The forever captain: Thurman Munson's death still hurts Yankee fans 41 years later
Every year, almost without fail, the afternoon of Aug. 2 arrives and Diana Munson notices – no matter where she is or what she’s doing – when the clock ticks to 4:02 p.m.
If she’s out and about she’ll see 4:02 on a bank sign or hear it on the radio. If she’s at her home in Canton, Ohio where she and her deceased husband, former New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, began raising their three children, the home she never moved from, she’ll notice it on the kitchen clock or maybe the television cable box.
It’s uncanny, really; almost as if Thurman is calling her from the heavens, which maybe he is.
It is not a happy time, 4:02 on Aug. 2, because that was the precise moment on the afternoon in 1979 when her husband, just 32 years old, left this world, crashing his twin-engine Cessna Citation jet into a field near Akron-Canton Regional Airport while practicing takeoffs and landings.
According to flight records, it was at 4:02 that Munson lost control of his plane and it fell from the sky about 1,000 feet short of a runway, careening into a field and coming to a halt when it crashed into a large tree stump. Two companions were miraculously able to escape with their lives, but they could not save the Yankee captain who was trapped inside and perished in the fiery wreckage.
That day, Munson lost his life, but he never lost his pinstripes. Forty-one years later he remains a Yankee in spirit. His locker was left intact in the Yankee clubhouse – sacred ground as Derek Jeter once called it – for nearly 30 years,
a memorial to a natural leader and winner who embodied the Yankees during his too-short career. When the new ballpark opened in 2009, the locker was transported to the on-site museum that celebrates the Yankees’ rich history.
“That locker symbolizes Thurman and is there for his memory,’’ said Bobby Murcer, a teammate of Munson’s who tearfully delivered one of the eulogies at his good friend’s Aug. 6, 1979 funeral, then hours later drove in all five runs to lead a dramatic come-from-behind, nationally-televised 5-4 victory over Baltimore at Yankee Stadium. “Thurman is there and will always be there. He was a very special player and those types of players don’t come along very often.’’
The Yankees were coming off back-to-back World Series titles in 1979, but their quest for a three-peat got off to a rocky start and it never improved. By the start of August they were mired in fourth place in the AL East, 14 hopeless games behind front-running and eventual AL champion Baltimore.
In the last game of his life, Wednesday, Aug. 1 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Munson was not behind the plate because of his aching knees. Instead he played first base and went 0-for-1 with a walk and a strikeout, making two putouts at first before leaving in the third inning because, as he told manager Billy Martin, he had nothing. The Yankees won 9-1, and while the rest of the team flew back to New York after the game to enjoy a day off Thursday, Munson flew his own plane to Canton to spend time with his family, and get some ill-fated training time in.
“I started crying as soon as I heard and I cried for hours,” Martin said after hearing the news of Munson’s death. When Murcer learned of the tragedy, he and his wife Kay flew to Canton to be with Diana and the kids. They spent the night at the kitchen table, friends and family – “The worst day of any of our lives” Diana said – trying to make sense of it all.
The Yankees began a four-game series with Baltimore Friday night, Aug. 3 at Yankee Stadium. There has rarely been a night like it. A photograph of Munson was displayed on the scoreboard in right-center field accompanied by words chosen by team owner George Steinbrenner: “Our captain and leader has not left us today, tomorrow, this year, next ... our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.’’
For nearly eight minutes a crowd of more than 51,000 stood and cheered, most of them wiping tears from their eyes.
“The fans started to cheer and they didn’t stop,’’ recalled Baltimore pitcher Steve Stone, who was a former teammate of Munson’s at Kent State University. “It went on and on and on. It was one of those rare moments you don’t forget.’’
Jeff Torborg, a Yankee coach at the time, said, “I still get goose bumps thinking about that night. It was a tremendous, spontaneous outpouring by the fans for a player they knew was very special.’’
The Yankees took the field for the National Anthem – Jim Spencer at first, Willie Randolph at second, Bucky Dent at shortstop, Graig Nettles at third, Lou Piniella in left, Bobby Brown in center, Reggie Jackson in left, and Luis Tiant, the former Red Sox hurler, on the mound. The catchers’ spot behind home plate remained poignantly empty, and Jerry Narron did not occupy it until Tiant was told to begin his warm-up.
The Yankees lost that night, 1-0, to a John Lowenstein home run. The next day New York built a 4-0 lead behind Catfish Hunter’s six scoreless innings, but aging veteran Jim Kaat came on and gave up five runs in the eighth to lose 5-4. On Sunday Chris Chambliss hit an RBI double and scored on Nettles’ two-run homer in the third and Tommy John out-dueled Mike Flanagan 3-2 for the first victory of the post-Munson era.
And then came Monday, Aug. 6. As Larry Brooks of the New York Post once said, “It was a day on which there was crying in baseball.’’
Steinbrenner chartered a plane that flew the entire team and various members of the organization to Munson’s funeral in Canton. During his eulogy, Murcer, choking back sobs, chose the words of poet and philosopher Angelo Patri who said, “The life of a soul on earth lasts longer than his departure. He lives on in your life and the life of all others who knew him. He lived, he led, and he loved.’’
Among the 1,000 in attendance at the funeral were dozens of baseball men including commissioner Bowie Kuhn. After the mass, mourners lined the streets of Canton to say goodbye to their native son, kids in their Little League uniforms, their parents crying as the buses carried the Yankees to the airport for the return trip to New York where they somehow had to gather themselves and play the Orioles on Monday Night Baseball with Howard Cosell up in the broadcast booth.
No one wanted to play a game, but as Murcer said, “I just know that’s what Thurman would’ve wanted. If he was sitting here and I said I couldn’t play, he’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’’’
That night, 36,314 came out to the stadium for a game that meant little in the standings for the Yankees, and they witnesses to one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
Ron Guidry, enduring a frustrating season one year after winning 25 games and the Cy Young Award, started for New York and spotted the Orioles a 4-0 lead through six innings, two of the runs courtesy of a home run by current Yankee broadcaster Ken Singleton.
But in the seventh the Yankee magic began. With two outs, Dent drew a walk from Dennis Martinez, Randolph doubled him over to third, and Murcer – who had just returned to the Yankees a month earlier in a trade from the Chicago Cubs – blasted a three-run homer to cut the deficit to 4-3.
It stayed that way until the bottom of the ninth. Dent again drew a walk, this one from reliever Tippy Martinez. Randolph dropped down a bunt which Martinez fielded and threw into right field for an error, Dent scooting to third and Randolph to second. Up came Murcer, one of Munson’s best friends since they came up together in the Yankee farm system in the late 1960s.
Murcer fell behind 0-2 before punching a fastball into left field for a single that plated Dent with the tying run and Randolph with the winning run.
“Everybody was so tired, I think we were playing on the spirit of Thurman,” said Murcer, who collapsed into Piniella’s arms in a tearful hug in the dugout moments after his hit. “I think that’s what carried us through the game. I know it did me. There is no way to explain what happened. We used every ounce of strength to go out and play that game. We won it for Thurman.”
The bat Murcer used to win that game never saw another pitch. He gave it to Diana Munson. A month shy of the 25th anniversary of Munson’s passing in 2004, Diana and her children – Tracy, Kelly and Michael – came back to Yankee Stadium on Old-Timers’ Day.
They toured the Yankee clubhouse and for the first time saw Thurman’s locker. Diana threw out the first pitch before the game, and Michael, then 28, went out to Monument Park, knelt in front of his father’s plaque and retired No. 15, and proposed marriage to his girlfriend, who happily accepted.