Monday, August 2, 2010

August 2, 1979: The Captain

***UPDATE*** This moment has been replaced. See the new entry here. ***

GREEN, Ohio - He was the heart and soul of the Yankees of the 1970s. He was the first Yankees captain since Lou Gehrig, and he wore that honor with pride, showing exemplary leadership on and off the field.

The Yankees of Steinbrenner and Jackson and Martin were often a circus, a sideshow of he-said she-said intrigue that often featured physical confrontations, but Thurman Munson remained respected despite his association with that team. Sure, he'd take part in his share of fights, but his words and actions always carried more weight than those of most of his other teammates'.

The Yankees played in three World Series in the 70s, winning two of them, and while free-agent stars like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter got a lot of the publicity and credit, Munson may have had more to do with their success than anybody else. He shined offensively, as shown by his 7 all-star game appearances and the fact that he's the only Yankee to win both the Rookie of the Year and the MVP awards. But he was also superb defensively, throwing out runners at nearly a 50 percent clip throughout his career; in 1971, he made only one error as a catcher, and that came on a play where he dropped the ball after being knocked unconscious.

In 1979, though, the Yankees and Munson started slipping. The three-time defending AL champions were languishing in 4th place, the tension of the previous three years finally starting to wear on them. Munson, too, was struggling, with his power noticeably missing. He seemed to be homesick, and was seriously contemplating either requesting a trade to his hometown Indians or retiring altogether.

To help with the homesickness, Munson bought a plane and started taking pilot's lessons, with the idea that he could go home on off days more often if he could fly. August 2, 1979, was such an off day, and he spent part of it practicing takeoffs and landings at Akron-Canton Regional Airport. On the third takeoff, Munson's plane was too low, clipping a tree at the end of the runway. It crashed, bursting into flames. His flight instructor and a friend both escaped the plane without serious injuries, but Munson was trapped.

His death sent a shockwave through the Yankees and all of baseball. The Yankees had an on-field memorial service before their next game, with the all the Yankees starters taking the field save for the catcher, whose spot remained empty until moments before the game began. The fans gave their captain an 8-minute standing ovation; Reggie Jackson spent most of his time in the Bronx openly feuding with Munson, but at the memorial, he was moved to tears.

The Yankees retired Munson's number 15 and gave him a plaque in Monument Park. They left his locker untouched, covered in glass, until the day the original Yankee Stadium closed; current captain Derek Jeter kept a locker next to Munson's his entire career. As time has passed, players like Hunter and Jackson and characters like Martin and Steinbrenner have become associated with the Yankees of the 70s. But perhaps nobody epitomized the Yankee Way during those turbulent times as Thurman Munson.

August 2, 1992: BARCELONA - Named the best female athlete of the 20th Century, Jackie Joyner-Kersee had her share of highlights in the track and field world. At the 1992 Olympics, she solidified her standing as one of the greatest track stars regardless of gender, winning gold in the heptathlon for the second straight Olympics after having won silver in 1984. In Barcelona, Joyner-Kersee never trailed in the heptathlon, leading from the first event. She added a bronze medal in the long jump for good measure.

No comments:

Post a Comment