There are moments in our lives that simply take our breath away. You remember where you were, who you were with, when those moments occur. August 2, 1979 was one of those days. The day our Captain, Thurman Munson, died in a plane crash.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since that horrible day. The phone rang in the late afternoon and I picked it up in my parents’ bedroom. My best friend was on the line. “Guess who died?” he said. Immediately, I thought it was one of our friends. It was an odd way to say hello.
I joined him in complete shock when he said, “Thurman Munson”.
“What? Get out of here!” I replied. Why would someone call me and tell me such nonsense? Only it wasn’t nonsense.
I turned on the TV and put on the local news – we’re talking pre-ESPN days – and there it was. A burned-out wreck of a private plane was all that remained.
Thurman, with a friend and an instructor aboard, was practicing takeoffs and landings when something went horribly wrong. The plane crashed through trees and slid into a boulder, well short of the runway.
The large rock brought the small jet to an abrupt halt and trapped Thurman in the pilot’s seat. As his two friends got their wits about them, the plane caught fire. Try as they might, they couldn’t get Thurman out of his seat. And, he couldn’t help them. Had he survived, Thurman likely would have been permanently paralyzed.
The Yankees’ 1979 season died right along with their Captain. One year earlier, the team had made their miraculous comeback from 14.5 games back in the AL East to win the World Series. But, the 1979 season was a mess from start to finish.
Early on, Goose Gossage broke his thumb in a shower-room scrap with Cliff Johnson.
Manager Bob Lemon’s calm demeanor had helped to guide the Yankees to their ’78 comeback. But, his son Jerry died in a car accident just 10 days after the Yankees captured the World Series title. By all accounts, Lemon’s heart wasn’t into managing during the ’79 season. After 65 games, Lemon was bumped up to the front office and replaced by the man that he replaced, Billy Martin.
The team sputtered out of the opening gate to a 10-11 record, and by the end of July sat 14 games behind division-leading Baltimore. Everyone thought, “No problem. We came back from 14.5 last year and we’ll do it again.” The odds weren’t good, and two days later any hope of a comeback ended. And, no one cared.
Thurman Munson, our Captain
The Yankees selected Thurman Munson with the 4th overall pick in the 1968 Amateur Draft. Two years later, he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finished 19th in the AL MVP voting. He and fellow youngsters Bobby Murcer and Roy White, and young veteran Mel Stottlemyre, gave a starved fan base some hope in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Number 15 quickly became a team leader and a fan favorite. He could be gruff, funny, intense and moody. His teammates and managers loved him, and the media (for the most part) got along with him.
Thurman’s first All-Star selection came in his 2nd season, the first of seven All-Star teams that included the Yankees’ catcher.
He drove in 100-plus runs three years in a row, not common for a catcher at the time, and grabbed the AL MVP Award in 1976. That same year, Thurman became the first captain of the Yankees since Lou Gehrig when George Steinbrenner named him to the post. He was as popular as future captains Don Mattingly and Derek Jeter.
Thurman was a top tier defender before injuries to his knee, right shoulder and thumb took their toll. He compensated for his injury-caused deficiencies with a rapid-fire release to throw out baserunners.
His rivalry with Boston’s Carlton Fisk amped up the rivalry between the teams’ fans. We loved him even more after he brawled with the Boston backstop.
And, most of all, he helped lead the Yankees back to the promised land. The team grabbed three straight pennants and their first two World Series titles since ’61 and ’62.
He was the team’s original “Warrior”.
Thurman’s quest to fly began due to his wont to be near his family in Ohio. He missed being with his wife, Diana, and children Tracy, Kelly, and Michael.
The Captain worked diligently for his pilot’s license and handled his plane in fine fashion. However, when he upgraded to a more powerful machine, some of his teammates and friends became concerned that Thurman wouldn’t be able to handle the bigger plane. Unfortunately, it appears they were right.
The Yankees wrapped up a series in the windy city with the White Sox on Wednesday, July 31 and had the next day off. Thurman and Piniella stayed overnight with Murcer and his family at their Chicago-area home. The next morning, Thurman took off from the local airport. His teammates would never see him again.
Despite the pain and agony they were going through, the Yankees began a three-game series at the Stadium with the Baltimore Orioles on August 3. A number of former Yankees held roster spots on the Orioles, including Scott McGregor and Tippy Martinez.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house that Friday night in the Bronx, nor at homes around the country. Not from the sky either, as the start of the game was delayed by rain.
The Yankees took the field in the top of the 1st inning, except for catcher Jerry Narron. The Yankees left home plate empty on purpose to honor their fallen brother. Both teams stood in front of their dugout as Terence Cardinal Cooke stepped onto the field to deliver a prayer. The fans erupted into applause upon its conclusion.
Robert Merrill sang “America the Beautiful” as the Yankees scoreboard read, “OUR CAPTAIN HAS NOT LEFT US — TODAY, TOMORROW, THIS YEAR, NEXT…OUR ENDEAVORS WILL REFLECT OUR LOVE AND ADMIRATION FOR HIM.”
What followed was a mix of silent prayer and a rousing ovation from the fans. Narron then joined his teammates on the field and the game got underway.
A 1-0 loss was followed by a 5-4 loss and a Sunday victory. Then the team went to Ohio for the funeral on Monday. It was an emotionally exhausting day. Murcer and Piniella delivered eulogies in front of 300 mourners at the Canton Civic Center. Hundreds more stood vigil outside of the building. On Sunday, approximately, 2,500 people entered the Center to view the casket.
“Thurman was the best of competitors…unselfish…a winner…rough and tough but fair,” Piniella said.
“We don’t know why God took Thurman away from us…but as long as we wear the Yankee uniform he’ll never be too far from us,” Piniella told listeners, who included former Yankee players Rick Dempsey, Scott McGregor, Bobby Bonds, Paul Blair, Jay Johnstone, Mickey Rivers and Sparky Lyle.
“God give you the strength, Diane,” said Piniella to the widow, “to raise your family of three children just the way Thurman would have wanted.” (Washington Post, 1979)
“The life of a soul on earth lasts longer than his departure,” said Murcer. “He lives on in your life and the life of all others who knew him. He lived, he led and he loved.”
“Whatever he was to each one of us, he should be remembered a man who followed the basic principles of life; he lived with his wife, Diana, and his three children; he led his team to two world championships and he loved the game, his friends and, most of all, his family.”
Murcer added: “He was No.15 on the field and he will be No. 15 at the doors of Cooperstown. Loving, living and legend. History will court my friend as No.1.” (NY Times, 1979)
Following the funeral, the Yankees returned to New York to take on the Orioles in the finale of the four-game series. Martin told Murcer to take the night off, but Murcer felt he needed to play.
With the Yankees trailing 4-0 in the bottom of the 7th inning, Murcer ripped a 3-run home run off of Orioles’ starter Dennis Martinez.
Then, down 4-3 in the 9th with two men aboard, Murcer ripped a two-run double to left off of Tippy Martinez to give the Yankees a 5-4 walk-off win. Those in attendance went wild as Murcer and Piniella hugged in the dugout. It ended an emotional roller coaster of a day.
The legacy of Thurman Munson continues on, from his locker preserved in the Yankee Stadium museum, to his wife Diana’s annual appearance at Old Timers’ Day.
His importance to the team and his approach provided valuable lessons to his catching successors, such as Jorge Posada, who became good friends with Diane over time.
The Thurman Munson Award Dinner is held annually in New York City to honor local athletes and non-athletes alike. The most recent recipients included Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, and Aaron Boone.
On this August 2, like every August 2, we look back with a smile and a tear and miss our Captain, Thurman Munson.