By Marty Appel
The story of Thurman Munson’s rookie season with the New York Yankees – 1970 – is significant, because not only did it lead to his being the first catcher in American League history to win the Rookie of the Year award (and only Johnny Bench had done it in the National League), but because of what was to come with his career.
Indeed, two years later Boston catcher Carlton Fisk would win the award, and the Munson-Fisk rivalry – Yankees-Red Sox – took form and continues today. Arguably, before those two came along, the “rivalry” was in name only, and plenty of good seats were available on game days for most of their matchups over the years, save for a few in the Ted Williams-Joe DiMaggio years. For a rivalry to take hold, both teams need to be good. The Red Sox have generally been “good” since their Impossible Dream season of 1967, and the Yankees “got good” with Munson’s arrival. By 1972, when Fisk came along, the two were off to the races, (pennant races), and the rivalry remains intense to this day.
Everyone saw Munson coming, even though his All-American honors at Kent State were a little suspect, largely due to Kent State playing a very short schedule against generally weak opponents. One had to listen to the scouts describe Munson to fully appreciate him. They would observe his throwing arm and his general attitude during practices and batting practice, in addition to games. His playing time, compared to players in the south or on the west coast, was quite limited.
He played only three of the team’s eleven games in his freshman year. The Golden Eagles played 23 games in his sophomore year and 25 games in his junior year. (Future Cy Young winner Steve Stone was his batterymate). But he spent his summers in the high-profile Cape Cod League to gain experience. The league had a heavy scouting presence. He was noticed.
Yankee scout Gene Woodling, (who owned five Yankee world championship rings), simply wrote “Get Him!” on his scouting report.
The Yankees made him their number one pick (number four overall) in the June 1968 draft.
At the time, Jake Gibbs was the team’s regular catcher. The former All-American quarterback at Ol’ Miss was converted from third base to fill a gap in the Yankees lineup after Elston Howard was traded. Jake might have been a better player had he remained at third, but he did what the team asked. It effected his hitting and it was never a natural position for him. Clearly he was a stopgap during a tough time for the Yankees.
On August 8, 1969, after only 99 minor league games, (and only 28 at Triple-A), Munson joined the Yankees and caught 25 games for the remainder of the season. It was a good showcase. He hit his first home run in his second game, but hitting wasn’t the big thing. The Yankees desperately needed a solid defensive catcher and someone who could “take charge” behind the plate. Those were the characteristics that defined Munson, and that would come to define him in his major league career, even as he hit .300 and drove in over 100 runs in three straight seasons, becoming the first player since Bill White a decade earlier to do that, and the first American League since Al Rosen, two decades earlier, to do it. (White was by 1971 a Yankee broadcaster; Rosen became the Yankees president in 1978).
In spring training of 1970, it was obvious that Munson was going to be the team’s regular catcher. Still, certain protocols needed to be observed. There was to be a section in the Yankee Yearbook where, instead of a team photo, the players were grouped by position and photographed in smaller gatherings.
There were three catchers on the roster for that photo. Munson was one, Gibbs was another, and John Ellis, a powerful catcher from Connecticut, was another.
“Put Gibbs in the front with the other two behind him,” said Bob Fishel, the team’s PR Director, who was setting up the shoot. “It’s only right.”
So the photo was set just like that. No one, it seemed, saw what was coming that spring. Ellis was the one who had the monster spring and wound up winning the James P. Dawson Award as the best rookie in camp. He would play first base and bat cleanup on Opening Day with Munson catching and batting second. Mrs. Lou Gehrig sent a good luck note to Ellis, and there was actually more attention on him than on Munson.
Because of his 25 game trial in 1969 (although he still qualified as a rookie), there wasn’t a great deal of pressure on Munson. It wasn’t as if he needed to prove himself.
Still, he went 0-for-3 on Opening Day and then 1-for-4 in the second game, hitting a single to left off Boston’s Ray Culp in the sixth inning.
And that would be his only hit in his first nine games. He was 1-for-30, an .033 average. Pathetic.
As baseball fans know, a long April slump forces the player to seemingly play catchup all season. It’s as though you never dig out. If you have a July slump and drop from .282 to .267, hardly anyone notices. But those April slumps are deadly, not just to fans, but to the player himself, even in the days before batting averages were displayed 20 feet high in lights on scoreboards.
Munson came to be seen as never lacking in self-confidence. He was cocky and it showed in his on-field style. The veteran pitching staff – Mel Stottlemyre, Fritz Peterson and Stan Bahnsen, marveled at his commanding presence behind the plate, and at his maturity at calling games.
But .033? It was killing him. And he couldn’t help but harbor doubts about whether he belonged, whether he was ready. Maybe he hadn’t played enough at the Triple-A level.
It took a visit with his manager, Ralph Houk, to help turn things around. Houk, a former third-string catcher with the Yankees, called him into his office after that 1-for-30 start, ostensibly to review that day’s starting pitcher. But casually, Houk said, “Look, don’t even think about your hitting. You’re here to handle the pitching staff. The hits will come, I’m not worried about that. Just give me your best effort behind the plate.”
This is what managers do.
It would be easy to say that the talk worked – because it did. Munson admitted later that it did relax him. He went 3-for-4 in that next game, and he hit .322 for the remainder of the season, finishing at .302. He got to .300 in the team’s 147th game and stayed there the rest of the way. Given his start – which everyone kept referencing all season – it was a remarkable achievement.
Twenty-four sportswriters voted on Rookie of the Year, and Thurman was named first on 23 of the ballots. It was a landslide.
But there was an oddity.
The Sporting News annually selected its own Rookies of the Year (with Rookie Pitcher of the Year as a separate honor). For this, they had the players vote. Their local correspondent handed out the ballots. One could argue that the players vote was more meaningful, but The Sporting News award never surpassed the BBWAA Award for prestige.
In any case, The Sporting News Rookie of the Year for 1970 went to a Cleveland outfielder named Roy Foster. Foster had batted .268 but had hit 23 home runs to Thurman’s six. (He received the one BBWAA vote that Munson didn’t get).
“Roy was a quiet person and I roomed with him when I came up to Cleveland in 1971,” recalls Chris Chambliss, who won the BBWAA Rookie of the Year Award that year. “He was a good outfielder – he was our starting left fielder. I don’t know why he didn’t play longer with his talent. I know he played in Mexico later on.”
Foster died in 2008, and of course, Munson died in a plane crash in 1979, after adding an MVP Award to his Rookie trophy. He became the first captain of the New York Yankees since Lou Gehrig, and played in three World Series, winning two World Championships. He made seven All-Star teams and won three Gold Gloves. The suddenness of his passing still moves Yankee fans to tears.
But before all of those accomplishments, came that 1-for-30 debut, and the calming talk by Ralph Houk. From that point on, he became a Yankee immortal.