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35 Years Ago: Yankees Lose Captain in Shocking Accident

Posted on August 02, 2014 by Dean Hybl
It was 35 years ago that New York Yankees captain Thurman Munson died in a plane accident.

It was 35 years ago that New York Yankees captain Thurman Munson died in a plane accident.

While current New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter has spent much of this season saying good bye to baseball fans across the country, it was 35 years ago that another Yankees captain left the game in a sudden and tragic manner.

On August 2, 1979, the two-time defending World Series Champion New York Yankees were struggling to stay in contention in the American League East. Despite having completed a must-needed three game sweep the day before with a 9-1 win over the Chicago White Sox, the Yankees stood in fourth place in the division 14 games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.

A much needed off day, it would prove to be one of the toughest in team history.

After the three game series in Chicago, Yankee captain and veteran catcher Thurman Munson chose to spend the off-day in his hometown of Canton, Ohio, rather than travel back to New York.

An 11-year veteran, Munson had been the fourth pick of the 1968 MLB Draft and in 1970 was named the American League Rookie of the Year. Over the next decade, Munson was considered the “heart and soul” of the Yankees as they looked to regain the glory of past decades.

In April of 1976, a season that would end with the first World Series appearance for the Yankees in a dozen years, Munson became the first New York player to be designated as team captain since the retirement of Lou Gehrig in 1939.

Munson was a seven-time All-Star and in 1976 was named the American League MVP. He posted three straight seasons of 100+ RBIs from 1975-77 and had five seasons with a .300 or higher batting average.

Despite Munson hitting .529, the Yankees dropped the 1976 World Series in four games to the Cincinnati Reds. In 1977 Munson hit .320 with three RBI to help the Yankees win the World Series for the first time since 1961.

The following season, Munson again hit .320 while driving home seven runs as the Yankees again won the title.  For his career, Munson was a .357 hitter in postseason play, including a .373 average with a home run and 12 RBI in three World Series appearances.

Through the first four months of the season, the 1979 campaign had not been the best for Munson. He was left off the American League All-Star team for the first time since 1972 and was hitting .288 with only three home runs and 39 RBI in 97 games.

After catching most of the season, Munson had not played behind the plate since July 27th as he played three games at first base and another as the designated hitter in games against the Brewers and White Sox.

Munson and George Steinbrenner celebrated back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 and 1978.

Munson and George Steinbrenner celebrated back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 and 1978.

It was no secret that Munson missed his family in Ohio and there had been talk that he might either retire after the 1979 season or perhaps try to complete his career with the local Cleveland Indians.

So it was of little surprise that Munson chose to return to Ohio for the off-day before returning to New York for a four game series against the first place Orioles.

To help make it easier for him to travel home, Munson had started flying in 1978 and purchased a Cessna Citation I/SP that he frequently used to travel home on off days.

On August 2nd, Munson, his friend Jerry Anderson and flight instructor Dave Hall were at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport practicing takeoffs and landings.

On the third touch-and-go landing, the plane sank too low before increasing engine power, causing the jet to clip a tree and fall short of the runway. The plane then hit a tree stump and burst into flames on Greensburg Rd., about 870 feet short of the runway.

Hall and Anderson both survived the accident, suffering burns and some other minor injuries. Munson suffered a broken neck and would have most likely been a quadriplegic had he lived. However, he died of asphyxiation due to the inhalation of superheated air and toxic substances.

Though this was an era before ESPN’s SportsCenter, Twitter and the internet, the shock waves from the tragedy quickly spread across the country.

At Yankee Stadium the following day, the Yankees honored their captain prior to the start of their series against the Orioles. Before the game, all New York starters, except for the catcher, went to their positions and stood there during a prayer, moment of silence and singing of America the Beautiful. There was then an eight-minute standing ovation by the more than 51,000 people in attendance.

The emotions continued three days later when the entire team attended Munson’s funeral prior to the final game of their series against the Orioles. Bobby Murcer, who along with Lou Piniella gave a eulogy during the funeral, drove home all five runs, including the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth, as the Yankees rallied from a 4-0 deficit to defeat Baltimore 5-4.

Munson’s number was retired by the Yankees following his death and he received a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium in 1980.

Munson and Carlton Fisk were rivals throughout the 1970s.

Munson and Carlton Fisk were rivals throughout the 1970s.

Though Munson and rival Carlton Fisk were the best catchers in the American League throughout the 1970s, only Fisk would ultimately end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The premature end of Munson’s career meant he didn’t have career numbers considered by most baseball writers to be Hall of Fame worthy. He completed his career with a .292 batting average, 113 home runs and 703 RBI.

After finishing fourth in the American League East in 1979, though they actually won more games than the AL West leading California Angels, the Yankees reached the playoffs in 1980 and the World Series in 1981 (though this time they lost to the Dodgers).

In 1980 Rick Cerone had a solid season replacing Munson behind the plate, but it wasn’t until Jorge Posada became the regular catcher in 1998 that the Yankees again had a consistent All-Star at that position.

Interestingly, though it was 37 years between the captaincy of Gehrig and Munson, in the 35 years since Munson’s death there have been five Yankee captains, Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly and since 2003 Jeter.

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