On August 2, 1979 I was in the back yard playing catch with my Return-A-Ball net when my sister called out from one of the windows in the house to tell me Yankees C Thurman Munson had died. In the wake of two World Series losses for my team, the Dodgers, at the hands of the Yankees, Munson wasn’t exactly one of my favorite players of the day. But he was an icon of the game in my mind and this news was shocking.
That he was flying a plane shocked me even more and the whole thing just sounded surreal. I knew that baseball players were making big money and that George Steinbrenner was sparing no expense to build his back-to-back Series winners. But it didn’t make sense to me that Munson would be flying a private plane in between games. I was young.
Munson was the first Yankee to be named Captain since Lou Gehrig, won the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP award and was always in the All-Star Game. There was a debate as to who was better between Munson and Boston’s Carlton Fisk, and I was a huge Fisk fan.
But Munson’s accomplishments spoke volumes. He was the epitome of a catcher in his look and his style of play. And he wasn’t one of Steinbrenner’s high-priced free agents that left the club that had drafted them to take the big money in New York. Munson played his entire 11-year career with the Yankees, breaking in in 1970 when the club was in between eras of glory. The 1971-1973 teams were all right around .500 and the next two years were a little better.
The free agent boom was just getting going, and when Steinbrenner reeled in talent like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, Munson was firmly entrenched behind the plate and in his prime as the club was on the rise.
A World Series loss to the Big Red Machine in 1976 (before Jackson) was followed by the 1977 and 1978 wins over the Dodgers. At that point, Munson had it all in the way of accomplishments on the field. I was a Dodger fan and a Fisk fan, but I knew my baseball. Thurman Munson was a force.
August 2nd is one of the days on the calendar that stands out to me for this reason. Along with all the family birthdays and anniversaries, I have a bunch of sports and entertainment ones that just seem to stick in my mind and jump off the calendar when I see them each year. January 9 (Raiders win Super Bowl XI), February 3rd (Buddy Holly, etc. died), April 6 (Leonard – Hagler), October 30 (Ali-Foreman), December 8 (John Lennon died, Jim Morrison born). Some are from before my time, others are from when I was a kid or young adult. But the shock of the news that I felt on that particular August 2nd puts it on that list.
Here’s to the Yankee Captain.