AN ARTICLE FROM THE BASEBALL MAGAZINE: FEBRUARY
THE LAST GAME
HIS KNEES SEEMED TO BE BOTHERING HIM A LITTLE MORE TODAY.
As was the case for the last few months, Thurman Munson went out onto the field and took some infield practice around first base. Taking the throws to the bag were not too difficult for him, but having to scoop up ground balls were a bit of a problem. Still, it wasn’t catching where the years had taken it’s toll on his body. He had been doing limited catching the last few weeks. Bending just wasn’t possible without pain & besides, Jerry Narron was doing a decent job behind the plate for the Yankees.
He looked up at the sky. It was a very bright night with many stars etched against a dark blue background. The overhead light had created a criss-crossing pattern over the field. He checked out the grass in the infield and it seemed long enough against the surface of the ground. Good. That would be kind to his knees.
Ken Kravec was pitching tonight for the White Sox. Don Hood, who had come to NY in the Cliff Johnson
trade, had not lost as a Yankee and was 3-0. Standing in the on deck circle while his friend Bobby Mercer batted, Munson flexed his knees in an effort to loosen them up. He was now 32 years old and this was his tenth year with the Yankees. In that time he had hit over .300 five times, had won seven gold gloves, and had the distinction of being the only Yankee to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. Steinbrenner had made him the first captain of the Yankees since Lou Gehrig and he was very proud of that. He realized now that his catching days were over. Next year, if he didn’t retire he would have to play first or find a spot in the outfield. Preferably not with the Yankees. He missed not being with his family. He had asked Stein- brenner many times to trade him to Cleveland so that he could be closer to home. In the last month he had heard that Cleveland General Manager Gabe Paul was trying to arrange a trade for him.
Two years ago he had started flying and at least now he was able to get home more often. He enjoyed flying so much that he had told Elston Howard that when he retired he wanted to run a commercial commuter airline and was studying for a special license. In his autobiography he wrote, “I have a new love to make things somewhat pleasant for me this year. Airplanes.”
Bobby Mercer grounded out. Munson stepped up to the plate, tugged at the brim of his cap, swung his bat in an arc towards the mound & waited for Kravec’s first pitch. At this point of the season he was batting .288
with 3 HRs and 39 RBIs. He felt that he could still play ball but it would have to be at another position
besides catching. The first pitch was on the outside of the plate and he fouled it off. The next three pitches were balls and then he fouled off two more pitches. He stepped out of the batters box, and flexed his knees again. The Yankees had won the first two games of the series but they weren’t really going anywhere. As of now they were 14 games out of first place. Injuries and old age had reduced the club to a third or fourth place team. He stepped back to the plate and drew ball four.
Reggie Jackson came up to bat. With Munson on first he hit a pitch into the stands in left-center for a two run homer. Munson rounded the bases and without waiting for Jackson trotted into the dugout. Since the “straw that stirs the drink” incident, Jackson and Munson had a strained relationship. This year things were better but the aloofness was still there. He sat down in between Murcer and Jim Spencer. Spencer started explaining something to Munson and Mercer joined in. Lou Piniella hit his tenth HR of the year and NY led 3-0.
In the bottom of the first Munson handled two plays at first base. In the bottom of the second he had to range over to his right to field a grounder and managed to toss over to Don Hood covering first to get Chet Lemon by a step. With the score still 3-0 he came up to bat in the fourth. Kravec was still pitching for Chicago. He started Munson off with a slider that nipped the outside corner for a strike. Munson then fouled off the next two pitches and the count was 0-2. On the last swing he had felt a twinge in his knee and he stepped out of the box and tried to walk it off. He stepped back in. Kravec threw him another slider, down and away, Munson swung hard and missed. Almost immediately he felt a pulling sensation around his right knee. He limped back to the dugout where the trainer looked at it. He tried walking up and down but the strain made it impossible too apply full pressure on his foot. This had happened to him before and he knew that the best thing was to rest it for a couple of days. Jim Spencer picked up a glove and in the bottom of the fourth, went out to play first base.
Sitting on the bench Thurman mentioned something to Piniela and Nettles about taking them for a ride in his Cessna Citation. He had bought the twin engine Jet about All Star time. It had become the love of his life. There had been some problems with it but they seemed to be resolved now. After tonight’s game he was going to fly home and then tomorrow morning he was going to practice some touch and go takeoffs and landings. Catcher Jerry Narron hit his second HR of the season and Munson came over and congratulated him. In the sixth inning the Yankees scored four more times and in the seventh they added another run to make it 9-1.
At this point Munson went into the clubhouse. He lay down on the floor and tried to stretch his knee. It responded decently and so he did a few light exercises and then applied a heating pad to it. A half hour later the Yankees came tumbling in, excited about having swept the White Sox three in a row. Bobby Mercer came over and asked how he felt. He replied that it seemed to be a slight strain and he could be back in two or thee days. The clubhouse was filled with the sounds of radios and players talking to each other about the game.
There were several reporters interviewing Reggie Jackson. He had hit his 359th HR to tie him with Johnny Mize on the career list. Willie Randolph, Roy White, and Chicken Stanley were horsing around, snapping towels at each other. Don Hood was talking to Jim Kaat (who had relieved him in the seventh inning) about how tough Chet Lemon had been tonight, He had gone 3 for 4 and Hood had always found him difficult to pitch too.
Munson was one of the first to leave. Spencer asked him how his knees were and he said OK and then he left the clubhouse.
On the following day, August 2, 1979, at 3:02 PM, Thurman Munson’s Cessna crashed while trying to land at the Akron-Canton airport. The plane lost it’s wings and burst into flames after crashing. David Hall (who taught Munson how to fly) and Jerry D. Anderson, both of whom had accompanied Munson on the flight, survived.
His was a paradoxical life. Gruff, difficult at times to deal with, he often would ridicule ethnic and racial groups, not talk to reporters, and in his last few years maintained an unpleasant demeanor. He was a fierce competitor, a devoted family man, and greatly beloved by his closest friends.
At the Stadium that night he received an eight minute ovation.