s Almost Like a Song.”
Each time it is played, warm applause is heard.
“It’s by far the most popular item we show between innings. It receives the loudest cheers,” said Betsy Leesman, director of scoreboard operations at Yankee Stadium. “I saw it on CBS a few years ago and had to have it to show here. It made me cry the first time I saw it.”
For Diana, watching the two minute film is the most wrenching part of her returns to Yankee Stadium. “It’s not easy for me to watch because I want to just reach out and touch him,” she said during a recent Old Timer’s Day visit with their children. “But it’s real important for my children to see that the people of New York haven’t forgotten. They say ‘God, the fans really love Daddy!”’
Besides his locker and the video, there is now an additional tribute to the Yankee catcher -- a stadium in Canton named in his honor.
Home of the Canton-Akron Indians, the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, the 5,500-seat stadium was dedicated July 9th as Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium.
Piniella was one of the attendees.
“It’s very fitting for Thurman to have this honor,” said Piniella, who kept a large picture of Munson hanging in his office when he managed the Yankees. “But the amazing thing is that I started getting emotional (visiting Canton) because I was in his hometown -- a place he loved so much -- and it was the first time in a long time that I started thinking about Thurman in a serious nature.
“And I realized once again,” added Piniella in measured tones, “that an old friend is not here.”