The 1979 New York Yankees season was the 77th season for the franchise in New York and its 79th season overall. The season was marked by the death of their starting catcher, Thurman Munson, on August 2. The team finished with a record of 89-71….finishing fourth in the American League East….13.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles….ending the Yankees’ three-year domination of the AL East. New York was managed by Billy Martin and Bob Lemon…. playing at Yankee Stadium.
During the off-season on November 10, 1978 the Yanks sent Sparky Lyle, Domingo Ramos, Mike Heath, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich and cash to the Texas Rangers for Dave Righetti, Juan Beníquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella and Greg Jemison (minors)….then on November 13, 1978, they signed Luis Tiant as a free agent….then on November 21, 1978 the signed Tommy John as a free agent. In January 1979, the Yankees attempted to acquire first baseman Rod Carew from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Chris Chambliss, Juan Beníquez, Dámaso García, and Dave Righetti….but the deal fell through….and Carew was later traded to the California Angels.
On August 6, the Yankees flew to Ohio to attend Thurman Munson’s memorial service….then flew back to New York play the Orioles on Monday Night Baseball….as Bobby Murcer hit a three run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning….then drove in two more runs in the ninth with a single off former Yankee Tippy Martinez to account for all five Yankee runs in a 5-4 win. After the game, Murcer gave the bat to Munson’s widow.
Thurman Munson was frequently homesick throughout the season….and took flying lessons so that he could fly home to his family in Canton on off-days. On August 2, 1979, he was practicing takeoffs and landings in his new Cessna Citation I/SP jet at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport. On the fourth touch-and-go, Munson failed to lower the flaps for landing….allowing the aircraft to sink too low before increasing engine power….causing the jet to clip a tree and fall short of the runway. The plane then hit a tree stump and burst into flames, killing Munson (who was trapped inside)….and injuring two other companions. It is believed that the inability to get out of the plane and the ensuing asphyxiation is what killed Munson….rather than injuries sustained on impact or burns (the two passengers survived). He was 32 years old.
Munson’s sudden death was major news across the nation and especially sorrowed the baseball community. Munson was survived by his wife, Diana, and their three children. The day after his death….before the start of the Yankees’ four-game set with the Baltimore Orioles in the Bronx….the Yankees paid tribute to their fallen captain in a pre-game ceremony during which the starters stood at their defensive positions….save for the catcher’s box….which remained empty. At the conclusion of Robert Merrill’s musical selection, the fans (announced attendance 51,151) burst into a 10-minute standing ovation.
Words cannot really describe the devastation to the Yankees team that occurred after the loss of their Captain….for Thurman Munson was a catcher that personified the Yankees spirit and attitude…..tough to get out….and tough to out play….hard nosed with his command of his pitchers and his positioning of the defense….for there is no telling what the Yankees could have done with Thurman Munson developing a legacy that would rival “Mr. Yankee” Yogi Berra….as the core group of Reggie, Murcer, Gamble, Blair, Pinella and Rivers in the outfield…..Nettles, Dent, Randolph and Chambliss in the infield….Guidry, Hunter, John, Kaat, Righetti, Tiant & Gossage on the mound….and Thurman Munson behind the plate….that sounds mighty strong.