On August 2nd, 1979 a two-engine Cessna Citation with the number 15NY approached the Canton-Akron airport in Ohio. It was a Thursday afternoon and most people were just finishing their workday, but the pilot was Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees and Thursdays were often off-days for the team. Thurman was spending his day off at home as he often did; in fact, he had begun flying in 1977 to spend more time at home and avoid moving his family to New York for six months a year. Munson had just built a family home and conducted business and real estate deals in his native Canton.
Munson had only recently bought the plane and it was an upgrade for him, so he needed some additional lessons to fly it. His flight instructor David Hall and friend Jerry Anderson joined him on this particular flight. Munson was having some issues with the plane and wanted Hall and Anderson to check them out while in the air and also to get some practice taking it off and landing it.
As they approached runway 19 at 3:02 PM, Thurman came in too low. The plane hit some trees a thousand feet from the runway and lost its wings. It crashed just past Greensburg Road, rolled to an embankment near the airport and caught fire. Once the plane came to a stop, Hall kicked open the side door and Anderson followed him out. Both men noticed that Thurman was still in the plane, motionless, head tilted sideways. They tried to pull him out of his harness until a fuel tank caught fire and the flames forced them to move back. Their clothes singed, they were found exhausted and gasping for air when the first police officer arrived five minutes after the crash.
(Munson's final card...1979 Burger King, which was issued after the Topps cards that year.)
Yankee captain Thurman Munson was thirty-two years old. The official cause of death was given as smoke inhalation, and the coroner determined that he had died even before his friends tried to pull him out. He left behind his wife Diana -- his high school sweetheart -- and three young children, Tracy, Kelly and Michael. He also left behind 24 teammates, several coaches, the entire Yankee organization and a legion of fans.
Though Thurman was known for having the stoic and unemotional makeup often attributed to many of those who share his German heritage, the news of his passing caused a lot of emotion to spill over among his teammates and friends. George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin had spent much of the 1979 baseball season feuding in the press, but both broke down crying over the phone when Steinbrenner told Billy the news. Bobby Murcer had been Munson's closest friend on the team and immediately flew to Ohio to help comfort the Munson family.
Steinbrenner had longtime clubhose superintendant Pete Sheehy clean out Munson's locker. Sheehy left Thurman's uniform and catcher's mask on the hooks, a Yankee cap on the shelf and a metal plate above the stall with the number 15 on it. Sheehy died in 1985, all Thurman's teammates have since retired and George Steinbrenner, Catfish Hunter, Bobby Murcer and Billy Martin have also passed away, but the locker remained that way in the Yankees' locker room until it was demolished. When the Yankees moved to their new home in 2009, Munson's locker was moved there and remains to be a permanent reminder of what he meant to the club.
The Yankees played again on August 3rd against the Orioles in Yankee Stadium. As the Yankee players ran out to their positions before the top of the first inning that evening, eight took the field and the catcher position stayed empty. Thurman Munson's face was shown on the scoreboard and the fans applauded for eight minutes. Once the tribute had settled down, rookie catcher Jerry Narron quietly took his position as the game began.
The entire team traveled to Canton the following Monday for a memorial service. For many of the players, it was the first time they had to deal with the death of somebody so close to them. For Graig Nettles, his way of dealing with it was through humor. Remembering that Thurman loved junk food, he quipped, "only Thurman would be buried next to a Burger King and a pizza parlor" when they approached the cemetery.
Now that several years have passed, there are still a few vocal fans who want to see Munson enshrined in Cooperstown. They point out Thurman's resume: 1970 A.L. Rookie of the Year, 1976 A.L. MVP, three pennants, two World Series championships and the fact that he was the acknowledged "heart and soul" of those teams. However, in retrospect the Rookie of the Year award doesn't help Munson any more than it helped Fernando Valenzuela, Fred Lynn or Lou Whitaker. The MVP award is nice for a trophy room, but it didn't help Keith Hernadez, George Foster or (again) Fred Lynn get in the Hall of Fame either. Each award is given for an exceptional season, but to get in the Hall of Fame a player needs to put together an entire career.
Thurman played in the 1970s and was a contemporary of two catchers who are among those immortalized in Cooperstown -- Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk. Bench was the best catcher of his generation and deserved the first-ballot election he received once he was eligible. The one time Bench and Munson met in the postseason was for the 1976 World Series, and the Reds swept the Yankees. If you compared the year-by-year stats of Fisk and Munson for the years 1970-'79 they look comparable, but the fact of the matter is that if Fisk's career ended in 1979, he wouldn't have gotten into the Hall of Fame either. Fisk's decade with the White Sox was just as much a part of his induction as his decade with the Red Sox. By '79, Munson was playing designated hitter and first base (where he played his final game) because his legs were too tired to allow him to be an everyday catcher. In his autobiography, Munson wrote that he was hoping to play for the Indians by 1981, but he likely wouldn't have been able to supplant Bo Diaz or Ron Hassey as their regular catcher.
Of the resume items mentioned earlier, that leaves the fact that his teams won three pennants and two World Series. If that were all a person needed to enter the Hall, then other catchers with Series rings -- guys like Bill Freehan, Gene Tenace or Bob Boone -- would get more consideration. Besides that, playing for multiple championship teams didn't get earlier Yankees like Bobby Richardson, Roger Maris or Mark Koenig into the Hall, nor did it help another Yankee catcher with similar credentials as Munson...Elston Howard. A '63 MVP award, four Series championships, eight pennants and an ability at his position that caused Yogi Berra to be switched to the outfield surpassed his trivial status as the first black Yankee. If those achievements aren't enough for Elston Howard, then perhaps Munson's omission wasn't an accident.
None of those issues should detract from Thurman Munson as a player or as a man. He was a gifted catcher with a strong arm and surprising speed. He was an agressive player and a quiet leader. Off the field, he was a devoted family man. In person, he came across as moody, but his teammates insisted he was very sensitive and needed time to warm up to others. Whatever the viewpoint, Thurman Munson's passing more than thirty years ago was a loss for all who knew him, and he's still missed.