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Thurman Munson

A photo of Thurman Munson.

Thurman Lee Munson (June 7, 1947August 2, 1979) was an American catcher in Major League Baseball who played with the New York Yankees from 1969 to 1979. Munson was killed in an airplane accident at age 32, while still in the prime of his career.

Born in Akron, Ohio, he grew up in nearby Canton. He graduated from Lehman High School in Canton and nearby Kent State University, where he was a teammate of pitcher and later broadcaster Steve Stone.

Munson was selected by the Yankees with the fourth pick in the first round of the 1968 amateur draft. He was named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1970 for batting .302 with 7 home runs and 57 RBIs, and the American League MVP in 1976 for batting .302 with 17 home runs and 105 RBIs. To date, he is the only Yankee ever to win both the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player awards. (Derek Jeter, who won Rookie of the Year in 1996, is the only active Yankee eligible to match the feat.) By a set of transactions, in 1974 the Yankees ended up with three straight Rookies of the Year on their roster, although 1969 winner Lou Piniella played for the Kansas City Royals at the time, and 1971 winner Chris Chambliss won it with the Cleveland Indians.

An outstanding fielder, in 1971 he made only one error behind the plate, and went on to win Gold Glove Awards for 1973-74-75. A seven-time All-Star, Munson smashed 113 home runs, 701 RBIs and had a career batting average of .292 over his ten-year career. He was also the first captain named by the Yankees since Lou Gehrig. Munson helped lead his team to three consecutive World Series (1976–1978), where he batted a remarkable .373 overall. A series of injuries in the late 1970s led to 77 appearances as a designated hitter, 27 games in the outfield, and five games as a first baseman, including his last three major league appearances. From 1975-1977, Munson had 100 rbi's and a .300 average each season. He was first American League player to complete such a streak since Al Rosen of the Cleveland Indians in 1954, and the first major leaguer since Bill White of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 (Mays & Aaron completed such streaks in 1963).

In the 1976 World Series, despite the Yankees losing to the Cincinnati Reds in four straight games, Munson batted .529 and collected six consecutive hits to tie a record set by Goose Goslin of the Washington Senators in 1925 (also in a losing effort). After this hitting performance, Reds manager Sparky Anderson was asked by a reporter to compare Munson with his catcher, future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. Anderson's comment at the post-World Series press conference -- "Don't ever embarrass anybody by comparing him to Johnny Bench" -- may have been a tribute to a great player, but it angered Munson (who overheard as he waited to go into the interview room) and his teammates; though his team was swept, for four days Munson was every bit as good as Bench.

Munson also maintained a feud with the other top catcher in the American League in the 1970s, Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox. Although Fisk's ability to play until he was 45 years old allowed him to build up career statistics that far exceeded Munson's, in the seven seasons in which they were both full-time catchers (1972-78), they were roughly equal both at the plate and behind it; while Fisk's numbers were slightly better in each case, it was Munson who brought his team to the postseason three times, compared to Fisk's one.

Munson batted .320 with a home run in the 1977 World Series, in which the Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Game 3 of the 1978 American League Championship Series, with the Yankees tied a game apiece with the Kansas City Royals and trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning, he hit the longest home run of his career, a 475-foot shot over Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in left-center field, to give the Yankees a 6-5 win. They won the pennant the next day, and in the World Series against the Dodgers, Munson caught a pop-up by Ron Cey for the final out.

Despite the love of the fans and the deep respect of his teammates and opponents, Munson was frequently homesick, and took flying lessons so that he could fly home to his family in Canton on off-days. On August 2, 1979, he was practicing takeoffs and landings in his new Cessna Citation jet at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport. On the third touch-and-go, Munson failed to lower the flaps for landing and allowed the aircraft to sink too low before increasing engine power, causing the jet to clip a tree and fall short of the runway. The plane then impacted a tree stump and burst into flames, killing Munson, who was trapped inside, and injuring two other companions. It is believed that the inability to get out of the plane, and the ensuing asphyxiation, is what killed Munson, rather than injuries sustained on impact or burns. He was just 32 years old.

His sudden death stunned the nation and especially sorrowed the baseball community. Munson's wife, Diana, and their three children survived him. The next day, before the start of the Yankees' four-game set with the Baltimore Orioles in the Bronx, the Yankees paid tribute to their fallen captain in a pre-game ceremony during which the starters stood at their defensive positions, save for the catcher's box, which remained empty. At the conclusion of Robert Merrill's musical selection, the fans (announced attendance 51,151) burst into a 10-minute standing emotion.

Four days later, on August 6, the entire Yankee team attended his funeral in Canton. Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, who were Munson's best friends as well as teammates, gave moving eulogies. That night (in front of a national viewing audience on ABC's Monday Night Baseball) the Yankees beat the Orioles 5-4 in New York, with Murcer driving in all 5 runs with a three-run home run in the seventh inning and a two-run double in the bottom of the ninth.

Immediately following his death, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner announced that his uniform number 15 was being retired. On September 20, 1980, a plaque was dedicated in his memory and placed in Monument Park. The plaque bears excerpts from an inscription composed by Steinbrenner and flashed on the Stadium scoreboard the day after his death:

"Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next... Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him."

To this day, despite a packed clubhouse, an empty locker, with Munson's number 15 on it, remains as a tribute to the Yankees' lost catcher. The original locker that Munson used, along with a bronzed set of his catching equipment, were donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

His number 15 is also displayed on the center field wall at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium, a minor-league ballpark in Canton. Munson is buried at Canton's Sunset Hills Burial Park.

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Preceded by:
Lou Piniella
American League Rookie of the Year
Succeeded by:
Chris Chambliss