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Remembering Thurman Munson

Number retired: Aug. 3, 1979 Yankees Stats: .292

Number retired: Aug. 3, 1979
Yankees Stats: .292 AVG, 1,558 H, 113 HR, 701 RBI
"The Captain" is still one of the most revered members of Yankee history. Thurman Munson's career and life were cut short due to a plane crash during the 1979 season. Munson guided the Yankees during the "Bronx Zoo" days to back-to-back titles in 1977 and 1978. He was the 1976 AL MVP, hitting .302 with 17 homers and 105 RBIs. His empty locker remains in the new Yankee Stadium to remind the generations to come of his leadership and accomplishments. Photo Credit: Newsday / David L. Pokress

The shocking death of Thurman Munson was the memorable moment of 1979, certainly one of the unforgettable incidents in 45 years of writing about sports. I'm still glad I didn't have to write about it at the moment. Life and death usually do present the unexpected.

In 1979 - and a few years before and after in the age of the typewriter - the Newsday sports staff at year's end compiled the Memories of a Memorable Year. Dan Lauck wrote of his first look at the shattered hulk of Munson's airplane by the ghastly generated light at 1 a.m. I wrote thankfully that I had been out of the country and had not been compelled to write. It would have been very difficult. I did note that I did not like Munson and I believe he did not like me. We disagreed about a lot of things, some as basic as common courtesy.

Let me make one point in hindsight: I voted for Munson for the Hall of Fame even though his major-league career was barely more than the minimum of 10 seasons. He was an outstanding player and the greatest force in returning the Yankees to a pennant after 11 years in the doldrums. But his accomplishments are one aspect of a man's life. Years later, Reggie Jackson lamented that the ESPN miniseries "The Bronx is Burning'' and the tumult of 1977 did not deal with anti-Semitism and racism.

I was a consultant on the series and mentioned the issue about Munson and Billy Martin, but that wasn't how ESPN wanted to treat the rancor of the year. "But why talk about people that are dead?'' Jackson rationalized the treatment. "Why trample on a man's grave?''

In writing about Munson's death, I would have had to deal with both admiration for him as a player and personal observations. " . . . And it was clear afterward,'' I did write, "that the honest critical opinions the reader devoured and demanded the day before Munson's death were unacceptable and despised after it.''

When later I wrote critically on Martin's death, one member of the Yankees party whose opinion I respect and who knew the dark side of the man wrote to me: "How unkind.''

When Munson came on the scene as a rookie, I recall him saying, "Thurman Munson; it's a peculiar name, but once you hear it, you don't forget it.'' Indeed, he was named 1970 American League Rookie of the Year, and the only other catcher to have won that award was Johnny Bench.

In 1976 Munson was named Most Valuable Player and hit .529 in the World Series even though the Yankees were swept by Cincinnati. Bench hit .533 and was named MVP of the Series.

Munson was the first American League player to hit .300 and drive in 100 runs for three consecutive seasons in the nearly two dozen years since Al Rosen did it for Cleveland. In three World Series and three league championship series, Munson was a splendid performer even when he was burned by the constant conflict of 1977 and "sick and tired of being sick and tired.''

He was a terrific teammate for most of his teammates. He would delay his run for the plate, timing his safe arrival to collide with the catcher and enable a Yankee to take an extra base.

Even before the arrival of Jackson and internal conflict, Munson was hostile to the press. "Just happy to be here,'' he'd say and stalk off.

Once I pushed through Munson's refusal and said I was doing a long piece on Sparky Lyle. Munson looked left and right and proceeded to provide enlightening comment. And "enough?''

In the 1977 ALCS against Kansas City, George Brett slid into third base and immediately was tangled in a genuine fight with Graig Nettles. Brett was pinned on the bottom of a pile and being pummeled, and then Munson was lying on top of him in his catching gear, saying, "Don't worry, George, I won't let anybody hit you when you're down.'' And they didn't. "Thurman is my hero,'' Brett said.

At the same time, Munson nursed a cranky rivalry with catchers Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox and teammate and backup Rick Dempsey. Munson would encourage Dempsey at one time and the next - this was when Munson still was conversational - remind everyone that Dempsey couldn't carry his mask.

The celebration of Fisk bugged Munson, who thought he was better but that Fisk was more celebrated because he was tall and ruggedly handsome as the Minuteman on the postage stamp and a better interview.

I still think Munson deserves the Hall of Fame even though only in his first year of eligibility did he get as many as 15 percent of the votes. He was a dominant player.

I also do not forget that when Martin hauled Reggie off the field in Boston and wrongly accused him of loafing, Thurman went to Mike Torrez on the mound and, Torrez recalls, threw his racial slur into the event.

At the tragic end, Fisk and Dempsey, who had years of scorn for Munson, now had only nice things to say about him. The public demanded that Munson be a hero without blemish, and I'm thankful I didn't have to face the typewriter with that in mind.

 

 

Steve Jacobson is a former Newsday sports columnist (1979-2004), longtime baseball writer and the author of "The Best Team Money Can Buy,'' which chronicled the triumph and turmoil of the 1977 Yankees.

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