One of my all-time favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read is actually a what-if line included in Dave Marsh’s terrific book The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Every Made. The line is “the plane stayed in the air” as it refers to the doomed aircraft Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Richie Valens were traveling on in a snowy February night in 1959. For sports fans there have been many times we wished the plane had stayed in the air. Among those times are Tommy Gastall’s flight in 1956, Ken Hubbs in a snowy Utah night in 1964, middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan in 1949 and Wendell Ladner, the ABA star, in a tragic 1975 plane crash caused by a wind shear. That accident led to safety improvements at over 100 airports over the next decade.
However, to Yankees fans of a certain age, no plane crash stands out more than the one that took the life of Thurman Munson on August 2, 1979. For those who remember Munson, just about all of us can recall where we were and what we were doing when we heard about the accident.
The day he died was an off-day for the Yankees. Munson, who was a pilot learning how to fly a small jet he’d recently bought, was practicing take-offs and landings at the Akron-Canton Airport, near his home. He crashed short of the runway, hitting a tree stump and a fire broke out. His flight instructor and another man with them were able to escape, but they couldn’t extract Munson in time. He had suffered a broken neck, was trapped inside the jet and perished in the crash. The cause of death was listed as asphyxiation from the thick, toxic smoke.
Since these were the days before cell phones and our always-connected society, some players did take some time to hear about the accident. Fans had always heard about Munson’s gruff nature and some experienced it but most loved him as a player because of his competitive nature and leadership. Ironically, just a couple of days before the fatal crash he said, “I just want the fans to remember me as I was, stretching a single into a double.”
A couple of special tributes came to Munson within the week. The first was when the Yankees played their next game at Yankee Stadium on August 3. The catcher’s box was left open while the team took the field and the fans stood and cheered in Munson’s memory. He had been the first Yankees captain since Lou Gehrig nearly four decades earlier.
The following Monday there was a memorial service for Munson back in Ohio which all his teammates attended. After that emotional event, the team had to fly back to New York to play the first place (and eventual pennant winning Baltimore Orioles) on an ABC Monday Night game. This is a rare game from the late 1970’s where complete footage exists and is memorable because Bobby Murcer drove in all five runs in a game in which the Yankees were down 4-0.
His teammates were still affected years after his passing. Jerry Narron later became Rangers manager and I asked him at a SABR meeting if he could tell us how he felt having to be the catcher on the first game after Munson’s passing. That was nearly a quarter century after the crash and Narron was still devastated about the whole situation. That indicated to me how beloved Munson was in the Yankees clubhouse. I’m sure even today if you ask any of Munson’s teammates you will get the same reaction to him as a fellow teammate and clubhouse mate.
Munson’s final regular issue Topps and O-Pee-Chee cards had been printed that winter but just a few days before his passing, the 1979 Burger King Yankees set had been issued. As it had done in recent years, the restaurant chain had teamed with Topps for a set of cards that were handed out at its New York area restaurants.
It’s possible but not very likely that any signed Munson cards from that set exist. Munson was notoriously a tough signer and few would have thought of trying to have him sign a Burger King card instead of the regular issue. However, there were several months the 1979 Topps set was out and there are signed cards (albeit not many) which are available.
Both cards are cheap in ungraded form, costing less than $5 each, even without condition issues. A mint, graded ’79 Topps Munson is usually priced around $40; an ‘8’ can be had for around $15. An unopened pack of BK Yankees featuring Munson on top, is being offered on eBay right now for $70 but a full set of the 1979 Burger King Yankees, unsigned of course, is less than $7. See them all here.