By Marty Appel
Thurman Munson was a fan’s player.
But it took a special breed of fan to see it – a New York fan – and it was Thurman’s good fortune to play before such a knowledgeable bunch of devotees.
Munson, you see, was not about smiling for the cameras or ponying up to the press, not about posing for pictures with sponsors or taping video promos about upcoming gift days. In fact, if you’d ask him to do those sort of things, you would never be left in doubt about his willingness to do it. And so you’d move on and ask someone else.
Yes, he could be a bit of a grump.
But he was a winner.
He played baseball the way it was intended to be played. He didn’t come out of a losing game thinking, “well every team loses at least 60 games, this is just one of those 60.” He hated every loss.
That kind of attitude sat well with an owner who felt pretty much the same way, one George Steinbrenner, and although the two would butt heads from time to time, there was no doubt they both had the same approach to the game.
And that was why Steinbrenner named Munson the team captain in 1976.
It was a major move for the team, and certainly an unlikely appointment, because, frankly, a team captain is usually expected to be a little more media friendly. But Steinbrenner, in his wisdom, saw the leadership that Munson exerted on the field, and knew he was a logical choice. And he felt that the Yankees ought to have a captain for their impending assault on the American League. They had gone 12 pennant-less seasons, and now, as 1976 approached, as a newly refurbished Yankee Stadium awaited them, the time seemed right for such a move.
It was not without controversy. The team had not had a captain since Lou Gehrig’s passing in 1939. Manager Joe McCarthy had “retired” the position at that time out of respect to Lou. So not Dickey, not DiMaggio, not Rizzuto, not Berra, not Mantle, not Murcer, not White had been given the job.
Informed of the McCarthy edict, Steinbrenner said, “If Lou Gehrig or Joe McCarthy knew Thurman Munson, they’d know the time was right and he was the right man for the job.”
Predictably blasé about the selection, unwilling to discuss it with the press, but privately very prideful of the honor, Munson was nevertheless confused by the responsibilities that went with the job. “What am I supposed to do?” he said. “Take out the lineup card?”
No. He was supposed to continue to do what he had always done, lead by example, play the game hard and true, play to win. And that was what the fans, in their wisdom, were able to see.
They wouldn’t find Munson’s postgame quotes in the morning paper. They’d see the occasional newspaper criticism of his grumpiness towards the press. But they also saw the guy pumping his fist, guiding a pitching staff, playing in pain, getting his uniform dirty, and exhorting his teammates to glory.
The glory would come at the end of his first season as captain, as the 1976 Yankees broke the 12-year slide, and captured the 30th American League pennant in team history. And for Munson came the league’s Most Valuable Player award, the first to a Yankee in 13 years, when Elston Howard took home the honor.
The appointment to captain had paid off in a big way.
In winning, Munson also had accomplished the daunting feat of winning both the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP.
The rookie honor came in 1970.
He had arrived in spring training to compete for the job with veteran Jake Gibbs and burly John Ellis, who actually won the Dawson Award as the top rookie in camp. But in the mind of Ralph Houk, Munson was a throwback, and surely the guy who was going to be his regular. Ellis was moved to first, Gibbs to a backup role. Houk saw Munson as the successor to Dickey, Berra and Howard, and he had that right.
Munson’s ascendancy was rapid. Born in 1947 in Akron, Ohio and raised in nearby Canton, he had played three sports in high school and then gone to local Kent State University, where he had been everyone’s All-American at catcher. Munson sometimes considered that his highest honor. “How many rookies was I competing with in 1970 to win that award?” he said. “Compare that to how many college catchers I had to beat out to be All American!”
In June of 1968, at the age of 21, he was scouted by ex-Yankee outfielder Gene Woodling and drafted number one by the Yankees in the amateur draft. General manager Lee MacPhail went to the Munson home in Canton to personally sign him.
Thurman played 71 games for Binghamton in the summer of ’68, including a regular season contest at Yankee Stadium where the stands contained more Yankee personnel than paying customers, there to see the future. They liked what they saw.
He played 28 more games for Triple-A Syracuse in ’69, and then began to see his first big league action in late ’69, even getting into the Yankees team photo.
In 1970, despite a slow start at bat that shook his confidence a bit, Houk stuck with him and his game kicked in. A big moment in his relationship with the fans took place one Sunday in August when he emerged from the dugout to pinch-hit in the second game of a doubleheader. Munson had been away on Army reserve duty for the weekend. He got to leave his New Jersey base in time on Sunday to drive up the Jersey Turnpike and make it into uniform in time to get into the game. When number 15 popped out of the dugout, the fans exploded in cheers, not expecting his presence. It was, in a sense, the day his love affair with the fans was first noticeable.
He hit .302 in that rookie campaign, but he was not happy with the team’s 93 wins and second place finish. He wanted more. He didn’t come to the Yankees to finish second.
The promised land would not arrive for another six years, and in the meantime, other puzzle parts were assembled. The team was sold. In ’72 came Sparky Lyle, in ’73 Graig Nettles, in ’74 Lou Piniella, in ’75 Catfish Hunter, in ’76 Willie Randolph and Mickey Rivers. But it all began with Munson in ’70. He was the first piece of the puzzle.
In 1975, Thurman drove in 102 runs with only 12 homers. As a right hand hitter, Yankee Stadium robbed him of power numbers, but it didn’t deprive him of major run production. He hit .318 that year, a career high. In ’76, he had 105 RBIs with a .302 average, and in ’77, his first world championship, he had 100 RBIs and a .308 mark. Quietly, he had put up amazing stats: his three consecutive .300 seasons with 100 RBIs made him the first player in the majors to accomplish that since the Cardinals’ Bill White (by then a Yankee announcer) had done it in 1962-64. And he was the first American Leaguer to accomplish it since the Indians’ Al Rosen (by then the Yankees general manager), had done it a quarter of a century earlier, 1952-54.
Munson swung the bat and made contact. His highest walk total was his rookie total of 57, and his highest strikeout total was 66. The game was always in motion when he came to bat. He’d step out, adjust his batting glove, step in, and beat you. He brought the game to you.
Behind the plate, he was a genius at calling games. He knew every hitter’s strength and weakness after one series. A bulldog at his position, he made only one error in 1971, setting a team record with a .998 percentage. On the one error, he had to be knocked unconscious blocking the plate, and dropping the ball. Tough scoring call.
The way he battled eventually took a toll on his body. He wasn’t going to be a catcher much longer. By 1979 he was playing the outfield, third base and first base, in addition to catching. He played first base in the last game he ever played as a Yankee, before the tragic crash of his private jet cost him his life and set the sports world in mourning. His death, as captain of a world championship club, at the age of 32 with year of productive play ahead of him, was almost unprecedented in sports. When had a player of this stature, still at the peak of his ability, been so suddenly lost in such a horrific way?
And ironically of course, his death ranked with his captain predecessor Lou Gehrig, as one of the saddest moments in the history of the New York Yankees.
The Hall of Fame will apparently not happen, his career was, alas, just too short. But how about a plaque which would cite his captaincy of three pennant winners, two world champions, his Rookie of the Year, his MVP, his .339 mark in ALCS games and .373 in the World Series (including .529 in 1976, highest ever by a player on his losing team). How about those seven All-Star game selections and three Gold Gloves?
To Yankee fans, he doesn’t need Cooperstown to affirm his place in team history. Just as he didn’t need to talk to the press to win over their hearts, he let his actions speak for him.
He will always be the captain, a champion, a ballplayer, and a Yankee.