Extra Innings: Thurman Munson’s Most Enduring and Unique Contribution to Baseball
As we consider the full scope of Thurman Munson’s career, it seems that his strongest and most unique contribution to the game is that of a Catcher who significantly elevated his performance in the postseason over a comparatively large number of games. Clearly there are unique demands on those who play Catcher from a physical endurance perspective, especially
as the season moves into September and ultimately into October. It should not be surprising that the offensive productivity even of Hall of Fame Catchers has historically fallen off as they moved into these critical games.
And beyond just the physical demands of the position, certainly there is significant additional detail work and study with their coaches in preparing to call pitches against batters they haven’t seen as frequently. Much of their focus would also correctly need to be on learning the base-running tendencies of their opponents and developing general base-protecting strategies against teams they haven’t seen as frequently. So when we have an example of a Catcher who has met these challenges and delivered his most astounding batting and defensive performance in these most critical games of the season, and over multiple postseasons, it is worth special consideration.
While Munson’s postseason excellence may not have seemed so unusual at the time of his death, history has revealed that he indeed did something on both sides of the ball in the postseason that was not duplicated before and has not been exceeded since. With Munson’s career being cut short by tragedy, it seems entirely appropriate to consider these extra games in the most crucial situations to be part of his Hall of Fame resume.
It is true that Howard Cosell’s statement “he was the best there was at what he did” on the night of Thurman’s funeral can seem like an announcer being caught up in the tragedy and emotion of the moment. But in light of subsequent history, it is still true to say that Thurman Munson, when giving comprehensive consideration to the full scope of his accomplishments, did in fact do something which no other Catcher has ever done.
One of Munson’s most enduring images… this photo was taken on July 16th, 1970.
It is the first live-action in-game photo ever featured on a baseball card – the famous 1971 Topps #5.
The player sliding into home, Chuck Dobson, was the A’s winning pitcher in the game and was SAFE at the plate! Next up was Reggie Jackson who hit a 2 run single. It was one of the very few times Munson gave up 5 runs in an inning! The photo was taken by Yankees team photographer Michael Grossbardt.
Thurman Munson – Hall of Fame Catcher!
Even in the glorious history of the Yankees franchise, Thurman Munson is still the only Yankee ever to win both a Rookie of the Year Award and then go on to win a Most Valuable Player trophy during his career. In the spring of 1976, when George Steinbrenner made him the first Yankees Captain since Lou Gehrig, Thurman grudgingly agreed but then went on to win his MVP that same year and then take his team to the World Series for the first time since the early 1960s, ultimately winning the championship in the following two seasons.
Thurman’s story is the very definition of excellence, of rising to the occasion as the leader of his team, then helping his team to endure the often tumultuous “Bronx Zoo” years, while still grasping for and attaining the ring! It is a memory, and a story, which deserves to be more fully considered and honored within the rich history of the game.
Thurman Munson’s 10 years of consistent regular season mastery (1970 – 1979), from a WAR perspective, has been matched only by 6 men in history – every one of them a Hall of Fame Catcher. His postseason dominance, both offensively (RBIs) and defensively (CS), over a comparatively large number of October games at the Catcher position is unsurpassed. His leadership in anchoring the return of the Yankees to greatness, in the midst of great turmoil, is legendary.
Yet despite Munson’s great accomplishments in the 1970s it is also very fair to say that he was always hidden in the shadows of other great men. In their one face to face competitive battle on the same field, Johnny Bench decisively emerged victorious and standing tall as the iconic Catcher of the decade. Then in the moment of Munson’s most glorious achievement as Captain of the New York Yankees in winning their first World Championship in 15 years in 1977, he was overshadowed by the all-time historically significant sequence of home runs that Reggie Jackson delivered in Game 6 when he forever earned the title Mr. October, a name which Munson himself had bestowed upon Jackson, in jest, 4 days earlier! And, in the history of baseball’s most decorated franchise Munson didn’t seem quite as “heroic” or “larger than life” compared to the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, or Joe DiMaggio. And baseball writers certainly weren’t enthusiastic about adding yet another Yankees Catcher to the Hall of Fame in addition to the two that were already within the membership.
But, it is now very nearly 50 years since Munson was drafted 4th by the Yankees in the Spring of 1968. It is time for baseball to honor both the demonstrated greatness of the man and the difficulty of sustaining and then elevating phenomenal performance at the Catcher position into the latest games of the season. The Hall of Fame is incomplete without including such a bold and consistent example of excellence in postseason play within its membership at the Catcher position.
Think about it this way: there have been five MLB Catchers inducted into the Hall of Fame whose careers came during or after Thurman Munson and they, collectively, played 97 years and won exactly three postseason series against Hall of Fame Managers in that near-century of time.
Yet Thurman Munson, as the Captain of the Yankees in leading his team back to greatness managed to win five such postseason series in a decade, while delivering his own “Mr. October” record at the Catcher position which has definitively gone unsurpassed in history. His is a record of astonishing concentrated greatness which deserves to be remembered and celebrated – not forgotten.
Thurman Munson’s career of unique achievements has been there all along – hiding in plain sight – as perhaps the most impressive comprehensive decade of work ever delivered by a major league Catcher in the history of baseball.
Let’s finally take his record, and our memory of the man, out of the shadows and recognize him for what he delivered.
A decade of unmatched excellence. The time has come. He did enough.