On this date in 1979, Yankees captain and catcher Thurman Munson was killed when a small plane he was piloting crashed while practicing takeoffs and landings at Akron-Canton Regional Airport near his home in Ohio. Reports indicate he flew in too low and clipped a tree short of the runway. Two others survived the crash.
The Yankees had an off-day and Munson was home to be with his family. He had recently purchased a Cessna Citation I/SP and was taking flight lessons for two years. Here is his final at-bat, less than 24 hours before his death:
Needless to say, Munson's death was a shock to the baseball world. He wasn't some nondescript player who made the news only because he was a Yankee. Munson was a former AL MVP (1976), a former AL Rookie of the Year (1970) and a seven-time All-Star. The rigors of catching had started to wear him down at age 32, but he was a great player and vital part of the team. There's a reason why the Yankees named Munson their first captain since Lou Gehrig.
The day after his death, the team paid tribute to its captain with an on-field pregame ceremony in which each starter stood at his position other than the catcher -- the catcher's box remained empty. Here's the video:
Four days later, Munson's funeral was held in Canton. The entire Yankees team attended and close friends Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer gave eulogies. That night, in an emotional game against the Orioles, Murcer drove in all five of his team's runs and had the walk-off two-run single.
Munson's locker remained untouched following his death, right down to the day they tore the old Yankee Stadium down in 2008. The locker was moved in one piece across the street to the new Yankee Stadium and sits on display in the New York Yankees Museum.
Baseball -- and all sports, really -- are intended to be a distraction from regular day-to-day life. That's why it's always so stunning whenever baseball and death cross paths, especially when you're talking about an active player or coach who we see on the field every day. They become almost part of the family because we see them so often.
Tragedies like this are unthinkable, but the fact that we're still talking about Munson 34 years later show just how beloved he was. He was a true one of a kind.