By Rich Klein
When I was growing up my two favorite teams were the Houston Astros in the National League, and the New York Yankees in the American League. Let’s face it, you can’t really root for both New York teams unless you like the flip-flop between your allegiances. In my generation, my three favorite players growing up were Jim Wynn and Cesar Cedeno of the Astros, and Thurman Munson of the Yankees. All three of the players had some interesting life stories, but sadly one of them would not even live until the 1980’s. When Thurman Munson’s plane crashed on August 2, 1979 that truly was one of the saddest days of my young life. When you really know a player more for what they do on the field than with any off-field characteristics, it’s easier to admire what they were.
Munson was drafted as the fourth overall amateur draft pick in 1968, and while the scouting in the 1960’s was not as sophisticated as 50 years later, Munson was a wise selection as he was in the majors barely a year later. In fact, he was such as good prospect that Topps placed him on one of those two-player Rookie Stars cards early in 1970 set:
Sy Berger always claimed that Topps had a better idea than most people about whom teams would keep in the majors, and in this case they batted .500 as Munsion had his fine career, but Dave McDonald would never play with the Yankees again and make a cameo with the 1971 Montreal Expos to conclude his major league career.
It’s really not a bad card, but his second year card, now that’s an even better card! His 1971 card, because of the black borders, is even harder to get in great condition than the 1970 rookie stars card. The 1971 card is even more significant because technically this is the first action photo ever on a base Topps card. Yes, we can consider card #5 the first action card in any Topps set EVER.
Because Topps was based out of New York, many of their photographers were also based out of the Metropolitan area. You can see the backgrounds of either Yankee or Shea Stadium on many of the photos, and in 1971 you can see lots of action photos featuring players from those two team. Here is an example of Munson on the background of a couple of cards:
Vada Pinson was a great player in the 1960’s and was still a very good player in the early 1970’s, which is why he also earned an action photo in the set. Notice the player prone wearing #15. Yep, that’s Thurman!
A couple of years later Terry Crowley‘s card has Munson featured as well:
Munson is featured just as actively as Crowley is on his own card. There are other cool background players on 1970’s action cards. Especially in basketball where you will see Hall of Famers from other teams on many cards. But for our purposes, we’ll just stick to Munson. Recognize the player Johnny Bench is going to tag out in this 1977 World Series card? Yep, Thurm is making another guest appearance:
Munson’s career continued to thrive and in 1976 he won the American League Most Valuable Player award. His 1976 cards have always been among my favorite cards. But if you notice both the Topps and SSPC card feature Munson with a full beard. One team rule New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had was no beards, and these cards help to show Munson’s independent streak over the facial hair issue:
I always wonder if the photo on his 1976 Hostess card was taken as part of the same photo shoot as the Topps card:
As I mentioned in an earlier column, within a few short years Munson would perish in a plane crash, and the last card issued whilst he was living was the 1979 Burger King Yankees set. I believe it is possible to have a signed card, but I have never seen a signed 1979 Burger King card in the past 40 years. Munson was not the easiest person in giving out autographs to fans, yet in a fascinating conundrum, most Yankee team signed balls have legit Munson signatures and not what are called “Clubhouse” signatures.
And if you really want to really know why Thurman was so beloved: Munson had not hit a homer in months. His power was sapped from the 1975-77 era. He was hurting all over. But in this 1978 playoff game, with his body aching from those hard catching years, and in the pressure packed 1978 American League Championship Series, he hit what was probably the longest homer of his career.
And the night after his plane crash, the Yankees still had a game the next day, and if you want to cry go right ahead: I once asked Jerry Narron, who started as catcher that day, about what it was like trying to catch that game, and he stated that it was the hardest game he ever had to play in.
Would Thurman had made the Hall of Fame? My instinct says his career would have wound down before getting the career stats, but in our memories he was the straw that stirred the drink for the 1970’s Yankees.