Thurman Munson’s newest biography, the third, has the whole story of his fatal plane crash, the demons he fought all his life, and a humanity he only allowed his closest friends and family saw.
This loving biography by Munson’s long-time friend Marty Appel shows a devoted family man, valued team leader, generous mentor of rookies, and fierce competitor. He was blue collar, by birth and conviction, who never left his hometown, Canton, Ohio. He had a surly, sometimes nasty image in the press, and actually hid his kindness, good humor, and generosity from them.
He often refused to give reporters what they needed, or hid in the trainer’s room, where reporters aren’t allowed. Appel, who was Yankee PR director when Munson was playing, said Munson never understood that baseball can’t survive without free, daily publicity in the media. That’s why helping the press is part of every player’s job.
The Fatal Plane Crash
Federal investigators concluded that pilot error caused Munson’s fatal plane crash on August 2, 1979. He was flying on too little sleep, and was not experienced enough on his new private jet to get out of trouble when things started going wrong. Munson survived the crash with a broken neck, but died in the fire of smoke inhalation.
He was an expert pilot of propeller planes, but brand new to jets. He forgot that jet engines hesitated before speeding up. So when he began to land short of the runway — possibly because he had too little sleep — he “stepped on the gas,” but the jet did not speed up and climb right away, as a prop plane would. He missed the runway and crashed.
His two passengers survived, and the book contains a detailed interview with survivor Jerry Anderson, Munson’s real estate partner, who was a pilot himself, and gives expert commentary along with a blow-by-blow of the crash.
Appel surveys practically everyone who knew Munson, asking how they heard the news, and their reactions. Yankee manager Billy Martin’s son told Appel that his notoriously alcoholic dad went into shock and ignored his drink. Munson’s best friends in baseball, teammates Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, delivered the eulogies.
Munson’s father was a long-distance truck driver who beat Thurman when he was home. He belittled the boy, especially about his athletic accomplishments, though Thurman was a multi-sport prodigy. His father badmouthed him even at Thurman’s funeral. Appel suggests that this troubled childhood was the reason Thurman was easily offended, tended to hold grudges, and had difficulty establishing and maintaining trust.
Munson became a member of his wife Diane’s warm, Italian family. She’d been his high school sweetheart.
The Reggie Jackson Feud
Reggie Jackson was the second multi-million-dollar free agent Yankee owner George Steinbrenner signed in 1977. (The first was pitcher Catish Hunter.) Munson, who had been the Yankees’ best player since 1970, thought Steinbrenner had promised he would always be the highest paid Yankee except Hunter.
Steinbrenner forgot that unwritten promise. Their close friendship ended when Steinbrenner refused to give Munson the same as Jackson. Things got worse when Munson learned Steinbrenner had also given Jackson a Rolls Royce.
Jackson embraced celebrity, was tall, well-built, charismatic, brilliant and glib. He lived the high life, wore the latest fashions, and cultivated reporters. Munson was blue collar, with a short, stocky, dumpy-looking body, and ugly face. He dressed in jeans, tee shirts, and sneakers, had scraggly, unkempt hair, and poorly trimmed facial hair. He was smart, but plodding, and shy.
When Jackson told a reporter that “I’m the straw that stirs the drink,” meaning he alone is the key to Yankee success. Munson took that personally, as a put-down. The book says Munson agreed to a cease-fire in 1977 when Steinbrenner, told him his friend, magager Billy Martin, would be in trouble if “The Bronx Zoo” (as this team was called) did not calm down.
Munson and the Hall of Fame
Munson is one of the best players NOT in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall suspended the 5-year waiting period, as they did when Roberto Clemente died suddenly. But Munson only got 68 votes in 1981, just 21 percent, when 75 percent is needed. That’s the closest he ever came.
Columnist Bill Madden of the NY Daily News said Munson’s career statistics don’t compare to Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk’s, despite his three straight .300 average/100 RBI seasons. Munson played 11 seasons, compared to Fisk’s 24, and Bench’s 17. His lifetime statistics fall way short of theirs, and other Hall of Fame catchers, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, and Gabby Hartnett, Madden said.
Munson’s injuries, especially his bad knees, made it highly unlikely he would play 20 years, or repeat his best seasons, and 1978 was probably his last year as a catcher. He was already working out at first base when his plane crashed.
The Hall does display a Munson mask and catcher’s mitt. A replica of his locker, with a carved glass image of Munson was on display until 1994.
Appel says Munson’s arrival in 1970, when he got 23 of 24 votes for Rookie of the Year, was the first step in the team’s rise from mediocrity. With Munson as captain (the team’s first since Lou Gehrig), they won three division titles and two World Series in 1976, ’77. and ’78.
Diane Munson still comes to Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, where she’s greeted with the same reverence Mrs. Lou Gehrig and Mrs. Babe Ruth enjoyed. On his death, no Yankee has used his number or locker. He has a memorial plaque in the Yankee/Steinbrenner Stadium outfield with the other all-time great Yankees.
Mrs. Munson made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling his memorabilia at auction because the supply was very small. He signed very few autographs. He left her office buildings, shopping centers, and a mall, which she sold off gradually.
Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, who hero-worshiped Munson, based only on videotape and stories from Munson’s teammates, about how flawlessly hew he called a game, cut down base runners, and quarterbacked the team on the field.
In Fenway Park of all places, Posada found a picture of Munson, and a handwritten note, that said, “I like hitting fourth, and I like the good batting average. But what I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many people and so many aspects of the game.” Posada hung it in his locker.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.