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

CATCHERWARWAR7WAR5C120 OPS+ALL-STARGG
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

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.