Just over 40 years ago, the private airplane of New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson plowed into the ground after attempting to land. Munson was trapped in the burning wreckage – paralyzed and helpless – able only to mutter a few words before passing out. And the chilling phrase still haunts people to this day.
Munson was an experienced pilot, with more than 500 hours under his belt, although he was not yet accustomed to the jet in which he died. It was a new plane that he’d decked out in the blue of his team, the Yankees. On board with him, as he took off on that August afternoon, were David Hall, who’d taught him how to fly, and a buddy from his home town, Jeff Anderson.
However, what was intended as a pleasant summer jaunt – a few ups and downs to put his plane through its paces and practice his skills – ended with Munson stuck fast in his seat in a plane consumed by a raging fire. His friends could not do anything to save him but were sure, however, that Munson had ensured their survival. Anderson later told the New York Daily News, “He kept it under control and brought us down. He never panicked. He saved our lives.”
A native of Akron, Ohio, Munson was born into a blue-collar family. He grew up in Canton, not far from Akron, and learned baseball by playing with his older brother, Duane, and his buddies. At high school, Munson showed that he was an all-round sportsman, excelling in football and basketball as well.
Having mostly played as a shortstop, Munson shifted positions to become a catcher when a senior. His talents attracted the attention of scouts and he went to Kent State University on a scholarship. His success in the game continued there, in 1968 he was picked fourth in the MLB draft as well as being named catcher on that year’s College Baseball All-American Team
A stellar prospect already, Munson found himself in the big league in late 1969, starting for the Yankees. In 1970 he was named American League Rookie of the Year, and by then he’d established himself as essential to the Yankee’s success. Selected as team captain in 1976 – the same year he won the AL MVP – he’s still the only Yankee to have ever taken out both rookie and player awards.
Munson skippered the Yankees through a golden period, taking them into the World Series three times in a row, winning the title in 1977 and 1978. His personal performances saw him showered with awards as he excelled both at the plate and behind it. By 1979 he was well on the way to becoming a club legend.
In addition, the fans adored him – he fit just the picture of the scrappy battler they loved. He was short and stocky – nicknamed “Squatty Body” by the other Yankees – and he rocked a disheveled look. And he was no easy interview for the media either, never one to play up to the cameras.
However, for a city that likes its heroes big in spirit if not in stature, Munson was perfect. The Yankees had not had a captain since the legendary Lou Gehrig, but he filled The Iron Horse’s shoes admirably. Yankee beat journalist Moss Klein said, “There was never a player that I knew of, on the Yankees or on any other team, who was as respected as much as Munson was on the team.”
Klein, who wrote for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, said, “I always thought the phrase about being a ‘team leader’ was overdone, but in his case, it was true. The way he played, the way he acted, his toughness… he wasn’t afraid to say anything to anybody. Players gravitated around him. It was really remarkable to watch.”
Munson had won his position with a masterful performance on the field. In 1971 he had made only a single error in the whole season, when a batter knocked him out causing Munson to – understandably – drop the ball! It was uncomfortable to try to steal on Munson too, as he threw out nearly two-thirds of those who did try. In 1973 he snared a Gold Glove, which he then went on to claim in 1974 and 1975.
The seven-time All-Star did not just excel as a fielder. His slugging prowess saw him break .300 in three straight years, the first man to do that since Bill Dickey in the 1930s. His World Series rings in 1977 and 1978 made him only the second catcher in history to gain Rookie of the Year, MVP, Gold Glove and World Series in his career.
It’s fair to say Munson was top dog at the Bronx Zoo. He’d won everything and done everything, was afraid of no-one and was much loved by the fans. But he had started to tire of life at the top. After all, he was at heart a small-town boy, who still had a home back in Canton.
Yankees trainer Gene Monahan told a court in an action over Munson’s death all about the man, and his depiction did not sound like that of a coddled celebrity or a wild man. In his 1981 deposition, he said, “Thurman had a routine. “He used to come to the ballpark, have a couple of cookies and a glass of milk.”
To get away a bit from the pressure of top-level baseball for the nation’s biggest team, Munson had started flying. His idea was that he would go home to Canton on his days off from playing. On top of that, he could get a special kind of privacy – alone and high above the world in his plane.
Teammate, one-time enemy and, by the end of his life, good friend Reggie Jackson told the court that the catcher had grown tired of his job and missed time with his family. Munson had married Diana Dominick in 1968, and they had three children together, girls Tracy and Kelly and their son Michael.
During spring training of 1978, Munson had begun flying lessons. He rapidly became obsessed with it, spending hours soaking up all he could about flying, even as he waited to be called onto the pitch for a game. Jackson would later tell the court, “He was more interested in flying that goddamn plane than he was in playing baseball – to me.”
And the Yankees’ management had bowed before Munson’s demand to be permitted to fly between games. He piloted himself to each new city that the team played in. Jackson said, “He had a special deal with [franchise owner George] Steinbrenner. You know, Thurman was the most special Yankee when he was here. He could do anything he wanted to.”
By the summer of 1979, Munson had a year’s flying under his belt. He bought a Cessna Citation I/SP plane for his trips back home. It cost $1.2 million, and for that he had acquired a beast. It was a powerful, rapid jet that was far from usual for a novice flier. But he loved it, getting a blue pinstripe paint job and acquiring the registration number N15NY – echoing the number 15 that he wore on his jersey.
Former Yankees PR man Marty Appel, who would later write a biography of Munson, told Yahoo Sports that Munson had been informed that you’d normally get a pilot to fly this kind of plane. He said, “It’s a lot of airplane. It’s unforgiving. But Munson was a hardheaded guy, with total self-confidence that he could master anything.”
Team manager Billy Martin would tell the court of the worries that he’d felt over Munson’s flying. He’d considered that it was making the player drained. He said, “I just kept telling him, you know, ‘I don’t like to see you flying during the season.’” But, in fact, there was reason to believe that his health had improved because of flying.
That’s because Munson had quit using amphetamines. In the years before drug tests became common in baseball, players would use “greenies” to keep their energy up. His wife pointed out, “As a flier, he knew he could not take things into his body,’’ she testified. “So after he started flying, I never worried about greenies again.”
Several Yankees had been travelled with Munson on his flights, including coach Martin, Jackson and Graig Nettles. In fact, on one occasion when Nettles and Jackson were on one of Munson’s flights, a sudden noise caused a minor scare. The unexpected din caused the oxygen masks to be deployed, but Munson had been unmoved and had brought the plane down without a fuss.
So on August 2, 1979, Anderson and Hall had no worries about joining Munson when he bumped into them at the airport. They hadn’t planned to go with him, but when he asked them to come with him as he practiced some maneuvers, they happily agreed. Consequently, that afternoon, he taxied onto the runway with two passengers.
Munson was practicing touch-and-go landings, which are a part of learning how to fly a plane. In a touch-and-go landing, the pilot does not bring the plane to a full stop after touching down but continues on to take off again. It’s common to practice several in a row, and Munson had completed three and took off for the fourth.
As Munson came in to land for the final time, the tower asked him to go right not left, which was more taxing for a novice. Coming down, he went slightly astray and took too long to drop the landing gear. Then, when he should have opened the flaps to keep the plane up, he failed to, and the outcome was catastrophic. The plane plowed into a tree stump and crashed in flames.
At Munson’s inquest, the coroner reported that he had not been properly secured. He wrote, “At this point, Mr. Munson was thrown forward because he was wearing a safety belt but not his shoulder harness. So when he was thrown forward with force, he struck the instrument panel with his head and dislocated the cervical vertebrae.”
The catcher was left unable to move his body, paralyzed from the neck down. And the two passengers were not able to do anything to aid him. Hall and Anderson would ultimately survive the crash relatively unscathed – although both were burned, Hall on his hands and arms and Anderson on his neck, arm and face.
The injury that Munson sustained would, even had he survived the accident, have ended his sports career. He would likely have been left a quadriplegic. However, unable to move and stuck in his seat, in the end he succumbed to asphyxiation after breathing in blisteringly hot air and poisonous fumes.
Despite his horrific injury, Munson’s first thought after the crash was about the other people who were with him. He first asked Anderson and Hall whether they were okay. Then, as he noticed that the plane had started to burn, he gave a command to the men. He said, “Fire extinguisher.”
However, the dire situation was already way beyond being contained by a fire extinguisher, as the flames were beginning to rise, and time was running short. Munson gasped out his final words, which it must be imagined were heartbreaking for Hall. The catcher said, “Help me, Dave.” But there was little Hall or Anderson could do.
The two gave it every effort, desperately attempting to free Munson. But as the smoke began to thicken, they were left with no more options. They had to save their own lives from a fiery end and abandon Munson to his fate. Anderson and Hall consequently exited from the aircraft.
A National Transportation Safety Board inquiry found that Munson had been responsible for the crash. He had not realized that he had to increase speed to avoid stalling. On top of that, he had not taken the precaution of wearing the correct harness, which may have prevented the break in his neck. One witness at the civil trial suggested that Munson had been tired due to lack of sleep caused by pain in his knee.
Munson’s wife Diana sued Cessna for the way it had sold the plane to him, and she also took action against FlightSafety International for poorly training him. The case was settled very quickly, because FlightSafety International did not want to risk a trial. Lawyer James Wiles said to the New York Times in 2018, “You don’t go into northeast Ohio where he was probably the most famous athlete at the time, and go against his widow and kids.”
The death of their star player hit the Yankees hard. Nettles explained to the court how it had effected them. He said, “When Thurman got killed, you know, we just lost all — the whole season was just kind of lost. We just realized we couldn’t do it and, you know, it demoralized a lot of us.”
In the first home game after the accident, the Yankees entertained the Orioles at Yankee Stadium, and more than 50,000 came to pay their respects. Jackson was left helpless with tears in right field. He told the New York Post, “I played with a lot of good teammates, but only one guy I’d want in my foxhole. I’d want Thurman in my foxhole.”
Canton Civic Center was swamped on the day of Munson’s funeral, as thousands came to honor him. Close friend Bobby Murcer expressed his feelings about losing Munson. He said, “Thurman Munson wore the pinstripes as No.15. But in living, loving and legend, history will forever remember my friend as No.1.”
The team captain’s locker remained untouched in its spot in the Yankee Stadium’s home locker room, behind a plastic shield. Even the team’s next captain, Derek Jeter, didn’t use it, picking instead the neighboring locker. When the team shifted to a new home, the locker was taken along. It was placed into the team’s museum, where it can be found today.
In other ways, Munson has not been forgotten, even as the years pass. His name adorns awards given to business leaders and athletes, presented by an organization that helps those with disabilities both in development and intellect. And his number, 15, hangs high in left centerfield. No Yankee will ever wear it again.
New York Post pundit Mike Vaccaro summed up the feelings of New Yorkers when reminiscing about hearing the news in the first place, and the feelings that it still provokes. He said, “I remember turning on the TV and hearing Warner Wolf confirm what Kevin told me. I remember the disbelief, the anguish, the grief. Of course I do. Because if you’re old enough, so do you. You remember. You will always remember.”