Forty years ago, on Aug. 2, 1979, an aircraft bearing the numbers NY15 crashed short of the runway at Akron-Canton Airport, about 50 miles south of Cleveland.
The pilot, Yankees captain Thurman Munson, could not be freed before the Cessna twin-engine turbojet burst into flames.
The news of the 32-year-old All-Star catcher’s death stunned the baseball world and shattered his teammates.
“When Thurman got killed, you know, we just lost all — the whole season was just kind of lost,” third baseman Graig Nettles said in a 1981 deposition related to the wrongful death suit filed by Munson’s widow, Diana.
“I knew that those men would never be the same,’’ Diana Munson said last week from the Canton, Ohio, home that she and Thurman shared, not far from the site of the fiery crash.
Every Yankees fan can recall where they were when the news of Munson’s death broke on that early summer evening.
But imagine being a teammate.
“I was in the backyard with my kids and my wife,’’ Lou Piniella, 75, said from Tampa. “We got a call from Mr. [George] Steinbrenner. He was almost hysterical. I don’t know what he was talking about initially. Finally, he told me that Thurman had had an accident and died in his airplane.’’
The Yankees had an off day after a series in Chicago and Munson was practicing landings and takeoffs in the $1.25 million Cessna Citation he purchased three weeks earlier. At 4:02 p.m., the plane sunk too low, clipped a tree and fell short of the runway, hit a tree stump and burst into flames, according to reports.
The National Transportation and Safety Board determined that pilot error was responsible for the crash, citing lack of airspeed in the attempted landing and Munson’s failure to fasten his seat belt.
“It was the most horrific news I’ve ever received,’’ Hall of Fame pitcher Rich “Goose” Gossage, 68, said last week from Colorado Springs. “We had just gotten back from a weekend with Thurman busting my chops for not going flying with him because he had his plane out in Seattle when we were playing the Mariners.’’
Shortstop Bucky Dent had just finished dining at a restaurant in the Twin Towers. “I came down and a parking attendant recognized me,’’ said Dent, 67, who lives in Lake Worth, Florida. “He said it’s a shame what happened to Thurman Munson. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said he got killed in a plane crash. It buckled my knees. I just sat down on the hood of my car and I just started crying.’’
Gossage said he received a call from Steinbrenner. “I shrieked,’’ he said. “It didn’t hit me until I walked back into the clubhouse. At Yankee Stadium, the first place I looked was Thurman’s locker. It was cleaned out. His catching gear was hanging up. There was a big spread of flowers in the front of it. His shin guards, his chest protector, his mask, his catcher’s glove. That’s when it hit me. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of him.”
Munson had been named team captain in 1976, the first Yankee to have that honor since Lou Gehrig was chosen in 1935. Munson was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1970 and MVP in 1976. In the postseason, he hit .357 with three home runs and 22 RBIs. He averaged .292 in 11 seasons with the Yankees and won three Gold Gloves but is not enshrined in Cooperstown.
“He didn’t get a chance to finish his legacy,” Gossage said. “That guy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.”
FLYING HOME TO FAMILY
Munson, a licensed pilot since March 7, 1978, saw flying as a way to spend as much time as he could with his family during the season, Diana Munson said. She said they tried living in New York, but Thurman longed for the relative solitude of his home in Canton and would fly home whenever possible.
“It put a great deal of strain on me,’’ she said of her husband’s flying. “It was unnerving to know that he was up in the air.’’
That was heightened when Munson transitioned from flying propeller planes to the jet.
“I was worried that he didn’t have enough hours or wasn’t as qualified as I wanted him to be,’’ Diana Munson said of her husband’s training, which took place from July 7-16, 1979, according to a document obtained by former Old Bethpage resident Allan Blutstein, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who specializes in uncovering documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents first appeared in the New York Times in 2018 after Blutstein obtained them in an examination of the wrongful death suit. The suit was settled out of court for an unspecified sum.
Munson’s ex-teammates, some of whom flew with him on occasion, also were concerned about him flying.
Diana Munson added, “I don’t think it was unfounded. Obviously. It was something that most of us tried to talk him out of.”
Munson was the only fatality in the crash. Co-pilot David Hall, Munson’s flight instructor when he started with props, and Jerry Anderson, Munson’s friend, recovered from their injuries.
The coroner’s report said Munson’s neck had been broken and he was paralyzed, but the cause of death was asphyxiation from carbon monoxide in the fuselage. Hall testified in a 1980 deposition that as Munson lay motionless after the crash, he asked if he and Anderson were OK.
Hall said in his deposition that Munson’s last words were “Help me, Dave.’’ The two men could not free Munson and fled as smoke and flames entered the cockpit. Hall refused comment and Anderson did not respond to an email.
Diana Munson said she visited the two survivors in the hospital. “ I just wanted to reassure them that I didn’t blame them for not getting him out,’’ she said. “I’ve never been real clear, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. The fact that he was gone was what I had to deal with. Raise three children on my own. The circumstances didn’t matter as much as the fact that he was gone.’’
The couple’s son, Michael, then 4, had a question for his mother.
“He said if Daddy was so strong, how come he didn’t get out of the plane?’’ she said. “To this day, those things are very difficult to deal with.’’
The Yankees attended the funeral in Canton on Aug. 6 and played at Yankee Stadium that night. Murcer, who eulogized Munson earlier, got the game-winning hit against the Orioles.
“I can’t comprehend that even to this day, 55,000 people crying,’’ Gossage said. “You could hear people weeping uncontrollably behind us when we were standing in front of the dugout.’’
Reggie Jackson, who had a tumultuous relationship with Munson early in Jackson’s career with the Yankees, cried as he stood in rightfield at the beginning of the game.
“Reggie took it as hard as anyone,’’ Diana Munson said. “There were rough times. There were times when they didn’t speak, people say things, things happen, but people move on.’’
That is what Diana Munson and her family have tried to do.
Mrs. Munson keynotes the annual Thurman Munson dinner in Manhattan that has raised more than $18 million for the Association for the Help for Retarded Children.
“He was tough and gritty and hardcore,’’ she said. “Yet he was gentle and tender and kind and loving with his family. I think New Yorkers, in particular, got him, loved and respected him, and I think that’s why we’re still talking about him 40 years later.’’