June 7th, 2013

June 7 – Happy Birthday Thurman Munson

b__thurman_munson_77If you’ve read some of my earlier posts you know how it felt for some of us to be Yankee fans during the late sixties. Optimism was something you actually had to hope for. Nothing and no one looked promising. There seemed to be no silver lining in the huge gray cloud that hung over the Bronx.

And then suddenly he was there, squatting behind home plate with a rocket for an arm and a good bat to boot. He hit .300 his rookie season, made the All Star team and when they announced Thurman Munson won the 1970 AL Rookie of the Year award I can remember it felt almost as good as winning a pennant. There was hope again.

The next couple of years weren’t great statistically for Munson, but his fiery demeanor and leadership on the field began to take hold. If you were going to play on Munson’s team you were going to get your uniform dirty, run out every thing you hit, and be just as pissed as he was after every Yankee loss. By 1975, the talent on the Yankees caught up with the team’s attitude and one year later, Munson won the AL MVP and led New York back to the World Series.

Munson hit .529 in that Series but the Yankees were swept by the Reds and during a classless moment, Sparky Anderson felt a need to insult Thurman by telling sportswriters he’s no Johnny Bench. Then in 1977 the Yankees won it all but Jackson’s “straw that stirs the drink” comment knawed at Munson the whole season. So even when he reached baseball’s mountaintop Thurman seemed to have a difficult time simply enjoying the moment.

I believe that on the ball field, Thurman had to have that chip on his shoulder to stay motivated. Off the field he had his family and his flying. The Yankee team he left never recovered from his death. They lost their leader and they lost that chip. The Captain would have turned 65-years-old today.

Update: The above post about Thurman Munson was originally written in 2009 and updated once in 2011. I now add to it below:

Munson was the best defensive catcher in the American League until 1974, when he deeply bruised his throwing hand and also underwent surgery on his right shoulder. From that point on, Munson was forced to make his throws to second sidearmed and they began ending up in right center field with alarming regularity. But if you talk to Yankee pitchers who pitched to other big league catchers in addition to Munson during their careers, guys like Mel Stottlemyre, Catfish Hunter, Tommy John, and Goose Gossage, they will tell you that nobody managed a game better than Thurman.

As his throwing ability declined however his offensive game got better. Look at his numbers from 1975-77 in the stats matrix below and ask yourself how many big league catchers ever put three years like that together in their careers. All the one’s who did before Thurman came along are in Cooperstown.

It wasn’t until just recently that I learned how dysfunctional Munson’s family was, thanks largely to his long-distance truck driver father named Darrell. In Marty Appel’s second book about the Yankee captain published in 2009, the author revealed Munson’s true and very harsh feelings about his dad. Darrell Munson was described as an unloving, uncaring father who resented the fact that his son had achieved a level of success that he himself had no hope of replicating. At Munson’s funeral, Darrell approached his son’s coffin and according to witnesses addressed it out loud with the following words; “You always thought you were too big for this world. Well you weren’t. Look who’s still standing, you son of a bitch.”

After reading about that shocking encounter, I can better appreciate why Thurman Munson played the game of baseball with a chip on his shoulder, why he cherished his own wife and was an extremely loving father to his own children. Appel also indicates that Munson’s love of flying was really not one of the great passions of the late Yankee captain’s life. The only reason Munson learned to fly in the first place and ended up purchasing the bigger more powerful plane that would kill him was so he could get home to his family faster. His only goal was to spend as much time as possible with his wife and three young children before having to go back to the ballpark to do what he did second best during his all-to-brief life.

Munson shares his June 7th birthday with the Yankee pitcher who was with Babe Ruth when the Bambino was shot by an angry husband.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1969 NYY 26 97 86 6 22 1 2 1 9 0 10 10 .256 .330 .349 .679
1970 NYY 132 526 453 59 137 25 4 6 53 5 57 56 .302 .386 .415 .801
1971 NYY 125 517 451 71 113 15 4 10 42 6 52 65 .251 .335 .368 .703
1972 NYY 140 568 511 54 143 16 3 7 46 6 47 58 .280 .343 .364 .707
1973 NYY 147 576 519 80 156 29 4 20 74 4 48 64 .301 .362 .487 .849
1974 NYY 144 571 517 64 135 19 2 13 60 2 44 66 .261 .316 .381 .697
1975 NYY 157 661 597 83 190 24 3 12 102 3 45 52 .318 .366 .429 .795
1976 NYY 152 665 616 79 186 27 1 17 105 14 29 38 .302 .337 .432 .769
1977 NYY 149 638 595 85 183 28 5 18 100 5 39 55 .308 .351 .462 .813
1978 NYY 154 667 617 73 183 27 1 6 71 2 35 70 .297 .332 .373 .705
1979 NYY 97 419 382 42 110 18 3 3 39 1 32 37 .288 .340 .374 .714
11 Yrs 1423 5905 5344 696 1558 229 32 113 701 48 438 571 .292 .346 .410 .756
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/7/2013.