Why Thurman Munson deserves to be considered for the Hall of Fame

2 Jan

On August 2, 1979, the 32 year old Yankee catcher and Captain Thurman Munson was lost to the world in a tragic airplane crash. In his tenth full year of major league service he was well on his way to putting together a Hall of Fame career. While tragedy in and of itself does not merit inclusion to Hall of Fame, there is precedent that others who faced tragedy have been granted leniency when it came time to voting, some to the extent that the year service requirement was waived. Whether Munson was truly one of the greats of the game at his position is like all things in sports open to debate, but there is solid logic behind believing the Veterans Committee should take a closer look at him when consideration rolls around again.

Statistically speaking, at the plate Munson wasn’t necessarily the best in his era at any one thing, however the only catcher among his contemporaries that surpassed him clearly was Hall of Famer Johnny Bench Munson put together very solid numbers compiling 113 homers, 1558 hits, 701 RBI’s, 48 stolen bases, and a .292 career average. Munson is one of three catchers along with Bill Dickey and Mike Piazza to hit .300 and drive in 100 or more runs in three consecutive seasons. These numbers led Munson to an MVP Award in 1976, two more top seven finishes, the 1970 Rookie of the Year Award, seven All-Star teams, and three consecutive World Series appearances, two of which were wins.

Defensively Munson was among the elite. He took home three Gold Gloves, and in 1971 he made only one error the entire season on a play in which he dropped the ball while being knocked unconscious. No catcher in baseball history has had a better defensive season than that. Munson was also regarded as one of the best signal callers in the game, something that doesn’t show up in the box scores.

To appreciate what Munson did on the field, a quick comparison to the two Hall of Fame catchers he played against goes a long way.

Munson had a 162 game average of 13 homers, 80 RBI’s, 5 steals, 79 runs, and a .282 batting average.

Carlton Fisk by comparison compiled the following average: 24 homers, 86 RBI’s, 8 steals, 83 runs, a .269 batting average.

Johnny Bench had the following line: 29 homers, 103 RBI’s, 5 steals, 82 runs, and a .267 batting average.

While Munson looks light years away from them, there is a catch to to this very simple analysis most people look at and fail to remember. Munson compiled his numbers over only 9 full seasons and a portion of two others. Bench played 17 seasons and a significant part of his games, especially his last five years were not as a catcher. In fact by average, Bench only spent ten years worth of games behind the plate. Fisk put up his numbers over 24 seasons only 13 1/2 years of which would be behind the plate. Fisk Primarily spent his last six season as a DH. If you take a closer look at the numbers each compiled over their first tean seasons the comparison is much closer than many think. For Fisk, his first two years in which he appeared in only a combined 16 games are disregarded which gives him a slight edge as two prime years are now counted for him. The same is done for Bench whose 26 games in 1967 are discounted giving him an extra “Prime season” as well.

Munson- 1,423 games, 696 runs, 1,558 hits, 229 doubles, 32 triples, 113 homers, 701 RBI’s, 48 steals and a .292 batting average

Fisk- 1,158 games, 664 runs, 1,171 hits, 217 doubles, 37 triples, 167 homers, 607 RBI’s, 64 steals, and a .266 average

Bench- 1,487 games, 817 runs, 1,477 hits, 291 doubles, 20 triples, 286 homers, 1,032 RBI’s, 54 steals, and a .270 average

Other things to consider when looking at them beyond simple numbers side by side is the manner the numbers were posted. Despite much longer careers, Bench never hit better than .300 aside from a 52 game season in strike shortened 1981. Fisj did it three times, once in a full season and twice in partial seasons, one only 14 games, the other 79. Munson hit .300 or better 5 times in full seasons, 3 more times than Bench and Fisk managed in a combined 41 seasons! Fisk never won an MVP or World Series, Bench had 2 MVP’s and 2 World Series wins. Munson had one MVP and two World Series wins, which like Bench were back to back.

The thing we must consider is that the two hall of Fame catchers of the era, Bench and Fisk were very different players. Bench was the cream of the crop, he did everything well and is one of the greatest to ever squat behind the plate. Fisk made his mark by playing an extraordinarily long time with many seasons that were pedestrian at best and only three that were truly well above average. Over the same number of years in each players prime, we see Munson was directly between the two, doing some things better, some things lesser, but overall definitely just as good as either.

While extrapolating numbers and playing the “what if” card is useless and has no place in voting, it is clear that Munson clearly had the ability to play at least four more years which would have made his numbers better across the board. The fact is though he was a dominant player at his position over the course of a decade which has always been the standard for Hall of Fame voting. Fisk can’t say the same. Compared to another Hall of Fame catcher of a different era, Roy Campanella who managed only ten MLB season due to a crippling auto accident, Munson stacks up better aside from Campy’s three MVP Awards.

Exceptions have been made for numerous players when Hall of Fame voting or the Veterans Committee has made their decision. Addie Joss appeared in only parts of nine seasons due to dying of illness at 31, and the rules were waived for him even though he appeared in less games than most Hall Of Fame pitchers win, The thing to remember when considering Munson or any player of similar circumstances is that you can’t play “what if” and you have to remain focused on comparing them to their peers over the same period of years. When doing so we see he is just as good as either, and that there is a precedent for such players being elected by the Veterans Committee. His time has come, it is time to let him rest in Cooperstown where he belongs.


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