Do you remember where you were on August 2, 1979? Or what you were doing? Although it was almost thirty years ago, I remember where I was and what I was doing very well. I was on vacation with my family in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Our hotel room had a balcony that overlooked a small stream. I remember my cousin Robert Scott Worton and I were looking down at the stream and debating whether or not to go to the arcade and play a few games of pinball when there was a breaking news on the television. Just as some people remember time stopping when they heard the news that JFK had been shot, or later when they first tuned in to the 9/11 coverage, I remember the feeling of slow motion that overtook me as I heard that my favorite New York Yankees player Thurman Munson had died in a plane accident.
I was sixteen years old and a baseball fanatic. After fiddling around with a few teams including the Dodgers and the Orioles, I finally settled on the Yankees as “my team” in 1974. At first Bobby Murcer was my favorite player, but soon that honor was taken over by Thurman Munson. Thurman Munson is the surprising answer to the trivia question of who is the only New York Yankee to ever win both a Rookie of the Year and an MVP award. The mustachioed catcher was perhaps most famous at the time of his death for his feud with slugger Reggie Jackson. You see, the Yankees had already been to the World Series by the time Jackson arrived, appointing himself the straw that stirs the drink. No one who watched will ever forget the sight of Reggie Jackson crying during the memorial tribute to Thurman Munson. Even Reggie, it seems, finally recognized that a baseball treasure was lost in that plane accident.
Thurman Munson was a man of class. That class expressed itself when Munson refused to respond to the utterly classless remark made and utterly classless man. Sparky Anderson may be respected as a baseball manager, but as a man he is one step above slime. During the 1976 World Series between the Yankees and the Reds—a World Series the Reds won in a sweep—Thurman Munson hit .529 and tied a World Series record by getting six consecutive hits. In other words, he was the only Yankees batter to kick the ass of the Reds’ pitchers. When a reporter asked Reds manager Sparky Anderson to compare Thurman Munson to his own catcher Johnny Bench, Anderson replied, “Don’t ever embarrass anybody by comparing him to Johnny Bench.” Only someone who can’t even spell class, much less possesses it, would have made such a reply. Thurman Munson was said to be very hurt and angered by Sparky Anderson’s exercise in classlessness, but he never engaged in retribution. That’s because Thurman Munson possessed not only his fair share of class, but also Anderson’s share as well. When you consider that another guy with no class was a part of that Reds team—Pete Rose—it makes you wonder how Johnny Bench, a guy who did have class, could ever have showed up without spending the rest of the evening washing the slime off himself.
Thurman Munson was a fantastic ballplayer. In 1971 he committed only one error, and that occurred when he a baserunner collided with him, knocking the ball from his mitt and the consciousness from his body. In less than ten years he had almost 1600 hits, so it’s not unreasonable to assume he would have joined the 3,000 hit club had he lived. In addition to his Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, he was also a seven time All-Star, including six consecutive All-Star game appearances from 1973 to 1978. Thurman Munson was also a three-time Gold Glove winner. And as if that isn’t enough to point out how out of touch Sparky Anderson was, Thurman Munson became the first Yankee player since the legendary Joe D. to hit over .300 and collect over 100 RBI three years in a row. Despite this, for some ungodly reason, Thurman Munson isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Remember, now, that Thurman put up his numbers without the benefit of all the magic beans that today’s surefire Hall of Fame candidates use to pump up their numbers. It would be a sad Hall of Fame, indeed, if Barry “Balco” Bonds gets immortalized but Thurman Munson remains outside. If you were a big fan of Thurman and are disgusted by this oversight, check out the web site link below for what you can do to increase help along his chances.
Thurman Munson was a very special Yankee. It is said that to this day his locker in the Yankees locker room remains empty, never used again by anyone else after his death. Personally, Thurman Munson’s shocking and untimely death was the beginning of the end of the end of my love affair with baseball. I have never been as big a fan since as I was on the morning of August 1, 1979. Many things since then have contributed to baseball’s being less important to me, but when I look back I realize that the loss of my favorite baseball player of all time—even more so than Ron Guidry or Don Mattingly—was like a losing a favorite uncle. A friend of mine revealed that his interest in baseball ended following the death of Roberto Clemente. I still love baseball. I just don’t love it as much as I did before Thurman Munson stepped behind the controls of that little plane.