Why the New York Yankees Are the Greatest: Part 15

Perry ArnoldSenior Analyst IJanuary 19, 2009

In the long and storied history of the New York Yankees, only one player has ever been chosen both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

Thurman Munson was born in 1947 in Akron, OH. He grew up in Canton and went to college at Kent State University.

Munson played in the Cape Cod Baseball League in 1967 and hit .420, the highest average ever recorded in that league.

In 1968, he was chosen as the fourth overall pick in the first round by the New York Yankees. At the time, the Yankees were in the worst phase of their history since the end of World War I.

Munson would play two years in the minors and came to the Bronx as a rookie catcher in 1970. That year he hit .302 and was named Rookie of the Year.

He was one of the best, if not the best defensive catchers of his time. In 1971, he made only one error for the entire year and that was on a play when he dropped the ball after being knocked unconscious by the runner charging home from third.

In 1976, the Yankees would return to the World Series for the first time in twelve years and they were led by Munson. That year he again hit .302 and was named MVP. 

The Yankees would lose the World Series in four straight games to the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati, but Munson could not be blamed. 

In that World Series, Munson would hit .529. While it was not enough to beat the Reds, it helped put Munson on a national stage for the first time.

In the offseason Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner, made big news by signing free-agent superstar, Reggie Jackson.

Jackson came to New York at the height of his career and he soon made his presence felt, not necessarily in a good way.

Reggie was quoted as saying that in coming to New York: "I'm the straw that stirs the drink. Munson can stir it, but he can only stir it bad."

But those who would play on the Yankee teams of the mid-'70s that would come to be called "The Bronx Zoo" knew their real leader was Munson.

Munson was named the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig. Steinbrenner has often said of his decision to name Munson captain, that the catcher did not want to be captain but that the owner insisted.

Munson had always been a quiet player on the bench, letting his game talk for him.  In 1977 he led the Yankees back to the World Series and this time they defeated the Dodgers.

Reggie Jackson's three home runs in Game Six of that World Series are the most remembered aspect of that postseason. But Munson was once again stellar, leading the Yankees at the plate and on the field.

In 1978, the Yankees went to the World Series for the third straight year, winning their second consecutive Fall Classic. When the Series was over, Munson would have a combined batting average in World Series play of .373.

But behind the scenes things were turbulent. Billy Martin had managed the Yankees to the '77 World Series, but was a bitter, often violent personality who battled with the owner, his own coaches and especially Jackson. 

Martin was fired during the volatile '78 season when the Yankees slumped and fell far behind the Boston Red Sox. But the Yankees made a remarkable come back, led by replacement manager, Bob Lemon, and caught the Sox on the last day of the regular season.

Ron Guidry had one of the greatest years any pitcher ever had, going 25-3, including the finale when the Yankees beat the Red Sox in the one game playoff at Fenway to decide the season.

Before the season ended, in fact on Old Timer's Day, it had been announced that Martin would be back to manage the Yankees in 1979. Expectations had to be high that the Yankees would return to glory for the fourth straight year.

But Munson had expressed unhappiness in being in New York. He apparently hated the constant agitation and press attention in The Bronx Zoo. And he very much hated being away from his wife, Diane and their children, who remained at home in Ohio.

In order to spend as much time as he could with his family, Munson had become a pilot and flew back to Ohio as much as possible.

On Aug. 2, 1979, an off day in a disappointing season for his team, Munson was in Ohio and was practicing take offs and landings in his new Cessna airplane. He crashed and was killed.

The Yankees mourned their fallen leader and showed up en masse four days later for his funeral. Returning to the Bronx after the funeral the Yankees, led by Munson's friend, Bobby Murcer, won a game they had dedicated to Munson.

Steinbrenner announced that Munson's number would be retired and that he would be honored with a plaque in Yankee Stadium. The plaque was placed in Monument Park and unveiled on September 2, 1980.

Since his death, Munson's locker has remained empty in honor of the fallen captain.  His memory is recalled at special Yankee events, such as Old Timer's Day and the closing of Yankee Stadium. 

Those who were Yankee fans and suffered through the days of despair from 1965 until 1976, will always have a special place in their heart for Thurman Munson.

He was more than a great player, a seven time All Star who finished his brief career with a .292 lifetime batting average.

He was the heart and soul of the Yankee teams that returned to the top of the baseball world. Yankee fans of that time can remember Thurman on weakened knees struggling in the dust behind home plate to get back to his feet and resume his position behind home plate.

Yankee fans can remember his looping swing that would send line drives all over Yankee Stadium and remember him hustling around the bases and sliding into third.

Yankee fans will never remember Thurman Munson for his grace. We will remember him instead for his always dirty uniform, for his Fu Manchu, for his grit and his determination, his love of the game and his love of his family that may have taken him from all of us too soon.

Thurman Munson is one of the reasons the New York Yankees are the greatest team in the history of baseball.