|Twenty years after his untimely death, the Yankee family remembers.|
"When you look at the way he played and the way he carried himself, it was the way you wanted to play. That's what made him the captain." -- Chris Chambliss
To a new generation of Yankee fans, he's a plaque, a highlight film, a numbered jersey you can buy at any sporting goods store. Twenty whole years have passed since the Captain of the Yankees, catcher Thurman Munson, died at the controls of his twin-engine jet on August 2, 1979. To fans just a little bit older it seems like yesterday.
For a select few, Munson was more than a faraway icon. As the anniversary of his death passes this month, his friends and teammates remember the very real man they lost: his skills, his leadership, his devotion to his family.
Bobby Murcer was already a Yankee in 1969 when Munson, an All-American catcher from Kent State University, joined the team after fewer than 100 games in the minors and made quite an impression.
"Back in those days, rookies were guys that kind of walked quietly and did what they were told, but Thurman was a little bit different from that," Murcer said. "He felt like he belonged the first time he stepped on the field here at Yankee Stadium."
Yankee broadcaster Ken Singleton was a National League veteran when he became an Oriole before the 1975 season, and he, too, felt Munson's presence on the diamond.
"Certain guys you notice on the field," Singleton said. "You noticed Thurman Munson."
After earning Rookie of the Year honors with a .302 batting average in his first full year, Munson gained a reputation as a tough, savvy catcher and clutch hitter.
"He felt he belonged the first time he stepped on the field here at Yankee Stadium." -- Bobby Murcer
"Thurman had probably the quickest release I've ever seen of any catcher," Murcer said. "He wasn't always as accurate throwing out runners at second base, but he would throw from the crouch a lot of times, and just ffffft!"
Willie Randolph was a rookie in 1976, the year Munson became captain and was named American League MVP.
"He knew how to get the base hit and go the other way," Randolph said. "He would do anything to get the job done. If you didn't watch him he'd steal a base."
"He wasn't the type of guy you could stop," Singleton added.
In 1978, Ron Guidry posted one of the best years a pitcher ever had (25-3, 1.74, 9 shutouts), but believes that Munson played a big part in it.
"If [credit for that season] was 50 percent mine, the other 50 percent went to him," Guidry said. "I went that whole year never shaking him off one time. If a guy made a bad pitch and a guy hit a home run, he took responsibility for it. He told the manager, 'I'm the one that called for it, it could have been the wrong pitch, maybe I'm wrong, it's not his fault. It's not the pitcher. It's me.'"
Chris Chambliss was Munson's teammate beginning in 1974 and respected his gutsy style of play.
"If you think of a guy like a shortstop or second baseman, a guy that's always got his nose in the dirt, that's the way Thurman played as a catcher," the Yankees batting coach said. "He was tough, but he could finesse you also."
Jerry Narron was a rookie catcher with the Yankees in 1979 and immediately tried to follow Munson's example.
"He took a lot of pride in coming out and playing every day," said Narron, now a coach with the Texas Rangers. "He took a lot of pride in playing well when he was hurt."
"He always knew exactly when to say something and when to shut up. And that's why everybody admired him." -- Ron Guidry Munson, already the Yankees' de facto leader, was named captain, the first since Lou Gehrig in April of 1976.
"When you look at the way he played and the way he carried himself, it was the way you wanted to play," Chambliss said. "That's what made him the captain."
"I can never recall a time when he got mad and started chewing and pointing fingers at people," Guidry said. "He just said, 'We are not playing as a team, and we are better than this.' Even when we were two games down to the Dodgers [in the 1978 World Series], he said, 'I wouldn't mind losing to 'em if they would beat us. But they haven't beat us yet. We've beaten ourselves. You know, if we take these three games here in New York, we're going to beat 'em in L.A.' And that's what we did."
"To me, as a young player coming up and watching him work, he was the consummate leader," said Randolph, who was named co-captain with Guidry on March 4, 1986. "He was a no-nonsense kind of guy with a dry sense of humor, but he always meant well, and if you knew him and understood his sense of humor, then he was great. He'd give you the shirt off his back.
"[As a rookie] I thought he was trying to bully me. So I stood up to him one time, right in front of the batting cage. He was kidding about it, but I thought he was serious, and I was serious. He ended up breaking the ice by going, 'Hey! What's wrong with you? Relax! I like you! If I didn't like you, I wouldn't fool around with you!'"
"When Billy Martin was coming back as the manager, Thurman said, 'let me tell you two things about Billy'," Narron recalls. "'The first thing is, when he was playing, he could not hit a breaking ball. So if you ever have any doubt on what pitch to call, call a breaking ball. The other thing is if he ever looks mad at you, go ahead and hit him before he sucker-punches you.'"
"The was no quit in him." -- Willie Randolph
Munson loved to play, but never liked spending time away from his wife, Diane, and three children in Canton, Ohio. A major league salary made a solution possible. "I have a new love to make things somewhat more pleasant for me this year," he wrote in his 1978 autobiography, "Airplanes." Bucky Dent shared his interest.
"I was learning how to fly, and we flew together a little bit in his plane," Dent said. "It was a quiet time for him. He enjoyed doing it, and it was something he looked forward to when he got out of the game."
"He loved to fly," Randolph said. "He wanted to be close to his family. And at every opportunity he got he would try to get back to Canton. It's difficult when you play in a town and you really have roots somewhere else."
Munson's last game was on August 1, 1979, in Chicago, where the Yankees completed a road trip with a sweep of the White Sox. After an off day, they would host the first-place Orioles in a key four-game series.
"I still had my home in Chicago," Murcer said. "And when we played that three-game series, Thurman and Lou [Piniella] stayed with me. [On] Saturday night, I know I went to bed very late, [and] he and Lou were still downstairs arguing about how to hit. And then we played that Sunday game and my wife and I and my children took Thurman to the airport. I never will forget that Sunday evening. 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 all by himself up there controlling this powerful jet."
Munson arrived safely in Canton. The next day, he went back to Akron-Canton Airport to practice takeoffs and landings. On one approach, his jet crashed short of the runway, skidded onto a road and caught fire. Two passengers were injured. Munson was killed.
Murcer got the news when a friend from New York called him in Chicago. Chambliss and his wife were out for ice cream when they heard over the car radio. Randolph was out at dinner. So was Dent.
"He took a lot of pride in playing well when he was hurt." -- Jerry Narron "I was at the Twin Towers having dinner," Dent said. "I came down and one of the attendants goes, 'Aren't you Bucky Dent?' and I go, 'Yeah,' and he goes, 'Boy, it's a shame what happened to Thurman.' I go, 'What're you talking about?' and he goes, 'He got killed in a plane crash.' I was like, 'Oh, my God,' and I kind of fell up against the car."
Guidry was one of the few who heard the news straight from the top.
"I answered the phone, and it was Mr. Stembrenner," Guidry said. "And you know, usually, he's not just going to call to ask how you're doing. He just said, 'I wanted to tell you personally, before you heard it from anybody else, or you heard something on the news. The news is very bad.'"
Munson's friend Joe Torre was managing the Mets when news of the accident flashed on the Shea Stadium scoreboard.
"I remember 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 that day."
The next evening's game against Baltimore suddenly didn't matter. At Diane Munson's urging, however, the Yankees carried on.
"All of a sudden, you're playing a game, and a life is gone," Chambliss said. "You don't feel like playing a game. But yeah, I think Diane insisted that we went on.
"It sounds hokey, but you know, Thurman would have wanted us to play," Randolph said. "There was no quit in him, so we weren't going to just lie down and not play."
Narron had the unenviable distinction of catching for the Yankees that evening. He waited on the top step of the dugout while the rest of the team took the field.
"He wasn't the type of guy you could stop." -- Ken Singleton "
I remember I was told it would be just during a couple minutes of silence, and that couple minutes went on for about 15 or 20 minutes or so," Narron said. "It was pretty emotional.
"You just kinda kept waiting for him to come back, but it never happened," Dent said.
The Yankees flew together to Munson's funeral in Canton the morning of August 6. People from throughout baseball, including Torre, attended as well. Murcer and Piniella delivered eulogies. Among the people interviewed here, memories of that day remain a blur.
"There was too much emotion," Dent said. "You know, sometimes you're there, but you're not there? I don't remember what all they said."
Somber and weary, the Yankees made it back to New York in time for that evening's game against Baltimore. Guidry took the mound only hours after Munson's funeral.
"I looked to center field, they played the anthem, I turned around, and I started throwing my warmup pitches," he recalled. "Well, you see, that time, when I turned around, he was not there. I realized that there was something missing from me. And that was the hardest thing to overcome."
Murcer's ninth-inning heroics led the Yankees to an emotional 5-4 win.
"Billy came to me and he said, 'I'm not going to play you tonight, you're just too tired.' And I told Billy, 'I just don't feel like I should take the night off. I feel like I should be playing.' I ended up with I think 5 RBI that night, a home run and a double, and drove in all five runs for the Yankees. I never did use that bat again. I gave it to Diane," Murcer recounted.
"I think he could have played on our team. There's no question." -- Joe Torre
Munson's uniform No. 15 was retired immediately, and from that day his locker in the Yankee clubhouse has remained unused. In the aftermath of his death, many fans assumed Munson would be a shoe-in for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But it never happened, and he is no longer eligible for election.
"He was in the prime of his career, Chambliss said. "If he had played longer, if he had been able to play his whole career, there's no doubt that he would have been in there."
"Those are things that Thurman didn't care about," Randolph said. "Thurman, he would go, 'What? Hall of Fame? So what, rook? What's it mean? What's that all about? It's not championships, is it?' 'No, Thurman.' 'Well, so what? It's all bulls~~t.'"
This month, people who never saw Munson play are going to hear a lot about him. His friends offered their thoughts on what today's fans should know about him.
"He was strong. He was compassionate. He was competitive. He was fair. He didn't have any weak points. He was one of those people that you hold head and shoulders above a lot of the guys that you're around." -- Guidry
"I think he could have played on our team. There's no question. He didn't worry about how his uniform looked. He didn't worry about how the winning run scored. The only thing he cared about was winning, and that's what we try to emulate on this ballclub." -- Torre
"I think [the fans] should know what he did for the Yankees and what kind of player he was. That he loved his family. He was a good friend and teammate. He played hard, and he expected everybody else to play hard. He was a true professional when he walked out on the field and put the uniform on." -- Murcer
"More than what happened on the field, he was, to me, a good, solid family man. I remember him more as a friend, a person who tried to make me feel comfortable with this team and within myself. You know, l still get goosebumps, and even to this day, I think he's still here. It's almost like he just retired and he's just being Thurman, in his private way, living in Canton, Ohio, somewhere. it's hard to believe that he's actually gone." -- Randolph