The Day the Yankees Lost Their Captain


Most baseball fans over 40, especially Yankee fans, can still remember where they were on Thursday, August, 2, 1979, when they heard the news.

That was the day Yankee captain and catcher Thurman Munson perished in a fiery plane crash in Canton, Ohio, while practicing take-offs and landings in his new Cessna Citation jet.

Thirty years ago, I was a sports columnist and assistant city editor at the Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel & Enterprise in north central Massachusetts. The newspaper’s softball team, the Deadliners, was in the midst of a close game against one of the best teams in the league when we heard about Munson.

The stunned ‘Liners rallied that day to win in walk-off fashion. Over beers after the game at a local tavern, we dedicated our victory to Thurman Munson.

I recently finished reading Marty Appel’s book “Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee captain.” Appel, at one-time the Yankees PR director, co-authored Munson’s best-selling autobiography in 1978.

MVP in 1976
The follow-up book details Munson’s baseball exploits to be sure, including his MVP  season of 1976, his volatile relationship with Reggie Jackson, and the Yankees back-to-back championships in 1977 and 1978. Munson hit in 28 of the 30 post-season games he played over those three seasons, and batted .357. He was tough and he was clutch

But more important, Appel’s book it paints a picture of Munson the man from those who knew him best — his family, his friends and his teammates.

Appel chronicles the last days of Thurman Munson’s life, including the plane crash that led to his untimely passing at the age of 32.

Munson’s closest friends on the team, Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer, delivered eulogies to their fallen comrade at Munson’s funeral in Canton. In his eulogy, Murcer quoted Angelo Patri, a noted American educator,  author and philosopher and my great uncle.

In Murcer’s words:

I quote these words of Angelo Patri that to me, reflect Thurman so well:
“The life of a soul on earth lasts beyond departure.
You will always feel that life touching yours.
The voice, speaking to you, talking to you in the familiar things he touched, worked with, loved as familiar friends.
He lives on in your life and in the lives of all others that knew him”
And live he did…He lived…He led…He loved. Whatever he was to each one of us….catcher,….captain….competitor…husband….father….friend….He should be remembered as a man who valued and followed the basic principles of life.

The Yankees were exhausted the day they buried their captain. The had flown from New York to Ohio for the funeral early that morning, then flown back home from a Monday night baseball game with the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

That night, Murcer insisted that manager Billy Martin lput him in the lineup. He went on to drive home all five runs as the Yankees came back from a 4-0 deficit to beat Baltimore, 5-4.

Murcer gave the bat he used that night to Diana Munson, Thurman’s widow. He never used it again.


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