1968 Draft Spotlight: Thurman Munson

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Thurman Munson was the first college player drafted in 1968. He was the best talent to emerge from his class and became the heart and soul of New York Yankees teams that captured back-to-back World Series titles in 1977-78. His place in the Hall of Fame seemed assured, but for the plane crash that snuffed out his life in the prime of his career.

As a high school graduate in 1965, Munson wasn’t drafted—or even scouted. That was because he never caught at Lehman High in Canton, Ohio, until his senior year, and even then only sparingly.

“That year, we had a pitcher who threw so hard that no one else could catch him,” Munson said. “I volunteered to catch him although I had never caught before. I caught him five or six times and that was all my high school catching. Look, I just loved baseball so much that I would play anywhere. I didn’t care.”

Munson was primarily a shortstop. He was pursued by multiple colleges for his football skills, but just three offered him a scholarship to play baseball. Yet he committed to that sport and made huge strides in college at Kent State while transitioning to catcher.

Still, he had something to prove in the summer of 1967, following his sophomore year, when he agreed to play in the Cape Cod League. Munson showed his skills behind the plate and led the Cape with a .420 batting average. Scouts praised him for his defensive prowess, especially his quick release. He picked a man off base in nine straight games,
“That’s where scouts really saw me,” Munson said. “I really had some kind of year there.”

Veteran scout Harry Hesse had alerted the Yankees, and they had scout Gene Woodling, an ex-big leaguer, follow his every move as a junior at Kent State. Munson responded by hitting a career-best .413 with three homers and 30 RBIs in 25 games.

The Yankees jumped on Munson with the fourth pick overall, though there was debate until the night before the draft whether to take Munson or Illinois prep slugger Greg Luzinski. Yankees manager Ralph Houk swung the vote to Munson by expressing his preference for the player who would help the team the soonest. Naturally, that was Munson.

“He was our first choice all the way,” said Yankees farm director Johnny Johnson. “He can play in a high classification right now.”

Munson signed for a $45,000 bonus, broke in at Double-A Binghamton and hit .301. He would have won the Eastern League batting title if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. After missing most of the 1969 season while on military duty, Munson was in the big leagues to stay by September, after playing fewer than 100 games in the minors.

He was the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1970, and soon became the centerpiece of a Yankees team that would make consecutive World Series appearances from 1976-78. On Aug. 2, 1979, at 32, Munson died in the crash of his private plane.

Over his 11-year career with the Yankees, he hit .292 with 113 home runs. He was a seven-time all-star, a three-time Gold Glover and the AL. MVP in 1976. Munson remains part of Yankee lore. In the clubhouse at old Yankee Stadium, his corner locker was left with only an empty chair, a mirror, and above, a small plate with his retired No. 15.

“That locker symbolizes Thurman and is there for memory,” said former teammate Bobby Murcer, who spoke at the funeral. “Thurman is there and always will be.”

On the surface, Munson was gruff and temperamental. He assailed writers trying to interview him, accusing them of misrepresenting his views. He rarely smiled. He avoided signing autographs or displaying emotion. To those who knew him best, though, Munson was a tough competitor who often played hurt. He was the consummate family man, a model parent who was generous with his time and money. At every opportunity, he flew home to Canton to spend time with his wife and three children. He was at home, flying his private plane that fateful day when he crashed attempting a landing.

“In a real tough situation, it was not Reggie (Jackson) you feared most, it was Thurman,” said Steve Stone, a college teammate. “Thurman would always find a way to get the runner home. Whether it was with the arm or the bat, he found a way to beat you.

“This was a guy who absolutely detested losing. He always gave everything he had and for that he was appreciated by teammates and even opponents.”

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