Tuesday, June 07, 2005
June 7th, 1947
Thurman Munson Born
In his New Historical Baseball Abstract Bill James is perhaps a bit harsh on Munson, writing that he was essentially done as a player and would have been unlikely to improve his place on the all-time lists (14th among catchers according to James) even if he hadn't gone to the "Ken Hubbs Flight Academy" a fairly tasteless reference to Hubbs, a Cub who died in a plane crash in 1964, just as Munson would in 1979. James' feelings towards Munson are--perhaps subconsciously--influenced by the fact that Munson was a major member of the mid 70s Yankee team that killed, just killed James' hometown Royals. Munson hit .435 in the 1976 ALCS when the Yankees defeated the Royals in dramatic fashion on a walk-off Chris Chambliss HR in Game 5. (That having been said, James does include a priceless line from Sparky Lyle, who was asked if Munson was "moody" and replied "Nah, Thurman's not moody. When you're moody you're nice sometimes. Thurman's just mean.")
I wish I could offer some insight into just what kind of man Munson was, but I don’t think anyone outside of his family, teammates and friends (it's worth noting those last two groups are almost entirely mutually exclusive) really can. Part of Munson’s legacy is of a curmudgeon--in part because Thurman just looked like a curmudgeon--but one who used his curmudgeoness to serve as a leader of the team and one who took no crap. The other side of it, the one that fairness dictates I mention has been bathed in the martyr's glow, is of Thurman as a secretly kind and generous man but one who hid it behind his gruff exterior, as expressed in articles like this one.
I refuse, on general principle, to get into the kind of armchair psychology about Munson that many have. His death was unquestionably tragic, a young man robbed of life before his thirty third birthday, and doubly so because Munson's death was avoidable; he was flying a plane that was simply too much for someone who had been a pilot for as short a time as he, his wife believes he was planning to sell it. I have no idea if Thurman really was a jerk or simply a soft guy who hid it under a hard shell. Instead I can just report the facts; Thurman Munson was a pretty good player who died under pretty sad circumstances. The rest of it is just talk.