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Card Corner--Thurman Lee Munson
2008-02-29 11:44
by Bruce Markusen
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.
 

This is the first in a two-part series:

As Jorge Posada enters the beginning of what is assuredly his last major league contract, we will likely hear discussion of his ability to produce at an advanced age and various arguments concerning his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. Along the way, we will hear continued comparisons to Thurman Munson, the last great catcher the Yankees featured before Posada’s emergence. The Sabermetrically inclined have already chosen Posada, based on his power, his ability to draw walks, and his longevity. When looking at something as cut and dried as OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), there is indeed little argument that Posada has been superior to Munson.

Having seen both Munson and Posada play, I cannot say that I agree with that assessment. Of course, basing the argument on statistics like on-base percentage and slugging, I'm going to lose the debate. Yet, I do think that there a few players by which statistics don't come close to giving us a complete and accurate picture of their abilities. Munson, I believe, is one of those rare players.

Munson (as seen in this 1978 Topps card, No. 60) was not the kind of player who fared well in any OPS debate. He didn’t draw enough walks, preferring a more aggressive style at the plate, predicated on swinging early in the count and putting the ball into play. Furthermore, he was not a slugger; he was a line-drive hitter who used the outfield gaps to his advantage. He did have a little bit of power, but that was usually negated by the Death Valley dimensions of Yankee Stadium in the 1970s. By a conservative estimate, Munson probably lost three to five home runs a season because of the ridiculous lengths to the left-center and center field walls at the Stadium. Unlike Dave Winfield, Munson didn’t have much influence in bringing those fences in to a more reasonable distance.

While Munson fell short in power and patience at the plate, he bettered Posada in every other aspect of the game. (I really don’t mean this as a detraction of Posada, who has been a terrific Yankee, but more as a favorable portrayal of Munson.) Those not old enough to have seen Munson play missed out on a special day-to-day performer.

As a hitter, Munson covered both the inside and outside of the strike zone, spraying hits from corner to corner. That helped him bat .300 or better five times, on his way to a lifetime batting average of .292. With his ability to take pitches to right field, he became a master at executing the hit-and-run, as good as anyone I've watched over the last 35 years. His hit-and-run prowess hallmarked his overall excellence as a situational hitter; adept at moving runners up with either a sacrifice bunt, a ground ball to the right side, or a deep fly ball, Munson became a managerial favorite, especially to an appreciative (and demanding) Billy Martin.

Munson was also an exceptional baserunner. Though he only had slightly above-average speed, he ran the bases with a kind of aggression rarely seen in catchers, regularly going from first to third and taking the extra base against weaker arms. All in all, Munson was a very good offensive player—not great, due to his lack of home run power, but a productive and important contributor to the Yankees’ mini-dynasty of the late seventies. Heck, he won the American League MVP in 1976, buttressed by seventh-place finishes in 1975 and 1977. Yet, it was on the defensive side of the field that Munson excelled to the point of brilliance. With a catlike middle-infield quickness that belied his infamous "Squatty Body" nickname, Munson blocked pitches, fielded bunts, and chased pop-ups with a mix of ferocity and swiftness. Pitchers loved to throw to him, in part because Munson called a game effortlessly, with an uncanny ability to put himself in synch with his pitcher’s preferences. Munson adapted well to each pitcher; in conversations on the mound and in the dugout, he treated some pitchers with a firm hand, others with a dose of humor, and still others with a more fatherly, sensitive approach. Given the ease with which he adjusted to each pitcher’s personality, it’s not surprising that he became the Yankees’ captain—their first since Lou Gehrig.

And then there was his throwing, which was a spectacle in and of itself. Due to a shoulder injury, Munson adopted a slinging sidearm style that no coach would ever teach a young catcher. By throwing from the side (and sometimes even lower), Munson managed a quicker release of the ball. Although wholly unorthodox, Munson’s sidearm slings became deadly accurate, as he tailed his throws just to the right of the second base bag.

By now, it’s become plainly obvious that I’ve used very few statistics in my praise of Munson. Let's get to those. There was the high batting average, the three straight 100-RBI seasons from 1975 to ’77, the lusty .357 batting mark in six postseason series, the incredible number of games he caught during his peak years, and that’s about it. Most statistics don’t tell us much about the subtle skills—the defense, the baserunning, the situational hitting—that set Munson apart from American League catchers who weren’t named Carlton Fisk. If you saw Munson play, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you didn’t see him play, perhaps now you’ll have a little better understanding as to just how valuable Munson was to the Yankees of his era. In the next "Card Corner," I’ll discuss what it was like to attend the Yankees’ first game after Munson’s death.

 

Bruce Markusen, the author of Cooperstown Confidential for MLB.com, has written seven books on baseball. He can be reached via e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

Comments
2008-02-29 12:20:09
1.   JL25and3
I was in Israel when Munson died, and I don't remember any games from that fall - but strange as it sounds, I have a clear memory of him from Opening Day, 1980.

Cerone was catching, of course, and at some point during the game the pitcher shook him off. Nothing to that, a thoroughly ordinary and inconsequential action, except that I'd been watching Munson for a decade - and Munson hated having pitchers shake him off. When I saw the pitcher shake his head, a vivid and familiar picture - an expectation, really - hit me instantly, and right in the gut: Munson coming out from behind the plate, taking a couple of steps towards the mound, glaring and growling at the pitcher.

I think that was the moment when I mourned him, and missed him, most intensely.

2008-02-29 12:41:45
2.   Sliced Bread
Great write up, Bruce, and I love that particular '78 card. Not enough people talk about his arm.
I was cutting the lawn when I heard Thurman died. I remember where I was standing. My dad came out and broke the news. Hot, muggy evening. Pop looked like he was gonna cry. Later, I broke the news to some friends who had gathered after dinner to play soccer. We didn't play more than a few minutes before somebody suggested we bag it. We were too bummed out.

I think Munson belongs in the Hall, and would surely be there if he didn't play in the Johnny Bench era with Fisk, Carter, Simmons, Tenace, Sanguillen... all these guys who could hit and play the position so well. Still, he was absolutely an elite player.

He had over 5,000 at-bats. That should be enough for serious Hall consideration.
Whatever.

2008-02-29 12:49:31
3.   JL25and3
However, some of my memories are a little different from yours.

Here's how I remember his throwing. When he was able to set and throw overhand, he was dead-on balls accurate. When he had to rush, his arm would drop down a bit, three-quarters sidearm, and he'd throw this absolutely phenomenal breaking pitch, a thing of beauty that seemed to break a foot and a half towards - and often into - right field.

It's very possible that I formed that impression earlier in his career, and kept it even when he improved later. His error totals in the Shea years are awful.

I can't tell you how much it meant to me when he came up, and I'm sure OYF and horace-clarke-era will concur. His arrival seemed like the first really hopeful sign for the future - we had an up-and-coming star who could anchor the team, and it seemed like respectability would be possible.

However, Munson's career is a little deceptive because it had no tail. 1979 was almost certainly going to be his last year as a catcher and as a Yankees. His power had also completely vanished; for the last couple of years he was basically a slow singles hitter who didn't take walks.

2008-02-29 13:55:11
4.   markp
I agree with JL-by '79 Munson's value had greatly diminished. He was nowhere nearly as athletic as he had been as late as 1977, costing him a lot of his defense. His offense was also pretty much gone by then, too.
He was probably my favorite Yankee of that era, but it was obvious he wasn't helping them win baseball games very much any more.
My favorite Munson story is when Goose was on another team and hit him with a pitch. Of course, he didn't acknowledge getting hit. After the game Goose got a scrawled message from him saying he'd taken Goose's best shot and didn't even rub it. He signed it 'the white gorila' (his spelling).
2008-02-29 14:15:32
5.   horace-clarke-era
Ah, nostalgia revisited. JL is entirely right ... Thurman's emergence coincided with the Yankees slow exiting of a long dark tunnel (um, the Horace-Clarke-Era ... should be a nickname here!). I think some of our passion for him (I hated Fisk inordinately for being - dammitall - just a bit better) links to that, to his anchoring the great, brawling winners of the mid-late-70's. And then of course to his dying. A terrible memory.

I don't think there's any real way to make a Hall of Fame niche out of his career, but I also don't think that the most memorable, admired, loved players NEED to necessarily be the HoFamers.

Mickey Rivers, for example, with his walking-on-coals, old-man's approach to the batter's box, and his rocket-fueled progress around the bases... who CAN'T love to remember him, if they saw the man in those years?

2008-02-29 19:06:19
6.   OldYanksFan
"If you saw Munson play, you know exactly what I'm talking about"
Yeah Bruce, I do. Nice write up. I'm not sure I would call Munson great. Yet, he was much better then he looked. He was as graceful as a bulldog and as delicate as a steel I beam.

On offense, Thurm posted an OPS+ of 116, compared to Fisk at 117 and Posada at 124. Posada's may dip a few points before he is done.

And yes, Thurm's defense was his strength. He did throw some balls away, but also caught guys he had no right to get. He got rid of the ball so quickly.

I remember well exactly where I was when I heard the news of his death. Is there a Yankee fan who doesn't?

I would still give Jorge a slight edge, but very slight. Thurm was the kind of guy you wanted behind the plate if you were pitching.

2008-03-01 07:18:03
7.   Bruce Markusen
I'll be curious to see what Posada can do over the length of this contract. If he can put together 2 to 3 good seasons, he'll have built up a nice argument for the Hall of Fame. Considering how late he got started in his big league career, that's amazing.

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