I had been working in New York for just four months and had yet to develop an allegiance to any New York team so perhaps that's why I don't recall what I was doing when I heard of Thurman Munson's death. However, a number of years earlier I experienced the same shock and utter disbelief as Yankees fans when Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente was killed - also in a plane crash. I was getting ready to deliver the morning paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at 6AM on Jan. 1, 1973 when I heard the news on the kitchen radio. What an awful way to begin a new year. I tried to console myself with the memory of Clemente getting his 3,000th hit in his final at-bat of the 1972 regular season.
To pay proper tribute to Munson I've asked a friend and devoted Yankee fan, Sam Belil, to fill in for me and provide his memories and reflections. Sam, thanks for your heartfelt tribute.
Thursday, Aug. 2, 1979 - I'll never forget that day, the day we lost our Captain, the heart and soul of the New York Yankees - Thurman Munson. He was my first baseball hero and is STILL my favorite Yankee of all-time (Jeter is #2). I remember it as if it were 30 seconds ago and not 30+ years. I was watching General Hospital on WABC-Channel 7 when a "Special Report" came on and (pardon the pun) a VERY grim looking Roger Grimsby reported that "New York Yankee star catcher Thurman Munson has been killed in the crash of the plane he was piloting". As I write this I feel the same exact pain in my gut that I felt that afternoon. For those of us who were alive back then losing Thurman is something we'll probably never get over - a part of my heart was forever broken. (In less than a year's time Yankee fans had gone from the exhilaration of Bucky Dent's game-winning home run in their one-game playoff against the Red Sox to take us to a third straight World Series, to this crushing blow.)
Not surprisingly, the next few days were emotionally draining. Before the start of the game on the day following his death (and with home plate left unoccupied), Munson received a 10-minute standing ovation from the Yankee Stadium crowd. Then on Monday, August 6, the day of Munson's funeral, the Yankees flew to Canton, Ohio for the morning funeral and flew back for that evening's nationally televised game - which MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn wouldn't allow the Yankees to postpone. Fittingly, the Yankees came from behind to win in the bottom of the 9th on a 2-run walk-off home run by Munson's close friend Bobby Murcer.
As a teenager, besides my girlfriend at the time, Thurman Munson was MY EVERYTHING. My favorite memories of him come from his extraordinary 1976 post-season - he batted .435 against the Kansas City Royals and .529 against the great Cincinnati Reds, including six consecutive hits. He was the only Yankee not to be intimidated by the Big Red Machine, the only Yankee whose body language said, "Yes, I belong here and I will make the most of it!" Whenever I watch highlights of that World Series I always listen to the meeting at the pitcher's mound between the Reds' Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and manager Sparky Anderson as they talked about Munson ... "Man that guy can flat out HIT!" It still brings tears to my eyes.
Although he played shortstop in high school and college Thurman looked so natural in his catcher's gear. Statistically speaking he may not have been the greatest Yankee ever, but his leadership, grit, genuine concern for his teammates and clutch hitting make him, to me, the greatest Yankee Captain of all time. (And he holds the distinction of being the only Yankee to win a Rookie of the Year and MVP award.)
When his autobiography was published in 1979 (and I've already bought and read the new biography about him, Munson: Life & Death of a Yankee Captain) what touched me most about Munson was his dedication to his family and the importance he placed on being a good father. Ironically, it was his desire to be in close contact with his family in Ohio that motivated him to take up piloting. From Thurman I learned the importance of family and being close to them. I have a 19-year-old son (and just celebrated 21 years of marriage). Coincidentally, his name is Michael, the same as Munson's son. I cherish every day with him as if it were my last on this planet. Thurman Munson was my role model in more ways than one.