Thurman Munson’s Case for Cooperstown

This isn’t a round-numbered anniversary — next year will be 40 years — but every August 2, my thoughts invariably turn to Thurman Munson, particularly as a baseball-minded New York resident. Munson’s 1979 death, via the crash of a plane he was flying, remains a pivotal moment of my own childhood for the confrontation it forced with the mortality of the men playing the game. It robbed the game of an iconic player, one whose career I believe is worthy of a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On Wednesday, the New York Times‘ David Waldstein published an account of Munson’s final moments and the events that led up to them, based upon depositions from two lawsuits that were recently uncovered by a Long Island lawyer named Allan Blutstein. Directed at Cessna (the airplane manufacturer) and FlightSafety International (the school where Munson learned to fly), the lawsuits were separately filed by the Yankees and the other by Munson’s widow, Diana.

The depositions include testimony from two of Munson’s most prominent Yankees teammates, Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles, as well as manager Billy Martin. All three had flown with Munson — who had only begun flying in the spring of 1978 — less than three weeks before his fatal crash in flights that themselves were not mistake-free. Jackson and Nettles both testified that the oxygen masks deployed on theirs after a loud noise, while Martin recounted flames from one engine. Given 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.

Waldstein’s story is not for the faint of heart. It grimly details the injuries Munson sustained when his plane crashed short of the runway at Akron-Canton Airport — due to pilot error brought on by fatigue and improper safety procedures, according to the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board — and his passengers’ failed attempts to save him.

You don’t need the blow-by-blow of his demise to appreciate Munson’s career, however. He packed a tremendous amount into his 11 major league seasons: seven All-Star appearances (six straight from 1973-1978), three Gold Gloves, an AL MVP award (with support in six other seasons), an AL Rookie of the Year award, and a central role on a team that won three straight pennants (1976-1978) and two championships. He excelled on both sides of the ball; five times he hit for at least a .300 batting average with a wRC+ of at least 120 (his career mark was 116) and twice he led the league in caught stealing percentage, throwing out more than half the baserunners who tried to steal against him.

Drafted with the fourth pick out of Kent State University in 1968, Munson broke in with Double A Binghamton that summer and played just 99 games in the minors before making his major league debut on August 8, 1969, the start of a 26-game cup of coffee. In 1970, the 23-year-old backstop took over the Yankees’ regular catching duties and hit .302/.386/.415 with six homers and a 127 wRC+ in 526 plate appearances. Defensively, he threw out 52% of would-be base thieves. His 5.5 WAR (the Baseball-Reference version, since we’re in the Hall of Fame realm here) ranked 11th in the league and tops among all catchers. He came within one vote of being a unanimous selection for AL Rookie of the Year, and the Yankees, who had maxed out at 83 wins during the 1965-1969 stretch, went 93-69, their best record until 1976.

Munson had his offensive ups and downs over the next couple of seasons, with good on-base percentages offsetting sub-.400 slugging percentages. He was worth a combined 7.6 WAR in 1971-1972, but in 1973 he broke out to his .301/.362/.487 with 20 homers, a 141 wRC+ and 7.2 WAR, numbers he would never surpass; the last mark ranked third in the league. That kicked off a five-year stretch during which Munson hit .299/.347/.438 for a 123 wRC+, averaging a hefty 622 plate appearances, 16 homers, six steals and 5.4 WAR per year.

In 1976, Munson helped 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 wRC+, and 5.3 WAR. It may not have been his best all-around season by the numbers, but when coupled with the Yankees’ 97 wins under Martin, it was good enough for him to garner 18 of 24 first-place votes in the AL MVP race. Though Munson 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.

The Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series in both 1977 and ’78. The former year, Munson’s age-30 season, was a banner one (.308/.351/.462, 123 wRC+, 4.9 bWAR), but the latter (.297/.332/.373, 99 wRC+, 3.3 WAR) suggested that the grind of catching more than 10,000 innings in such a short timespan was taking its toll, particularly on his knees. He hit just six homers in the latter season, during which he played DH in 14 games and right field in 13. His bat came to life in both World Series; he went 8-for-25 in each, driving in seven runs in 1978. 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 1978. Though he was the DH five times and started three times at first base, he caught 88 of the team’s 106 games through August 1 and hit .288/.340/.374, though with his still-steady defense, he was already to 2.4 WAR. After an 0-for-5 as a DH in the Yankees’ July 31 game against the White Sox in Chicago, he played just three innings at first base on August 1, then flew home to see his family in Ohio the next day; owner George Steinbrenner had granted him special permission to travel separately from the team.

The rest, alas, is history. To this nine-year-old Dodgers fan, Munson was, along with Jackson, one of the most seductively enjoyable players on the evil Yankees, one whose baseball cards I treasured. He wasn’t the first ballplayer I remember dying – sadly, Lyman Bostock preceded him by nearly a year – but Munson and the Yankees were staples of the televised games I’d witnessed to that point, Bostock merely an extrapolation from my baseball card collection and the daily box scores.

For all of his accolades and his .292/.346/.410 batting line, Munson finished his career with “only” 1,558 hits and 113 homers. Under the rules adopted by the Hall of Fame following the death of Roberto Clemente, he was eligible for the 1981 BBWAA ballot (not the 1980 one), but the writers, who had the first-year candidacies of Bob Gibson, Harmon Killebrew and Juan Marichal to consider among the 11 future Hall of Famers on the ballot, barely noticed. He received 15.5% of the vote, roughly one-fifth the support needed for election. The next year, with Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson both eligible for the first time, he sank to 6.3%, and he never reached double digits again during his 15-year run of eligibility.

Munson was similarly ignored when he appeared on three Veterans Committee ballots from 2003-2007, years where all of the living Hall of Famers were allowed to vote on a particularly expansive slate. Lost behind a handful of stronger or at least more popular candidates such as Ron Santo, Dick Allen, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva and Joe Torre, Munson received single-digit vote totals each year. He did not appear on either the 2011 or 2014 Expansion Era Committee ballots, nor was he on the 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, whose election of Jack Morris and Alan Trammell marked the first time since 2001 that any of the small committees elected a living ex-player.

Munson deserved better from the voters, because he’d laid a strong foundation for a spot in Cooperstown. Even with his death in the middle of his age-32 season, his 46.1 career bWAR ranks 14th all-time, about seven wins shy of the average Hall of Fame catcher. More importantly — most importantly given his abbreviated career — his 37.0 peak WAR, from his best seven seasons, is tied with fellow Yankees legend Yogi Berra for eighth all-time, a solid 2.5 WAR above the standard. Only five of the 15 enshrined catchers — contemporaries Gary Carter, Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, and recent honorees Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez — are ahead of him in this category. He’s 2.2 WAR ahead of Ted Simmons, another contemporary whose candidacy I felt strongly enough about to feature in The Cooperstown Casebook given the heft of his career numbers. If I do a second edition of the book, Munson will get a spotlight.

In short, Munson’s 41.6 JAWS is 2.4 points short of the standard, ahead of just six of the 15 enshrined. The only mistake he made was dying before rounding out his career with perhaps a couple more two-win seasons and enough lingering to escape the “Rule of 2,000” mob that has effectively short-circuited so many candidacies. His career is about a year ahead of where 31-year-old Buster Posey — winner of Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, as well as a three-time champion, but in the midst of an offensive decline — finds himself now:

Catcher JAWS Leaderboard
Rk Name Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
1 Johnny Bench+ 75.2 47.2 61.2
2 Gary Carter+ 70.1 48.4 59.3
3 Ivan Rodriguez+ 68.7 39.8 54.3
4 Carlton Fisk+ 68.5 37.6 53.0
5 Mike Piazza+ 59.6 43.1 51.4
6 Yogi Berra+ 59.4 37.0 48.2
7 Joe Mauer 54.8 39.0 46.9
8 Bill Dickey+ 55.8 34.2 45.0
9 Mickey Cochrane+ 52.1 36.9 44.5
Avg of 15 HOF C 53.5 34.5 44.0
10 Ted Simmons 50.3 34.8 42.6
11 Gabby Hartnett+ 53.4 30.3 41.9
12 Thurman Munson 46.1 37.0 41.6
13 Gene Tenace 46.8 35.0 40.9
14 Bill Freehan 44.8 33.7 39.3
15 Buck Ewing+ 47.7 30.4 39.1
16 Buster Posey 40.8 37.1 39.0
17 Jorge Posada 42.8 32.7 37.7
18 Ernie Lombardi+ 45.9 27.8 36.9
19 Jason Kendall 41.7 30.4 36.0
20 Wally Schang 45.0 25.2 35.1
23 Roger Bresnahan+ 40.9 28.8 34.9
27 Roy Campanella+ 34.1 32.8 33.5
28 Yadier Molina* 38.3 28.6 33.5
29 Russell Martin* 37.1 26.8 31.9
30 Victor Martinez* 32.3 29.0 30.7
33 Brian McCann* 31.4 24.4 27.9
42 Ray Schalk+ 28.6 22.1 25.3
47 Rick Ferrell+ 29.8 19.9 24.8
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Note rankings discontinuity after top 20.
* = active (statistics through August 1)
+ = Hall of Famer

Munson will next be eligible for inclusion on the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot. Here’s hoping he can join some combination of Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Keith Hernandez and Simmons, all of whom deserve a closer look from committee voters.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

I’m from Canton, Ohio, where Munson grew up. I was 10 years old when he died. My dad called me from the shopping mall to give me the news. I didn’t believe him. So I turned on the radio. The very first words I heard, without even trying to tune into a station were “Thurman Munson has died in a plane crash”. The next day’s newspaper was filled with stories about Thurman’s life and the crash. I meticulously cut them all out and put them into a scrapbook. Wish I still had that scrapbook but I have no idea what happened to it.

Anyway, thanks for writing this Jay! There’s no doubt in my mind that he belongs in the Hall. Yes, he only has 46.1 WAR (BR) but that’s in less than 6,000 career PAs. And while he was definitely in decline, he still managed to put up 2.4 WAR in only 97 games in his final season. Would have easily passed 50 WAR, maybe made it to 60 if he hadn’t died so tragically. His mediocre support in the Hall voting always confused me. He as a leader, played through pain, raised his game in the postseason, MVP, 7 time All-Star. What more did the voters want?

5 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

BTW, this 1978 article from the NY Times might shed some light on why he did poorly in HOF voting. He refused to talk to reporters the last few years of his career:

Another interesting tidbit is that he wanted to be traded to the Indians so he could be closer to his family. He nearly quit baseball as a result. But he ultimately decided to keep playing. Which of course is why he was flying the day he died…

tramps like us
5 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

As I recall from Sparky Lyle’s Book “The Bronx Zoo” he also wanted out from under Steinbrenner’s thumb, he absolutely detested Steinbrenner.

5 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

“Would have easily passed 50 WAR, maybe made it to 60 if he hadn’t died so tragically. ”

Of the catchers above, there were five that were +/- 5 fWAR of Munson through age 31. Here is what they did ages 32+:

Fisk +33.8
Dickey +15.7
Ewing +11.6
Cochrane +6.9
Freehan +6.2

The median there, plus Munson’s 38.8 through age 31 would put him at just barely 50 fWAR [50.4]. Using the average of these guys, 53.6.

5 years ago
Reply to  rosen380

Rosen380, I believe you’re using the wrong numbers. As the author shows in the chart in the article, Munson already had 46.1 bWAR when he died. Adding in the lowest – Freehan, would give him over 52 bWAR and the median (Ewing @ 11.6) would give Munson a projected 57.7 bWAR.