Munson’s Hall of Fame Case is Beyond Question

Why would anyone not vote for Thurman Munson?

Thurman Munson’s HOF Case Is Beyond Question

MLB released its Modern Era Hall of Fame ballot today, and it’s already generating serious debate. The list contains many leading figures of the 1970s and 1980s, and among the defenses of Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Steve Garvey, and other candidates, one question I saw repeatedly confused me: “Give me one reason why Thurman Munson should be in the Hall of Fame?”

Well….OK.

You want tangibles? He was the first American League catcher ever to be named Rookie of the Year. He won the MVP in 1976, the same year he was named Yankee captain (a show of respect that eluded DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford, and other immortals). He threw out baserunners at a higher clip than Johnny Bench. He hit .330 with two outs and runners in scoring position – for four years. He batted over .290 for his career despite leading all catchers in innings caught in the 1970s.

Munson’s leadership led to eight champagne parties in the Bronx.

He played in 30 postseason games between 1976-78 and had a whopping 46 hits against the best teams in the game – over 1.5 per game, a pace for 248 over a whole season. No player in baseball history with that many postseason hits comes close to what Munson did (Garvey is second, at 221). He won three Gold Glove awards and made the All-Star team seven times. His WAR7, which measures a player’s best seven-season period, is topped by just six other catchers; all are in the Hall of Fame. He’s tied for 7th, with a guy named Yogi Berra.

You want intangibles? He never went on the disabled list, despite lingering injuries – lingering for years, that is – to his knees and throwing shoulder. His already strong regular-season performance got significantly better in the postseason, including multiple clutch late-game hits in must-win playoff battles. With New York down 2-1 in the 1978 World Series and 3-2 in the 8th inning of Game 4, his double on an 0-2 pitch tied a game the Yankees later won. In Game 3 of that year’s ALCS, he homered in the bottom of the 8th to turn a  5-4 deficit into a 2-1 series lead. With the game tied the following day, he picked an outside pitch from the dirt and gunned down Willie Wilson trying to steal third to thwart a Royal threat in a tie ballgame.

Despite bloody collisions like this, Munson never spent a day on the disabled list.

Many teammates have described him as the leader and tone-setter for those Yankee teams. Between 1965 and 1995, the Yankees reached only one World Series without Thurman Munson behind the plate, and that was due to the convoluted 1981 strike rules that put New York in the playoffs despite having the 4th-best record in their division.

You want character? He was a devoted husband and family man, raising three children with his high-school sweetheart after a difficult childhood. It was his devotion to his family that led him to become a pilot, seeking any method available to see them more frequently. His untimely death came while practicing takeoffs and landings in a high-powered plane he’d just purchased to allow him to get home more quickly on off-days. He was an astute businessman who once refused to enter a lucrative deal with a friend until that friend left another deal that Munson correctly predicted would’ve ruined him. 

Munson was a loving husband to wife Diana and their three children.

You want to compare him against his peers? Over the seven years from 1972-1978, no AL catcher had more hits. Playing in an era alongside Hall of Famers Bench and Carlton Fisk, Munson led all three in games played and innings caught. He also led them in assists, runners caught stealing, and the percentage of runners caught stealing.

And double plays turned.

And hits.

And batting average.

There are only six men who won both the MVP and ROY awards who haven’t reached the Hall of Fame. Two – Pete Rose and Jose Canseco – earned their non-induction through gambling and steroids. Among the other three – Fred Lynn, Don Newcombe, and Dick Allen – none possessed the combination of durability, leadership, and production that Munson delivered. 

From the beginning of his career to the end, and from the least important games to the most vital, Thurman Munson was reliably good and frequently transcendent. He played hurt, he set a standard of accountability and toughness that defined that Yankee era, and in doing so he led a moribund franchise back to greatness. In considering the totality of his career, and what both preceded and followed it, it’s clear that this man was the foundation that stabilized the Bronx Zoo he carried. His nomination to the Modern Era ballot is supported both by contemporaries who saw him play and by metrics-based modern analysts leading the revision of what constitutes a Hall of Famer. When all of these factors are gathered together, the question that should be asked becomes clear:

Why would anyone not vote for Thurman Munson?

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