Vets Committee to consider Munson
Yankees catcher was team leader until tragic death
NEW YORK -- In his short life and 10-year career, no player may have had a greater impact on Major League Baseball than Thurman Munson, the late Yankees catcher and team captain, the team's first, at the time, since Lou Gehrig passed away in 1939.A novice pilot, he died on Aug. 2, 1979, while practicing take-offs and landings at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport near his hometown in Ohio. His death tore the guts out of that era's Yankees team, which had stirred a resurgence in the storied championship history of the franchise. Under Munson's leadership, the Yankees lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, but defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977 and 1978. The 1977 victory, in six games, was the first for the Yankees in 15 years. After Munson's passing, that team was to win no more titles until 1996. "Time passes fast. As you get older, it passes faster," Ron Guidry told MLB.com about Munson back in 2004. "He was a special friend, a great ballplayer, a good person." The lithe left-handed Guidry, the Yankees pitching coach now, was a batterymate of Munson's from 1975 until the catcher's death, including that wonderful '78 season when Guidry went 25-3 with 248 strikeouts and a 1.74 ERA, and was named the Cy Young Award winner in the American League. "I went the whole year never shaking him off one time," Guidry said. "And he always knew when to say something, and when to shut up." Because of his shortened career, Munson didn't have Hall of Fame numbers, but he certainly was of Hall of Fame timber, a factor the Veteran's Committee should consider when it announces its upcoming vote on Feb. 27. He batted .292 with 701 runs batted in and 1,558 hits -- 113 of them homers and 229 of them doubles. At a time when he battled for attention and stature with Boston's Carlton Fisk, Munson was an unparalleled defensive catcher, committing only 127 errors in his career and just one during the 1971 season, when he played in 117 games behind the plate. He was a seven-time AL All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove award winner, AL Rookie of the Year in 1970 and AL Most Valuable Player in 1976. His eighth-inning home run over the fabled Monument Park in left-center field at Yankee Stadium won Game 3 of the 1978 AL Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals, who the Yanks defeated in four games. Less than two years later, not long after his untimely death, Munson's No. 15 was retired and a plaque placed in his honor in Monument Park. "He was absolutely my favorite teammate," said Rick "Goose" Gossage, who as a free agent, saved 27 games for that '78 team, including the infamous one-game playoff against the Red Sox at Fenway Park that put the Yankees into the playoffs. "And I had some great, great, great teammates. But he was the best."
August Busch Jr.
Munson was built like a fire hydrant and had a cantankerous personality. On a team chocked with egos from hired-and-then-fired-again manager Billy Martin to utilityman Cliff Johnson, Munson was always in the middle of the fray.Those Yankees had Gold Glove third baseman Graig Nettles, second baseman Willie Randolph and Mickey Rivers in center. When principal owner George Steinbrenner added free agent Reggie Jackson to the mix in time for the 1977 season, the turbulent clubhouse atmosphere was complete. Before Jackson's arrival, Munson was the undisputed locker room leader. Afterward, he had to share the spotlight with the left-handed hitter who called himself "the straw that stirs the drink" and signed a contract with a candy company that produced the short-lived chocolate "Reggie Bar." Never one to leave the pot unstirred, Nettles quipped: "Reggie has a candy bar named after him. When you split it open, it tells you how good it is." Munson, a lunchpail player, never felt comfortable under the glare that Jackson brought with him, much like the circumstance in the clubhouse between the glamorous Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, the everyman, today. But there's no doubt who remains the team favorite from that era. Jackson and Fisk, Munson's chief rivals, are in the Hall of Fame. To this day, Munson's locker remains empty and unused in the Yankee clubhouse as a tribute to the man who perished too young, but who gave it everything he had every day without complaint. On his Monument Park plaque are the words once penned by Steinbrenner himself: "Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next ... Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him." "It's incredible that it's been that long ago," Nettles said about the time that has passed since Munson's death. "That's almost half my life."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.