8th Inning: Sparky Anderson – Master Motivator
To close out the discussion of Thurman Munson’s postseason experience against Hall of Fame Managers, it is interesting to think for a few moments about what the 1976 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds represented for him personally. It is also worth referencing a noteworthy event – involving Sparky Anderson – which took place immediately after the 4th and final game of the series. This specific moment within Munson’s career history is worth considering since this series was the one and only time that Thurman was on the losing side of a postseason series. It is also worth a review in light of what would take place over the next two years.
Munson was an Ohio native, having been born and raised through high school in the Akron-Canton area and then going on to play his college ball at nearby Kent State where he was named the Catcher on the 1968 College Baseball All-American Team. The season of 1976 was important on two fronts in that it was the season that he became, formally, the Captain of the Yankees and also because it was his MVP campaign. As such, the World Series that year represented an opportunity for Munson to get broader recognition within his home state for having brought the Yankees back to the championship for the first time in a dozen years.
During the series Munson put up the best-ever batting average in history for a player on a losing World Series team with his
.529 average on 9 hits in 17 At Bats. This was also the second best performance ever for a Catcher in a postseason series. But, the issue was that on the other side of the field in that same series was Mr. Johnny Bench himself who delivered the best-ever performance by a Catcher in a postseason series with his .533 average on 8 hits in 15 At Bats. Suffice it to say that the “informal” competition between the men in the 1970s regarding who was the best Catcher in baseball seemed to be settled definitively in Bench’s favor not just with Bench’s batting performance but with the fact that the Reds won the World Series in a 4 game sweep! Then after game 4 when a reporter asked Sparky Anderson to compare the two men, he made his famous statement “Munson is an outstanding ballplayer and he would hit .300 in the National League, but don’t embarrass nobody by comparing them to Johnny Bench.”
It was a somewhat difficult moment for Munson since he was in the room to hear the comment and he was still balancing the mixed emotions of having brought the Yankees back to the edge of greatness as their leader only to fall short against his home-state Reds and against a man who Munson himself admired in Johnny Bench. In short, it was a moment in which he was competitively outdone and overshadowed by another great Catcher in the game. Absorbing the “shock” of Anderson’s statement must have been unusually difficult and no one should be surprised if, perhaps, he took the comment personally.
Additionally, no one should be surprised, or fault him, if Munson used this as “motivation” and helped to resolve his “grit” to an even deeper level of inner “will” and competitive determination. And, as we now retroactively review what took place in 1977 and 1978 it definitely can seem that he did indeed draw a special reserve of “encouragement” from those comments which were delivered on October 21, 1976 by a, then, two-time World Series Champion Manager.
So let’s take a moment to think about what did happen immediately thereafter. First, in 1977 Munson became the first Catcher since Bill Dickey in the 1930s to deliver a 3rd consecutive season with a .300 average and 100 RBIs. To this day, no other American League Catcher has duplicated that achievement, leaving Dickey and Munson alone as the last two Catchers in the past century to accomplish the feat in the American League! Second, as we’ll see in the next section, Munson delivered mastery with his pitching staff to achieve a very specific “never before and never since” milestone pairing Pitching and Catching excellence related to winning multiple Cy Young Awards. Third, as Captain of the New York Yankees, he led
his team to 4 consecutive postseason series victories, including two World Series Championships, against Hall of Fame
Managers: something which, as we outlined in great detail, no Hall of Fame Catcher has ever done. And finally, he
delivered the second and third acts in a resume of postseason productivity, both offensively and defensively, which we now know was not exceeded before and has not been matched since by any Catcher in baseball history.
Clearly, it is very possible that Sparky Anderson may have played a key role as “master motivator” at that critical moment in Thurman Munson’s life just before he embarked on a period of true and unduplicated historical greatness at the Catcher position. And, considering Anderson’s specific comment, it may be fair for us to say, now, in the light of subsequent history:
“Don’t embarrass any Hall of Fame Catcher by comparing their career postseason productivity,
both offensively and defensively, to that of Thurman Munson.”