Thursday, August 1, 2013

Remembering Thurman Munson June 7, 1947 - August 2, 1979

This morning, I woke up to the Today Show and one of the first stories was another scandal in baseball involving drugs and steroids and the threat of a Yankee player getting banned from baseball.  Today, it is pretty much all about money, lacking loyalty to one team, and governed by the mighty dollar.

I choose to remember baseball when it was truly America's pastime.  Players were somewhat committed to their team and players excelled on their own without performing enhancing drugs.

I was not really a New York Yankees fan, but I did admire one of the greatest baseball catchers in history by the name of Thurman Munson, who played his entire career for the Yankees.

Thurman Munson was born and raised less than an hour from me in Akron, Ohio.  He was the youngest of four children.  His dad was a World War 11 veteran and truck driver while his mom was a committed mother.  At the age of 8, he moved even closer to me in Canton, Ohio.  He learned baseball from his older brother, Duane and normally played the game with older kids.  He became a baseball standout at Lehman High School in Canton where he also excelled in football and basketball.  He was not only All City but also All State in every sport.  In baseball, Munson played shortstop until his senior year when the coach decided to use him as a catcher because he was the only player to be able to handle a pitcher by the name of Jerome Pruett who was eventually drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. Following high school, Munson chose to play the game at nearby Kent State University where he continued to grow and excel.

Munson was selected by the Yankees as the fourth overall pick in the 1968 Major League draft.  He played one year in the minor leagues and made his first appearance in Yankee stadium in 1968 and two days later hit his first home run.

During his professional baseball career, Munson earned seven All Star nods and three Gold Glove Awards.  He was the American League Rookie of the Year, won 3 American League Pennants and two World Series titles.

Over the years as a Yankee, Munson would often get homesick.  He often thought about becoming a Cleveland Indian to be near his family.  In order to get home more often, Munson decided to take flying lessons at the nearby Akron Canton Airport. He purchased a Cessna Citation jet after taking lessons for two years.  On off days, he would come home and practice takeoffs and landings.

On August 2, 1979 while practicing with his friend, Jerry Anderson and his instructor, Dave Hall, Munson attempted to land when he allowed his plane to sink too low before increasing engine power and caused his jet to clip a tree and fall short of the runway.  The plane burst into flames.  Both Hall and Anderson survived but Munson died as the result of a broken neck and asphyxiation at the age of 32.

The day after his death, during a four game series with the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees paid tribute to their friend and hero in a pre game ceremony when the starting players took their positions with an empty place behind the plate.  The 51000 people burst into an eight minute standing ovation.  Munson's #15 was immediately retired.

On August 6, 1979, the entire Yankee organization attended Munson's funeral in the Canton Civic Center (his funeral prayer card pictured) where a framed portrait of Munson greeted those in attendance in the McKinley room of the center. More than 200 floral arrangements surrounded Munson's silver-gray casket.  Among those who eulogized Munson were his friends and teammates Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer.  Hundreds attended his calling hours the day before.  Following his funeral, Munson was laid to rest in Canton's Sunset Hills Burial Park where his monument is engraved with the words Thurman Lee Munson  Captain of the New York Yankees 1976-1979.

It is written that Thurman Munson's final words were a symbol of his life "Are you guys okay?"




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