The Hall of Fame Case for Thurman Munson

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When Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in the middle of the 1979 season, it broke the hearts of Yankee fans. It also extinguished the career of one of baseball’s best catchers.

Many years later, Munson’s legacy is celebrated at Yankee Stadium, where he’s considered one of the franchise’s greatest leaders, and an icon.

But why isn’t Thurman Munson in the Baseball Hall of Fame? His career achievements stack up well against his contemporaries as well as the best to ever play the catcher position.

Best Catcher in the American League in the 1970s

Munson has a narrative that seems like that of a Hall of Fame catcher:

  • He won a Most Valuable Player Award
  • Munson won the Rookie of the Year Award
  • He has multiple All-Star and Gold Glove selections
  • He was a team leader in numerous pennant-winning teams
  • Munson was considered both a good hitter and a good fielding player at his position

In the 1970s, Munson was the premier catcher in the American League, rivaled only by his contemporary Carlton Fisk. In 1974, 1975, and 1976, Munson was elected to start the All-Star Game for the American League.

In the 1976 World Series, Munson batted .529 in the World Series after hitting .435 in the playoffs. The following October he hit .320 with a home run in the World Series when the Yankees won their first title in 15 years. He hit .320 in the 1978 World Series too, with seven RBI in six games. For his career, the Yankee catcher batted .357 with 22 RBI in 30 games in the postseason.

While batting average is far down the list of important statistics for evaluating a ballplayer, Munson hit .300 five times. That’s unique: only three catchers had ever done that before Thurman (Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, and Ernie Lombardi). Each of those catchers are in the Hall of Fame.

In the history of baseball, only 10 catchers have batted .300 in a season five times or more. In addition to Munson, Cochrane, Dickey, and Lombardi, there’s also Pudge Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Ted Simmons, Gabby Hartnett, Yadier Molina, and Jason Kendall.

Only Jason Kendall of that group is not considered an all-time great at the catching position. Rudimentary method admittedly, but illustrative of a good-hitting catcher.

The Analytics

From 1969 to 1979, Munson’s 46.1 Wins Above Replacement ranked 13th in all of baseball, and second among catchers. Only Johnny Bench had a higher WAR at the catching position.

Most 4 WAR Seasons, Catcher

  • Johnny Bench … 12
  • Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Gary Carter … 8
  • Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey … 7
  • Munson, Fisk, Simmons, Campanella, Cochrane, Jorge Posada … 6

Comparing Munson to Hall of Fame Catchers

Johnny Bench75.147.232.7101410
Gary Carter70.248.435.86113
Iván Rodríguez68.739.830.371413
Carlton Fisk68.537.523.26111
Mike Piazza59.543.130.912120
Yogi Berra59.437.927.5918NA
Roy Campanella41.835.026.9811NA
Gabby Hartnett55.930.820.686NA
Bill Dickey56.435.526.3911NA
Thurman Munson46.137.027.0573
Ted Simmons50.334.822.9880
Mickey Cochrane49.936.627.082NA

WAR = Wins Above Replacement
WAR7 = WAR in seven best seasons
WAR5C = WAR in five best consecutive seasons
120 OPS+ = Seasons with a 120 OPS+ or better
ALL-STAR = All-Star selections
GG = Gold Gloves Awards

Why Munson Hasn’t Been Elected to the Hall of Fame

There are people who will insist that there is a Yankee bias in Hall of Fame voting. An East Coast bias, to be precise.

But that’s not true.

If we made a list of the best players NOT in the Baseball Hall of Fame, based on any criteria, we’ll find many Yankees.

Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, even Roger Maris if that’s your guy. All of those Yankees have strong arguments to be elected to the Hall.

You think writers pluck Yankees for the Hall of Fame over other players from other teams? Well, Goose Gossage waited years to be elected. Don Mattingly is not a Hall of Famer. DON MATTINGLY.

But of all the Yankee legends, Munson is the most deserving. He was the best player at his position in his league for a decade. He was a two-time World Series champion, and the clear leader of those Yankee teams that won three straight pennants.

Yet, the baseball writers never elected him. Why?

It comes down to one thing: Munson didn’t get a chance to finish out his stellar career. When his plane crashed in 1979, the Munson family lost their father, son, husband, brother. It was a crushing loss. For baseball too.

Somehow, baseball writers never seemed to come to terms with Munson’s death. Voters looked at Thurman’s career numbers:

  • 1,558 hits
  • 113 home runs
  • 701 runs batted in
  • 696 runs scored
  • .410 slugging percentage
  • .346 on-base percentage
  • .292 batting average

As years passed, as Munson’s shocking death receded into the past, as it became harder to remember Munson squatting behind the plate for All-Star Games, for the World Series, voters were left with one thing: the raw numbers.

But that’s not fair. Munson only got 11 years. His final game was when he was 32 years old. He didn’t get a chance to play the last 3-5 years of his career. Had he, Munson’s numbers would have been larger.

Which also isn’t fair, because as I showed above, Munson did enough (more than enough) to establish himself as one of the greatest catchers of all-time.

Someday, Cooperstown will get it right. Until they do, one of the ten best catchers to ever play the game does not have his plaque.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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Douglas Bisson
Douglas Bisson
2 years ago

This is quite persuasive. I will be interested to see how the BBWAA will handle Buster Posey’s candidacy. He is similar to Munson in many ways: ROY, MVP and regarded as the best catcher in his league for most of a decade.

Jim Clancy
Jim Clancy
1 year ago

Munson was a good player. Not
A Hall of Fame player. Averaged 150 hits and 10 HR over 11 years. Sorry, I agree with keeping him out.

Larry Silvestro
Larry Silvestro
1 year ago

Posey will be a first ballot hall of famer,he knocked in 100 rbi one time,Munson did it 3 years in a row.Also, Munson played during the ‘dead ball ‘ era.If he was playing during Posey time add 20-25 points to his batting average,and the pitchers from the 70’s reas were lower as well so the pitching was better. So who’s really the better hitter a guy who hits 292 in a dead ball era with better pitching or a guy who hits 320 with a juiced ball and pitchers who reas are kissing high 4’s

Larry Silvestro
Larry Silvestro
Reply to  Dan Holmes
2 months ago

But the ball from Posey’s era was juiced. So once again if Munson was playing in the same era as Posey and Posey was playing in Munsons era Add 20 points to Munson’s batting average and minus 20 points from Posey .And Again 100rbi’s 3 times by Munson with a 300 batting average ,Posey 1 time 100 rbi’s 300 batting average ,so really who’s the better player,Munson also won more gold gloves to Posey. NOW don’t get me wrong I feel Posey should be in the hall of fame ,BUT Munson should be there as well ,really he’s should of been in years ago.Sportswriters shouldn’t vote for the players, let players who played in the same era vote, or better yet let catchers from same era vote for catchers ,pitches for pitchers and so on. NO player votes for the writers when they’re up for the hall,it’s a area that should be thought over and corrected.A opinion of a writer or if he dislikes the player he wont vote him but a player who played the samr postion in my opinion probably will. A writer never played the game

David paquette Jr
David paquette Jr
1 year ago

Thurman Munson should be in the hall of fame

Tom Mostowy
Tom Mostowy
11 months ago

Munson’s absence diminishes the Hall, not Munson. Without him, it’s merely the Baseball Hall of Hype.

Last edited 11 months ago by Tom Mostowy
Thomas Pascucci
Thomas Pascucci
11 months ago

I was watching HOF caliber play at the catcher’s position for 10+ years. The most glaring omission of the hallowed halls.