- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

“When you look at the way he played and the way he carried himself, it was the way you wanted to play.”

—Chris Chambliss

Thurman Munson had many uncomplimentary nicknames reflecting his unimpressive physique rather than his baseball skills, among them “Squatty Boy” and “Jelly Belly.” He was an insecure, often irascible man noted for being difficult with umpires and media. Bitter because he felt he was unfairly overshadowed by star catchers like Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, he once dropped three third strikes in a game so he could throw to first base and pad his assists total.

But none of that mattered after 3:02p.m. on Aug.2, 1979.

On a day off for his New York Yankees, Munson — an enthusiastic amateur pilot — was practicing takeoffs and landings at Akron-Canton Regional Airport near his home in Cleveland. On one of the landings, something went horribly wrong. His new Cessna Citation clipped a tree and fell short of the runway. Munson, trapped inside, died quickly when the jet burst into flames.

The death of the Yankees’ inspirational leader and first captain since Lou Gehrig shocked and saddened all of baseball. “I tried to reach out to some of my players,” club owner George Steinbrenner recalled 23 years later. It was just awful. It’s hard to explain just how devastating it was to the Yankees.”

Slugger Reggie Jackson put it this way at the time: “Our season is shot.” He was right. The Yankees, who had been pursuing the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East, finished fourth.

Munson’s teammates learned the terrible news in different ways. Shortstop Bucky Dent had finished dinner at a Manhattan restaurant and was waiting for his car when an attendant asked, “Boy, isn’t it a shame what happened to Thurman?”

After being told, Dent said years later, “I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and I kind of fell up against the car.”

Munson’s friend Joe Torre was managing the Mets when the news flashed on the scoreboard at Shea Stadium.

“Lee Mazzilli was on deck, and he just looked over at me,” Torre said. “I think stunned is the only word I can use to describe the dugout.”

We don’t expect star athletes in their 20s and 30s to leave us so soon. Many of us connect to them emotionally, and when they depart we feel cheated — although by now the economic aspects of pro sports should have conditioned us to losing heroes. But in 1979, at the dawn of free agency, we still expected a player like Thurman Munson to be a Yankee Forever.

He had come up to a then-sorry Yankees team at the end of the 1969 season after being an All-American at Kent State and then playing just 99 games in the minors. Brash and cocky, Munson was a most untypical rookie. Once he told veteran second baseman Willie Randolph, “Relax, I like you.”

Said outfielder Bobby Murcer, a close friend: “In those days, rookies kind of walked quietly and did what they were told. Thurman was different. He felt like he belonged the first time he stepped on the field at Yankee Stadium.”

And so he did. Munson batted .302 in 1970 and was the American League’s Rookie of the Year. Over the next nine seasons, he batted .291 with good power, won three Gold Gloves and was the AL MVP in 1976 when the Yankees won their first pennant in 12 years. From 1975 through 1977, he averaged .309, 16 home runs and 102 RBI.

And if we’re looking for a clue to Munson’s ability to perform in the clutch, one can be found in his postseason batting average: .357 for 30 games over six series with three homers and 22 RBI.

By 1979, however, the strain of catching was taking its toll on Munson’s body, perhaps presaging a switch to first base or designated hitter. In constant pain, he sometimes found it difficult to crouch behind the plate. Yet he remained a superb catcher whose mere presence and tenacity got the best out of his pitchers.

Yankees ace Ron Guidry always insisted Munson deserved half the credit for the left-hander’s Cy Young Award season of 1978 (25-3, 1.74 ERA, nine shutouts).

“I went the whole year never shaking him off one time,” Guidry once recalled. “He always knew exactly when to say something and when to shut up. I don’t remember him ever chewing [teammates out] and pointing fingers [during a slump]. He’d just say, ‘We’re not playing as a team — we’re better than this.’”

Munson batted .297 that season, though his homers fell off to six and his RBI to 71, and the Yankees won their third straight pennant and second straight World Series. The following year, he was batting .288 through 97 games when a nine-game road trip ended Aug. 1 with a sweep of the White Sox in Chicago. He received permission from the club to fly home and spend the day off with his family, although his love for piloting always made Steinbrenner nervous.

On Saturday night, July 31, Munson and outfielder Lou Piniella stayed with Murcer, who had a home in Chicago. After Sunday’s series finale, Murcer and his family drove Munson to a private airport.

“I will never forget that night,” Murcer said. “It was dark, and we went down to the end of the runway, and he took off in this plane. I could not believe how powerful the plane was and Thurman up there all by himself.”

Munson landed safely in Ohio, then returned to the airport the next day to practice takeoffs and landings because he had spent less than 40 hours in the air with his new jet. Suddenly, the Cessna plane stalled while landing, scraped some trees and crashed into a cornfield with its wings shorn off. Two other passengers, a friend and a flight instructor, survived and began attempting to drag Munson from the wreckage. He was calling for help when jet fuel leaked and the plane exploded.

Munson’s body was so badly burned that he had to be identified by dental records. He had a broken jaw, a broken rib, a bloody nose and a bruised heart among other injuries.

At the request of Munson’s widow, Diane, the Yankees played the Orioles the next night as scheduled — probably the most emotional occasion at Yankee Stadium since the fatally stricken Gehrig’s famed farewell (“I am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”) July 4, 1939. The Yankees lost 1-0, but probably most of the crowd of 51,151 didn’t care or even notice.

Before the game, the Yankees stood at attention as a portrait of Munson appeared on the video screen. “It seemed like the tribute lasted forever,” Jackson said. “Players had their heads bowed, and they were crying. It was horrible.”

Said Randolph: “When you [lose] a leader like that, there’s such a void. You keep thinking, ‘This can’t be happening. We just wanted to get the season over with and go home.”

Three days later, on Aug. 6, the Yankees chartered a plane to attend Munson’s funeral in Ohio, where Murcer and Piniella delivered eulogies.

“The league told us if we didn’t get back for [that nights] game, we’d have to forfeit it,” Steinbrenner said. “I told them to stick it.”

The Yankees did return in time and defeated Baltimore 5-4. Murcer drove in four runs and had a game-wining homer. Undoubtedly, Munson would have approved.

To this day, Thurman Munson’s locker remains empty in the Yankees’ crowded clubhouse — a silent tribute to a man whose life and apparent march to the Hall of Fame ended much too early.

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