Thurman Munson started the 1974 season after coming off his best year to date. Considered by most to be the “heart and soul” of the Yankees in 147 games, he had 156 hits, 29 doubles, 4 triples, 20 homeruns, 74 runs batted in and a OBP of 0.362 in 1973.
The Yankees found themselves with a new manager, Bill Virdon, for Spring Training in 1974. Virdon was looking to improve upon what he saw as a team that played poor defense. This taskmaster opened Spring Training with the announcement that other than pitchers, only three players were certain to open the regular season–Bobby Murcer, Graig Nettles, and Munson.
Some expected Munson would have an even better year than his 1973 season because the Yankees were playing in Shea Stadium in 1974 while the renovation of Yankee stadium continued. Yankee Stadium was considered a right-handed hitter’s nightmare with its 402′ straightway left and 457′ in left center. Only 21 home runs were hit into the left field bullpen in the old stadium’s history. In comparison, Shea had a 371′ left center. Because of this, people speculated Munson’s already impressive numbers were only going up. It was not to happen though.
A week before the regular season in an exhibition game against the Mets–of all teams– Munson’s right hand was hit by Dave Schneck’s backswing. Munson continued as he generally did with injuries, but this one did not improve with time, it grew worse. Munson was in and out of the lineup depending on the swelling of the his hand because his ability to throw and even hold a bat were affected. X-rays showed it was not broken, but treatment with cortisone shots only helped temporarily–it wasn’t getting fixed.
A third of the way into the season, Munson found himself hitting an average of .220 with 6 home runs and only 16 runs batted in. The Yankees fared as their captain fared, and the team found themselves with a record of 26 and 30. Munson then said, “To hell with the pain.” (1) He drove in a run with a single in a three run 8th inning rally that put the Yankees up 3-1 for a win against the Minnesota Twins on June 8th.
The very next day, June 9th, Munson hit another pair of singles that earned another Yankee’s win closing 4-3 against the Twins. After that, June 10th, he came up to bat against the Angels where he logged another 2 hits with 2 runs batted in. The Yankees were going again.
Soon, they were playing over .500 ball, and Munson’s batting stats were going up. This leadership and gritty play endeared him to both the fans and players. This is why he was considered the heart and soul of the Yankees, and it was also the reason that he would become was the first to be named captain since Lou Gehrig.
(photo from Sports Illustrated)
This inspired play couple with the leadership of manager, Bill Virdon, actually had the Yankees leading their division late into September. The hand injury to Munson persisted, though. He received daily treatments, and when asked about the injury and how it affected his play, he responded, “I can’t even shake hands without it hurting.” (2)
As of September 23 the Yankees found themselves with a one game lead over the favorite Orioles with only eight games to go. After a decade of failure, the surprising Yankees looked like they were back. The Yankees could not hold off the Orioles, though. Yankees ended up going 5-3 while the Orioles went 8-8 giving the Orioles the pennant with a two game lead.
The Yankees were indeed back to winning form. In 1975, they saw a bit of transition halfway through the season when George Steinbrenner hired Billy Martin to manage the team. 1975 also marked a key acquisition–Catfish Hunter. Then came 1977 where the Yankees added Reggie Jackson. This move set them up to win the 1977 and 1978 World Series.
Munson for his part went on to win the MVP in 1975, he was named captain in 1976, and he collected two World Series wins. Then, on August 2nd 1979, tragedy struck. Munson– who had taken up flying so he could fly home to his family in Canton, Ohio on his off days–was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Airport. After successfully completing two landings with friends David Hall, previously his flight instructor, and Jerry Anderson, he attempted his third approach. Hall told investigators the he believed they were coming in too low for the elevated runway that was 50 feet higher than the ground they crashed into after the plane sheered off the top of three trees. Hall and Anderson were able to escape the plane, but due to the extreme heat, they could not get Munson out before the plane became engulfed in flames.
Munson was survived by his wife Diana and their three children. George Steinbrenner said about Munson after his death, “There is very little I can say to adequately express my feelings at this moment. I’ve lost a dear friend, a pal and one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever known. We spent many hours together talking baseball and business. He loved his family, he was our leader. The great sport, which made him so famous, seems so very small and unimportant now. And there lies a great lesson for all of us.” (3)
As a tribute, the Yankees put a plaque of Munson in Monument Park at the stadium along with all the other greats, and as a further nod to this leader, Munson’s locker was never used again by another player. When the new stadium was completed, his locker was moved to the new ballpark and still remains unused. The Baseball Hall of Fame created a replica of his locker for display.
(1) Sporting News, July 6, 1974 – Phil Pepe.
(2) Sporting News, October 5, 1974 – Phil Pepe.
(3) SABR Bio by Jimmy Keenan and Frank Russo