Monday, February 27, 2012

#340 - Thurman Munson

We get back to the regular cards with a perennial All-Star and a personal favorite in Thurm here. This may be the first of Munson's cards with his signature mustache - his '73 one had him in an action profile shot so it was hard to tell. Thurm was an easy guy to love if you were a Yankee fan with his clutch hitting and irascible nature. He was probably an easier opponent to hate with his clutch hitting and irascible nature. He was a pain in the butt at the plate when his adjustments of his body and uniform between each swing seemed to single-handedly add about 20 minutes to each game. And he was not exactly a fun guy for the media: if they paid attention to him he'd feel crowded; if they left him alone, he'd pout because he felt ignored. But you had to love his confidence: when asked he said that if he and Carlton Fisk were on the same team, "Fisk had better learn a new position." No surprise they got in all those fights. '73 was a pretty good season for Munson though. Even though he probably got the worst of that year's brawl with Fisk, he turned his offense up a notch, hitting above .300 with his first real power: 20 homers and 74 RBI's. He was an All-Star and Topps gave him a "10" card. It was a good preview year of what was to come. Here he poses with something resembling a smile in Florida during spring training as his teammates behind him do an admirable job of not sliding right off what appears to be a very tilted field.

Thurman Munson was born and raised in and around Canton, Ohio, the site of the NFL Hall of Fame. Fittingly he played football, as well as basketball and baseball in high school where he was all-state in all three sports. Upon graduating in '65 he was an understandably hot property and he opted to go to close by Kent State on a baseball scholarship. When he went to college he continued to play shortstop, his high school position, and after playing local ball his first summer in '67 he went to play in the Cape Cod League where he won the batting title with a .420 average. It was there that a Yankee scout spotted him and wanted to sign him on the spot. But back then there was a rule that any college player that was under 21 and had already put in two years of college ball couldn't sign with a pro team until he turned 21. So Thurm returned to Kent State and by the spring had gained 20 pounds - to about 195 - and his coach had him play catcher. After he turned 21 that June the Yankees made him their first rounder and gave him a $75,000 bonus. He hit the ground running, posting a .301 average the rest of the summer in Double A ball. He then missed the first part of the '69 season to finish up his Army hitch. When he returned in July he put up a .363 average with a .435 OBA in 28 games. That August he was called up to the Yankees.

When Munson showed up in NY the team's two catchers were Jake Gibbs, a former college football star, and Frank Fernandez, who was a rookie the prior season. Both were pretty good behind the plate but they had light averages and only Fernandez had any real power. Munson moved pretty seamlessly into the grid, impressing everyone with his ability to take control of the game and his confidence at the plate. He also picked off more than half the runners who tried to steal on him despite his unorthodox three-quarter throwing motion. When he returned in '70 he got off to a one for thirty start at the plate. But manager Ralph Houk kept him in as the starter and Thurm hit .316 the rest of the way to be the first AL catcher to win Rookie of the Year. Then in '71 he experienced an offensive slowdown as his average slid 50 points in part due to an injury that affected his hand-eye for a while. That injury was caused by a play while catching in which Thurm was steamrolled by Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren and was knocked unconscious, dropping the ball. It was the only error Munson had all season and his defense that year shone as he nailed 61% of would-be base stealers to lead the AL. He also got his first All-Star pick that year. In '72 the average bounced back by 30 points and in '73, on top of what was listed above, he won his first of three consecutive Gold Gloves at catcher.

Munson suffered a hand injury late in '74 spring training that impacted both his ability to hit - he couldn't really closed his right hand around the bat - and to throw out guys, resulting in a career-worse in the latter category of 35%. That year he hit .261 with 13 homers and 60 RBI's while posting a .316 OBA, the worst of his career. But he came back strong in '75, hitting .318 to finish third in the AL, getting over 100 RBI's for the first time, and throwing out over 50% of potential base stealers to lead both leagues. In '76 he led the Yankees with his MVP season - .302 with 17 homers and 105 RBI's - to their first post-season since '64. And he didn't slow down in the playoffs, hitting .435 against Kansas City before putting up a .529 in the Series sweep by Cincinnati. In '77 he posted his last of the three successive .300 and 100 ribbie seasons. Again he put up strong post-season numbers and while he had to put up with you-know-who in the end he got his first ring. In '78 knee and shoulder ailments brought a painful season and his power numbers slid as he put in a significant uptick in games in the outfield and at DH. But he still hit .297 and had eight ribbies in the Series to win his second consecutive ring.

In '79 the Yankees really couldn't get it going, starting off in a hole again as they did in '78 but with no miracle rally coming. Munson began more openly agitating for being traded closer to home and he had begun taking flying lessons and bought a small Cessna so he could basically start commuting back to Ohio. In early August he was practicing take-offs and landings back near Canton when on one landing attempt he came down too steeply, nicked a treetop, and crashed into a huge tree stump. Thurm's neck was broken on impact and he died of smoke inhalation in the ensuing fire. He was 32 years old. Thurm finished with a .292 average, 113 homers, and 701 RBI's. He also has some nice rankings in lifetime defensive stats. In the post-season he did super, with a .357 average, three homers, and 22 RBI's in 30 games.

Thurm has lots of good star bullet potential and most of those chosen are pretty good. He also made the All-Star team every season from '73 to '78. Other nicknames of his were Pigpen and Tugboat.

There were always lots of stories about Thurm and his gruff nature but a favorite one is a much sweeter one. Early in the '76 season Tiger Ron Leflore took a 30-game hitting streak into Yankee Stadium. Late in the game he was 0 for 3 and the score was 9-5 Yanks so the game wasn't really on the line. Thurm knew that Ron liked them high and in so in his last at bat he told Leflore to expect the pitches there, trying to help him extend his streak. Ron didn't believe him and took the first two pitches for strikes. Thurm jogged out to the mound and told pitcher Tippy Martinez - it was before that year's big trade with Baltimore - to lay it in high and inside. This time Leflore finally got wise and swung but he missed the pitch and his hitting streak ended.

No significant music news so let's get the degrees of separation exercise going again. We link up Thurm to the last regular player card subject, Juan Marichal:

1. Munson and Jim Ray Hart '73 Yankees;
2. Hart and Juan Marichal '63 to '72 Giants.

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