A sad anniversary today: on August 2, 1979, Yankees captain, 1970 Rookie of the Year, 1976 AL MVP and two-time World Series champion Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash.
Munson was a private pilot with around two years experience at the time. His interest in aviation was two-fold: for its own sake and enjoyment and so he could more readily visit his family in Ohio on his days off. At the time of the crash he was near his Canton, Ohio home while practicing touch-and-gos at the Akron-Canton airport on, yes, a Yankees day off. On his final approach the plane was too low, clipped trees and crashed over 800 feet short of the runway. The specific details of the crash and its personal and legal aftermath were reported by the New York Times last year after legal records were uncovered.
The day after the crash the Yankees held an emotional tribute before their game against the Orioles. On August 6, the entire team attended Munson’s funeral in Ohio. Munson’s number 15 was retired and a plaque in his memory was placed in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium. It bears the inscription, “Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next . . . Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.”
Munson’s loss was a major one that Yankees fans and those in and around the Yankees organization, then and now, still feel sharply. Those 1970s Yankees teams were bold, brash, colorful and, for a good while, dominant, and Munson, along with Reggie Jackson, was perhaps the most visible and important figure in the organization. Many who were there at the time argue, pretty convincingly, that he was, by himself, the most important figure. The Yankees would remain contenders for several years after his death, but an argument could be made that they never truly recovered from it until the 1990s dynasty was born.
A great biography of Munson, written by Jimmy Keenan and Frank Russo, can be read over at the Society for American Baseball Research. Check it out.