Despite Early Demise, Thurman Munson is Hallworthy

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Thurman Munson
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Thurman Munson 46.1 37.0 41.6
Avg. HOF C 54.3 35.1 44.7
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
1558 113 .292.346/.410 116
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

In a span of just over 10 years, Thurman Munson hit just about every high note a ballplayer could. A first-round draft pick in 1968, he made his major league debut the following summer, and won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1970. He made his first of seven All-Star teams in 1971, won the first of three Gold Gloves in ’74, and claimed AL MVP honors in ’76 while helping the Yankees to their first pennant in 12 years. They lost that year’s World Series to the Reds, but won back-to-back championships over the Dodgers in 1977 and ’78. Through it all, Munson stood out as an exceptional two-way player, a natural leader and a fiery competitor. He was tough and durable, with a gruff disposition towards the media and certain teammates, but a soft underbelly. As Gabe Paul, the Yankees’ general manager from 1973-77, said of him, “Thurman Munson is a nice guy who doesn’t want anybody to know it.”

Less than a year after the Yankees won the 1978 World Series, it was over — not just Munson’s stellar career but his life. Munson had taken up flying in the spring of 1978, earning his pilot’s license and flying home to his wife and three children in Canton, Ohio on his off days. On August 2, 1979, while practicing takeoffs and landings at the the Canton-Akron airport, Munson crashed his Cessna Citation twin engine jet — which he had purchased less than a month prior — 870 feet short of the runway after approaching at too steep an angle. His two passengers, one of them a flight instructor, escaped, but Munson, who was wearing his safety belt but not his shoulder harness, was paralyzed from the neck down. The wreckage was engulfed in flames before he could be rescued. He was less than two months past his 32nd birthday.

Unlike Roberto Clemente in 1973 and Roy Halladay in 2019, Munson was not posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame at the first opportunity. In fact, he never came close, debuting on the 1981 ballot (via a rule that waived the otherwise-mandatory five-year waiting period, adopted in the wake of Clemente’s death) with 15.5% of the vote and lingering for the full 15 years without again reaching 10%. His candidacy was further ignored when he was on the ballots of the expanded Veterans Committee in 2003, ’05, and ’07, but like Lou Whitaker and Dwight Evans, he’s finally getting his chance this year via the smaller committee format. His career is ripe for reevaluation. While his counting stats are understandably short given his premature death, his WAR totals — specifically his number eight ranking in seven-year peak and his number 12 ranking in JAWS — suggest that he would be a good fit for Cooperstown, particularly at an underrepresented position.

Born in 1947 in Akron, Ohio, Munson was the last of four children born to Darrell Vernon Munson and Ruth Myrna Munson. He did not have a happy home life. His father, a World War II veteran and a long-distance trucker, had a notorious temper. The eldest of the four children, Darla, told Munson’s biographer Marty Appel that Darrell would come home after a week away and “just start hitting us. A fist across the head. Scary.” In his 1979 autobiography, also written with Appel, Munson recalled that his father “was the world’s original hard-nosed competitor… Dad would think nothing of hitting us ground balls for hours and if one took a bad hop and bloodied a nose, he’d just go right on hitting without stopping… . When I started to play in organized games, I could go four‐for‐four, and he’d get all over me afterward for some fielding lapse.” The two would eventually become estranged.

A three-sport star in high school, Munson regularly played shortstop but began spotting at catching in his junior year; he was the only player who could catch the 90 mph fastball of Jerry Pruet, who would be drafted by the Cardinals in 1965. As a senior, he made the All-Ohio team as a shortstop. Over 80 schools offered Munson a football scholarship, including Michigan and Ohio State. Arizona and Ohio University offered him baseball scholarships contingent upon his making the team, but Munson chose Kent State University, which offered him a full ride and the ability to be close to Canton, where childhood sweetheart Diana Dominick (whom he would marry in 1968) still lived.

The Yankees chose Munson with the fourth pick of the 1968 draft, behind Tim Foli (Mets), Pete Broberg (A’s), and Martin Cott (Astros); the last of those, also a catcher, never reached the majors. Munson broke in with Double A Binghamton that summer and played just 99 games in the minors — interspersed between stints in the Army Reserve — before making his major league debut on August 8, 1969 against the Oakland A’s. He went 2-for-3, with his first single and a walk coming at the expense of future batterymate Catfish Hunter. He played just three games, homering off Lew Krausse in the second one, before returning to Army Reserve duty at Fort Dix, but after finishing his hitch spent September as the Yankees’ regular catcher.

Munson had little trouble adapting to the league. As a 23-year-old rookie in 1970, he hit .302/.386/.415 with six homers and a 127 wRC+ in 526 plate appearances, and threw out 52% of would-be base thieves. His 5.5 WAR ranked 11th in the league and led all AL catchers. He came within one vote of being a unanimous selection for AL Rookie of the Year, and the Yankees, who hadn’t won more than 83 times in a season from 1965-69 stretch, went 93-69, their best record until ’76.

Munson had his offensive ups and downs over the next couple of seasons, with good on-base percentages offsetting sub-.400 slugging percentages; he managed a more-than-respectable 110 OPS+ and 7.6 WAR for the 1971-72 seasons. He broke out in 1973, hitting .301/.362/.487 with 20 homers, a 142 OPS+ (seventh in the league) and 7.2 WAR (third); with the exception of the batting average and on-base percentage, all of those numbers would stand as his career highs. On August 1 of that season, he engaged with Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk in the first of several memorable brawls, one in which both backstops were ejected. The two intense competitors’ personal rivalry would do much to inflame tensions between their respective teams.

That 1973 season kicked off a five-year stretch during which Munson hit .299/.347/.438 for a 123 OPS+, averaging a hefty 622 plate appearances, 16 homers, six steals, and 5.4 WAR per year; he cracked the top five again in 1975, when his 6.6 ranked seventh. He won Gold Gloves in the first three of those seasons and made the All-Star team annually. Late that year, Billy Martin, who had played for four World Series-winning Yankees squads in the 1950s, took over as manager after piloting the Twins and Tigers to division titles but quickly wearing out his welcome in both spots and in Texas.

The following spring, Martin named Munson team captain, the first Yankee to carry that honor since the late Lou Gehrig. “He has just the right cockiness, he’s a born leader,” said the skipper. Munson went on to help the Yankees to their first playoff appearance since 1964, hitting .302/.337/.432 with 17 homers, 14 steals, 105 RBI (his second of three straight years topping 100), a 126 OPS+, and 5.3 WAR. While it wasn’t his best all-around season by the numbers, when coupled with the Yankees’ 97 wins, it was good enough for him to garner 18 of 24 first-place votes in the AL MVP race. Though he went a combined 19-for-40 in the postseason, the Yankees were swept by the Big Red Machine after outlasting the Royals in a five-game ALCS.

After the season, the Yankees signed slugger Reggie Jackson as a free agent, a move for which Munson lobbied. Jackson, who had helped the A’s to three straight championships from 1972-74 and had been AL MVP in ’73, arrived with his ego already inflated. In June 1977, a profile of him by Robert Ward, who caught up with him during spring training, ran in Sport magazine; in it, Jackson said, “This team, it all flows from me. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and Munson, but he can only stir it bad.”

Munson, already unhappy after learning that Jackson was making more than twice his salary, which meant that owner George Steinbrenner had gone back on his word to keep him as the highest-paid Yankee besides Hunter (who had signed with the team in 1975), was hurt by the story. “I tried to defuse the situation,” backup catcher Fran Healy later told Newsday’s Steve Marcus, “So what I said to him was that they probably took it out of context. He said, ‘For six [expletive] pages?'”

Munson remained under a cloud for most of the season. In early August he grew a beard, a violation of the team’s policy and an act of defiance that was believed to be his attempt to force a trade closer to home, to the Indians. He and Jackson barely spoke until reaching an uneasy truce late in the season, but after Jackson hit three home runs off three different Dodgers pitchers in the World Series clincher, Munson gave him a gift of sorts. As Ray Negron, then a clubhouse attendant and now a special adviser to managing general partner Hank Steinbrenner told Marcus:

“Thurman passed by his locker after the game. And he said, ‘You sure put on a hell of a show tonight, Mr. October.’ And Reggie goes, ‘Mr. October? I think I’m going to keep that name.’ And Thurman said, ‘Don’t say I never gave you anything.'”

Beyond the drama, the 1977 season, Munson’s age-30 campaign, was a banner one (.308/.351/.462, 121 OPS+, 4.9 WAR), but its follow-up (.297/.332/.373, 101 OPS+, 3.3 WAR), while still a solid season, suggested that the grind of catching more than 10,000 innings in such a short timespan was taking its toll, particularly on his knees. Munson hit just six homers in 1978, a season in which he DHed in 14 games and played right field in 13. That year, the Yankees suffered a midseason swoon and fell as far as 14 games behind the Red Sox as of July 17. A week later, Martin resigned and was replaced by Bob Lemon. The team rallied, ultimately beating the Red Sox in a Game 163 tiebreaker on the strength of Bucky Dent’s three-run homer. As in 1977, they beat the Royals in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the World Series; for the second year in a row, Munson went 8-for-25 in the Fall Classic, this time with seven RBI. Indeed, he nearly always rose to the occasion in October, hitting .357/.378/.496 with three homers in 135 postseason plate appearances, and .373/.417/.493 in 72 World Series PA.

From a performance standpoint, Munson’s 1979 was looking a lot like ’78. Though he DHed five times and started three times at first base, he caught 88 of the team’s 106 games through August 1 despite chronically aching knees and hit .288/.340/.374. With his still-steady defense, he was already to 2.4 WAR, and on pace for 3.7 WAR. After an 0-for-5 while DHing n the Yankees’ July 31 game against the White Sox in Chicago, he played just three innings at first base the next day, then flew home to see his family in Ohio; Steinbrenner had granted him special permission to travel separately from the team. Munson asked Jackson and fellow Yankees Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer if they wanted to accompany him, but they declined. “He had asked me to fly many, many times with him and I used to tell him, ‘You don’t have enough hours for me,'” said Murcer in 2004.

Munson crashed the next day. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation attributed the crash to ““pilot error caused by fatigue and overstress.” Though one of the two passengers on board, David Hall, had been Munson’s flight instructor when he learned to fly propellor planes, Munson had not gone through his full checklist, and never put down his flaps to slow the plane down. In depositions following the accident, Jackson told of a previous flight with Munson out of Anaheim on July 12, with Martin and teammate Graig Nettles aboard, in which oxygen masks dropped down after a loud noise, and Martin recounted seeing one engine engulfed in flames, though Munson calmly landed the plane. In a 1984 autobiography co-written with Mike Lupica, Jackson also recalled the plane’s altimeter malfunctioning, and Munson telling him, “Nothing ever works right in this damn plane.” Given all of that, it’s not hard to imagine the tragedy compounding into one that could have left an even bigger hole in baseball, and in the Yankees.

Munson’s death shocked the baseball world, understandably. The Yankees paid tribute to their fallen captain in a pregame ceremony at Yankee Stadium on Friday, August 3. The catcher’s box was left empty for several minutes, and a tribute composed by Steinbrenner was displayed on the scoreboard: “Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next … Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him” The Yankees flew to Canton for Munson’s funeral on August 6, where Piniella and Murcer delivered eulogies; the team returned to New York to complete their four-game series against the Orioles that night. Murcer, who had been Munson’s teammate from 1969-74 and had recently been reacquired, drove in all five Yankee runs in a 5-4 victory, including his first home run since returning as well as a walk-off two-run single.

In the wake of some controversy regarding the BBWAA’s special election of Clemente to the Hall of Fame in 1973, the writers and the Hall established a rule allowing for the acceleration of a deceased candidate’s eligibility “in the next regular election held at least six (6) months after the date of death.” Thus Munson appeared not on the 1980 ballot but the ’81 one. With Bob Gibson, Harmon Killebrew, and Juan Marichal all debuting, and nine other future Hall of Famers on the ballot (most of whom would be elected by the Veterans Committee), Munson receded to the background, receiving just 15.5%. He sank to 6.3% the following year, while Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were elected on their first try, and even slipped to 4.8% in 1983, though he was not bumped from the ballot by the Five Percent Rule (for a brief period, the BBWAA and Hall apparently rounded up to 5%, which also benefited Vada Pinson, who received 4.8% in 1985). It didn’t matter; he never polled higher than 9.5% again. He wasn’t considered again until the Veterans Committee expanded to include all living Hall of Famers, and Frick and Spink Award winners, but received single-digit totals from among the 80 to 82 votes cast in the 2003, ’05, and ’07 elections, none of which produced a single honoree.

To some extent, the lack of attention paid to Munson’s candidacy was understandable given that Hall of Fame voting is generally driven by career totals; by dying at age 32, Munson’s body of work was limited. Not only was he well short of 2,000 hits — a threshold below which no player from the post-1960 expansion era has been elected — but just 10 Hall of Famers have fewer than Munson’s total of 5,905 plate appearances. Five began their careers in the 19th century, three played in the high-offense 1920s and ’30s and were the beneficiaries of the crony-driven Veterans Committee during the Frankie Frisch/Bill Terry period in the 1970s (Chick Hafey, Hack Wilson, and Ross Youngs), and two (Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson) had careers shortened by the existence of the color line. Munson’s case bears a vague resemblance to those of Youngs (who died of a kidney disease at the age of 30) and Campanella (a former Rookie of the Year, MVP and championship-winning backstop whose career ended when he was paralyzed in a car crash), but it did not resonate with voters in the same way.

It should have. Munson obviously lacked longevity, but otherwise checked every major box a modern player could in terms of awards, and was a key component of multiple championship teams, with an exceptional body of postseason work. Nonetheless, his score of 90 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, based on common statistical benchmarks and accomplishments for old-school stats that have historically tended to appeal to voters, is below the threshold of being “a good possibility.” That’s largely because he didn’t reach milestones such as 2,000 hits (worth four points via the Monitor) or 1,400 games caught (he had 1,278, and so received 15 points instead of 30); he would have added another 15 points by reaching 1,500 games caught with a batting average of at least .275.

From an advanced stat standpoint, Munson’s combination of well above-average offense and defense (+32 runs according to Total Zone) yields a WAR that ranks 16th at the position, though below 11 of the 15 Hall of Famers. Two players above him have fewer plate appearances, 19th century Hall of Famer Buck Ewing and Munson’s contemporary, Gene Tenace, a sabermetric darling who took just 56% of his plate appearances as a catcher. On a prorated basis, Munson is virtually tied with three Hall of Famers for seventh:

Prorated WAR for Catchers
Player Years PA WAR WAR/650
Johnny Bench+ 1967-1983 8674 75.2 5.6
Gene Tenace 1969-1983 5527 46.8 5.5
Buck Ewing+ 1880-1897 5772 48.0 5.4
Bill Dickey+ 1928-1946 7065 58.4 5.4
Gabby Hartnett+ 1922-1941 7297 60.1 5.4
Buster Posey* 2009-2019 5153 42.1 5.3
Roger Bresnahan+ 1897-1915 5376 42.5 5.1
Mickey Cochrane+ 1925-1937 6208 48.5 5.1
Thurman Munson 1969-1979 5905 46.1 5.1
Gary Carter+ 1974-1992 9019 70.1 5.1
Mike Piazza+ 1992-2007 7745 59.6 5.0
Wally Schang 1913-1931 6432 48.0 4.9
Ernie Lombardi+ 1931-1947 6352 46.8 4.8
Yogi Berra+ 1946-1965 8359 59.8 4.7
Carlton Fisk+ 1969-1993 9853 68.5 4.5
Joe Mauer 2004-2018 7960 55.0 4.5
Ivan Rodriguez+ 1991-2011 10270 68.7 4.3
Bill Freehan 1961-1976 6900 44.8 4.2
Darrell Porter 1971-1987 6570 40.9 4.0
Jorge Posada 1995-2011 7150 42.8 3.9
Jim Sundberg 1974-1989 6899 40.5 3.8
Yadier Molina* 2004-2019 7655 40.2 3.4
Ted Simmons 1968-1988 9685 50.3 3.4
Jason Kendall 1996-2010 8702 41.7 3.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = active. + = Hall of Famer.

That’s impressive, though one has to acknowledge that as he aged, Munson would likely have dropped in the rankings, even given that he was still a very productive player. Then again, such were his knee troubles and the pull of family that he was considering retirement, so he might not have lingered too long.

Munson’s standing via prorated WAR is more or less replicated by his ranking eighth in peak, behind contemporaries Carter, Bench, and Fisk but nearly two full wins above the standard. Yes, the era has a relatively high concentration of enshrined catchers already, and I’m a strong proponent of Simmons’ more career-driven case as well, but even if both were to be elected on this ballot, that wouldn’t be an unprecedented glut from one period, even for catchers (five Hall of Famers played every year from 1929-37 except ’30) or from the modern era. Six left fielders from the 1975-76 season are enshrined, and thanks to the aforementioned Veterans Committees, every other position except third base has several seasons in the 1920s and ’30s with either six or seven active Hall of Famers. At a position where just 15 players are enshrined — tied with third base for the lowest total, four fewer than at any other position — Munson’s number 12 ranking in JAWS, ahead of six of the 15 Hall of Fame catchers and just half a point behind a seventh (Mickey Cochrane), is a strong enough point in his favor.

Even given the brevity of his career, I would have no problem giving Munson one of my four ballot slots; I’d vote for Simmons and Whitaker as well based upon their JAWS and other credentials, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out the rest of my dance card. I do think those two candidates will easily draw more support from the actual committee than Munson, however, and others could as well. Nonetheless, I don’t think Munson’s eventual election is out of the question, and as with Whitaker, Simmons, and fellow candidate Dwight Evans, I’m encouraged by the fact that his candidacy is back in circulation.

We hoped you liked reading Despite Early Demise, Thurman Munson is Hallworthy by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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bjoak
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bjoak

I’d give him consideration based on his performance in Bad Santa alone.