His name will forever evoke emotions.
When he died in a private plane crash August 2, 1979, baseball fans were stunned. The New York Yankees were devastated.
At 32, Thurman Munson was one of baseball’s premiere players on its most famous team.
Munson was some kind of special.
Billy Martin, the legendary pinstriped manager known for his own fiery brand of leadership, appointed him to be the New York captain.
He called him a natural born leader with just the right kind of cockiness.
Yankee captainships, if you didn’t know, are handed out like Scrooge gives holiday bonuses. He was the first to wear that title since Lou Gehrig in 1939.
Before the scrappy kid from Canton, Ohio, arrived in New York, the Yankees were little more than an afterthought. From their last World Series in 1964, they regularly finished 20 games or more off the pace.
From 1970 to 1978, with “The Walrus” in the lineup, the Yankees were in three World Series, winning two. They were second twice.
He was just a fraction short of 11 seasons into his major league career when it was all snuffed out on that Akron runway some 40 years ago this week.
You can’t help but wonder how it could have ended differently.
Munson longed for his family. He wanted to play closer to his wife and three children in northeast Ohio. When the Yankees refused his plea to be traded to Cleveland, he hatched a plan.
He bought a plane and committed to flying it.
That’s how it ended you know. Practicing takeoffs and landings during an off day away from New York.
With just a shade over 1,400 major league games, the test of his immortality was left incomplete. Nothing but a broken heart for fans and family alike.
A great defensive catcher with enough offense punch to make a difference, but not enough stats to make a compelling case for the Hall of Fame, just yet. Certainly, it was complicated by playing in the shadow cast by the game’s greatest backstop — Johnny Bench.
Hall of Fame Reds manager Sparky Anderson refused to frame Munson against Bench, Fall Classic opponents in 1976. The quotable Anderson quipped he wouldn’t want to embarrass Munson by the discussion.
Bench was a once-in-a-lifetime star.
Munson lived in that daily.
Clearly a different player, but a great player. Some say he was every bit the catcher that Carlton Fisk or Gary Carter or Mike Piazza were. He also was equal to old timers like Roger Bresnahan, Ray Schalk or Rick Ferrell. Guys who have a niche at Cooperstown.
We’ll never know.
But we know this.
With baseball’s most legendary team, Munson’s place is sacred.
When he died, his number 15 was retired. His locker was never used again. The tradition continued at new Yankee Stadium.
His plaque will forever line Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, the stadiums most revered ground. He’s placed near names Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Gehrig.
Just enough to leave us wondering. Just enough to keep us asking.