WRITTEN: Sunday, August 2, 2009
Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the dreadful day in which the New York Yankees lost their captain - the last true Yankee captain until Derek Jeter was given the astute title in June of 2003.
Sorry, Mattingly fans - Thurman was truly a tough act to follow. Thurman Munson was the exact type of player I love to root for. A true family man, and, as Ron Blomberg told me, "not a great player, but a good player with a great heart."
Thurman truly cared about the game in which he played. He always put his team first, and always battled for his teammates, on and off the field. Realizing that the "Bronx Zoo" in which he played for in 1978 was a very susceptible and dangerous environment, he went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure his job title was distributed properly.
If he were alive today, it would read: Father & Husband, Yankee Captain, Baseball Player - in that order. Thurman loved his family, and today, thirty years later, it is his love for his family that has lived on, long past his two World Series Titles, and Regular Season MVP Award .
In 1967, Thurman led the Chatham A's of the CCBL (Cape Cod Baseball League) to their first ever title, hitting .420 - a normal performance for Thurman in championship-type games and series. Just nine years later, Thurman would be the AL MVP catcher for the American League Champion Yankees.
Although they would go on to be swept by the Big Red Machine in the '76 Series, Thurman continued to perform. Despite the team's struggles in '76, power and honor had been restored to New York. Largely in part to George Steinbrenner, and his decision to name Thurman captain in the late '70s. Thurman was the first captain since Lou Gehrig.
For someone who considered himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth," how do you think Thurman felt when George asked him to be the captain? Selfless, of course. Thurman declined the position. However, Big Stein was in his hayday - Thurman had no choice. "Well that's too bad," George insisted, "we need a leader, and you're our man!"
George then went out and courted Reggie Jackson. Apparently, a captain and leader was not enough. The Yankees needed a "straw to stir the drink," so to speak. Realistically, though, the Yankees just needed another .529 World Series Average from Thurman, who tied a series record with six consecutive hits over the four game losing streak.
Similarly to the Yankees loss to Florida in 2003, after a tough seven game ALCS with Boston, when Chambliss hit the pennant-winning walk-off, the Yankees won their World Series. However, the next two years, the Yanks would win THE World Series.
1977 and 1978 were tumultuous for the boys in the Bronx. Son of Sam was a pertinent part of NYC History, Reggie & Mickey were at one another's throats, and Billy Martin was trying to lead a team in which he had little to no control over. However, it worked. The straw was stirred, the team was successful, but above all, the Yankees had a leader.
Thurman hit .320 with one HR in the '77 Series, as the Yankees defeated the Dodgers. In '78, Munson hit a 475 foot HR (the longest of his career) to win Game 3 of the ALCS. A few days later, Thurman would make the final put-out of the 1978 World Series, to give the Yankees back-to-back titles.
Not bad for a Johnny Bench comparison, eh? Tell that to Sparky Anderson...
However, the aforementioned job titles for Thurman didn't change. His performance was solid, as was his commitment to his family. A seven time All Star, three time Gold Glove winner, two time World Series Champion, and the only New York Yankee to ever win the MVP & Rookie of the Year Award all were inferior feats compared to his love for his family.
Thurman became a pilot to visit his family on road trips, and off days, in Ohio. On August 2, 1979, after arriving home on an off day, Thurman noticed a few issues with his piece of equipment. Running a few tests, Thurman tragically lost control of his plane, and crashed, just yards from his hometown.
Ironically enough, #15 died on one of the messiest, rainiest days in New York's summer. Today, thirty years later, I had to pull to the side of the road in my Pontiac Bonneville during a torrential downpour, with my safety in mind. As Dave Matthews once said, "funny the way it is, if you think about it."
The Yankees came out in large support, delivering tear-jerking eulogies at his funeral on August 6th, 1979. Major League Baseball told George that his team could not attend the funeral, as they had a home game that night.
George scolded, "Well that's too bad! If we don't make it, we forfeit." Say what you will about Mr. Steinbrenner - he always did the right thing, because he knew it was right. He truly cares about his team...no, excuse me...his family.
In many ways, George and Thurman were alike. They always knew the right thing, and went after it in the worst way. Thurman kept his head down when things stirred up crazy in the Bronx - and God Bless him for that.
After burying their Captain, the New York Yankees (and possibly Thurman's best friend, the late Bobby Murcer) rose to an emotional occasion, as the Yankees won in walk off style, thanks to Murcer, who drove in all 5 runs in the 5-4 win over Baltimore.
Piniella and Murcer, Munson's best friends on the team, were seen embracing after Murcer's sixth inning homerun in the dugout. They both eulogized Munson at the funeral earlier that day as well.
Billy Martin had to be helped off the cemetery because of his swollen heart. Not many took it harder than Martin.
One year later, Thurman's number was retired.
Last night, I went to a party at Rutgers University. I wore the #15 Munson Jersey Shirt, in memory of Thurman, whom I wish I could have one day met. Being associated with the organization now, I can safely say I would name that my ultimate dream, above everything else.
To me, it is not the creed, nor the nationality that counts, it is the man itself. Thurman was true, in every sense of the word. For me to know, understand and realize that, having never met or seen him play live, really says something about the man behind the mask.
Today, I pause and think about Thurman. May God bless his family on their day of sorrow. Home Plate will always belong to Thurman, whether at 161st and River, or East One 161st. The home, old, or new, will always have Thurman inside. George wouldn't have it any other way.
"Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next ... Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him."