Hero's death; survivor's story

Twenty five years after Thurman Munson's death, a survivor of that tragic plane crash shares his story.

Originally Published: July 30, 2004
By Willie Weinbaum | Special to ESPN.com

Old-Timers Day, a summer Saturday, and fans in Yankee colors fill the sidewalks and streets around the old ballpark in the Bronx.

Under the elevated subway station, out beyond Monument Park, business is bustling. Stores showcase "15 Munson" shirts alongside "3 Ruth" ... "4 Gehrig" ... "5 DiMaggio."

Countless toddlers are wearing "15 Munson," many with parents too young to really remember the catcher, captain and anchor of the '70s teams that restored Yankee glory.

Thurman Munson never became an old-timer.

Thurmon Munson
APThurman Munson was the heart and soul of the 1970s Yankees.

The story always seemed so straightforward and accessible. Unshakable determination borne through years of unreasonable demands from his father. A Norman Rockwell family life in a dream house with his childhood sweetheart and their three children. An accelerated pursuit of a pilot's license to spend more time at home in Canton, Ohio.

From a beer league mien to an indomitable persona, Munson's image and legacy are indelible. So, too, are the scenes following his death 25 years ago on Aug. 2.

The empty catcher's box ... The scoreboard photo of Munson, frizzy hair escaping beneath his cap, towering over a tearful Reggie Jackson in right field ... A devastated Billy Martin at the funeral ... Bobby Murcer's magical "walkoff" performance on national TV the night of the funeral, a generation before walkoffs entered the lexicon.

Raw emotion and stirring tributes a quarter-century ago ingrained in us a collective sense of the ballplayer, husband and father, and the cruelty of a life lost at 32.

To the press, Munson was brusque and aloof, and the exchanges were more often profane than profound. But columnists and documentarians alike have painted expansive and glowing portraits. The first Yankee captain since tragedy took the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, Munson was a round model of smarts behind the plate and prowess beside it, especially in the clutch. A proud adversary to the "straw that stirred the drink."

But what hadn't we learned through the tributes, the tell-all tomes on the "Bronx Zoo," and the uplifting visits through the media with Munson's family, every five years or so?

"There is one thing," Munson biographer Marty Appel said this spring. "One thing that hasn't been done on Thurman. Two guys survived the plane crash and neither has ever been interviewed about it."

A career after baseball
"If it's a tribute, I might like to be a part of it," Jerry Anderson said in May. Reluctant to recount on camera the horror of the crash, Anderson said the time could finally be right to share his stories, including the ultimate tribute -- what Munson said and did, just before he died.

David Hall was Munson's flight instructor, before Munson upgraded from props to a jet. In May, Hall politely declined comment about the Aug. 2, 1979 flight he took with Anderson and Munson, the final flight of Munson's life.

Thurman Munson
Thurman Munson's rough exterior belied a savvy player and businessman.

A year younger than Munson, Anderson met him in the mid-'70s on the handball courts at the Canton YMCA. They became friends and business partners in commercial real estate.

Off the field, Anderson said, Munson was as prescient as he was in first-guessing baserunners trying to steal.

"He was always playing two plays or two volleys or two shots, as we call 'em in handball, ahead. And I realized that he had it in real estate. He was able to see what was going to happen to an area prior to a lot of people. It was almost as if he had a peek into the future."

When Anderson recruited Munson to invest with him in a chain of racquetball clubs, Munson didn't just demur, he told Anderson to divest or he would pull out of a planned venture to involve other ballplayers in real estate. Anderson sold his racquetball interest before it went bust. After Munson died, and the injured Anderson was out of work, "the cash from the deal saved me from going broke."

Munson was motivated to master high finance, said Anderson. "He said, 'I need to make sure, that when I am finished playing baseball, I could provide for my family. I don't want to be just a dumb jock. I want to be a businessman; somebody that understands the economic ways of the world and I can use baseball as a way to launch myself into my next career.' "

With his first career likely approaching its twilight, Munson developed a passion for piloting and often flew with Anderson, also a pilot, to inspect investment properties. "This was an intense, focused man. Aviation was no different. When he dove into aviation, he dove in headfirst, and by that I mean he devoured it, he studied it," Anderson said.

Passion for flying
By all accounts, Munson was a skillful pilot, especially impressive to his wife, Diana. "I personally don't like flying at all. So, obviously, this was difficult for me. It was a tribute to Thurman and to my love for him that I would go with him. But I was totally comfortable, felt totally safe with him. We even took our children."

In a year and a half of flying, Munson bought four planes,culminating on July 6, 1979 with the purchase of a Cessna Citation 501. Emblazoned with his Yankee number, "N15NY" was a blue and white seven-seat, twin-engine, million-dollar jet.

Munson's career highlights
  • 1970 American League Rookie of Year.
  • 1976 American League Most Valuable Player.
  • As first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig, Munson led the Yankees to three straight AL titles (1976-78) and two World Series crowns (1977-78).
  • Seven-time All-Star.
  • Three Gold Glove Awards.
  • .292 batting average and three straight 100-RBI seasons (1975-77) in 11-year career.
  • "Too powerful. I mean, it scared me," said Lou Piniella, Munson's teammate and friend, who had flown with him before he bought the jet.

    "He had asked me to fly many, many times with him and I used to tell him, 'you don't have enough hours for me,' " said Bobby Murcer, another teammate and friend.

    Munson was certified to fly the Citation on July 17, 1979, just 11 days after he bought it.

    Two weeks later, the Yankees were in Chicago for a series with the White Sox. Munson and Piniella were at Murcer's Chicago home when the conversation turned to the new plane. "Bobby and I did our best to convince him that, 'Look, just get rid of the jet,' " recalls Piniella.

    After a day game on Aug. 1, Murcer drove Munson to a small Chicago-area airport, and watched him take off alone, for an off-day at home. "He revved the engines up and took off, and actually just took off above me where I was sitting in my car. It was night time, I could not believe that Thurman was actually in that powerful machine all by himself, you know. And the darkness of the night."

    The next afternoon Munson went back to Akron-Canton Regional Airport, where he arrived the night before, to tinker with his new jet and practice takeoffs and landings. By chance, he met Jerry Anderson and David Hall, and showed off the new plane.

    The memory brings a smile to Anderson. "You'd have thought it was a newborn child. We walked around that airplane, and he patted it, and he stroked it, and he showed it to me. He said, 'I am so proud of this. This is something that's going to enable us to really come back and forth. And I am going to be able to see my family more.' And he said, 'Look at that. Look at that tail number.' And that's when he pointed to '15NY.'"

    Munson invited the two men for a short flight aboard N15NY. "I couldn't wait to go up in it," Anderson said. Hall sat alongside Munson in the cockpit; Anderson behind them in the cabin.

    The entire flight that day was less than half an hour.

    The details are in a 27-page National Transportation Safety Board investigation report, available on the Internet.

    But only a survivor can complete the story.

    'Are you guys OK?'
    At 3:41 p.m., Munson, cleared by the control tower for takeoff on Runway 2-3, embarked on a left-traffic pattern. Over the next 15 minutes, he performed three routine landings and takeoffs.

    After the third takeoff, the tower instructed Munson to shift to a right traffic pattern, for a landing on runway 1-9. But this approach was different.

    Thuman Munson
    Munson's death shook the sports world in 1979.

    "David and I both noticed the same thing -- that we were a little bit lower than what we had been on previous landings. No big deal," Anderson said. "On final approach, you always have to adjust upwards or downwards."

    Recognition changed to concern.

    "We were now descending towards 1-9 relatively rapidly. And I felt a sinking."

    The plane dropped to roughly 500 feet above the ground. Munson lowered the landing gear, causing the descent to steepen.

    "I realized that this descent was probably not going to be arrested and that we would probably crash short of the runway," Anderson said. "You had a second to prepare yourself. A second to prepare yourself for impact."

    At 4:02 p.m., the plane struck ground about 1,000 feet short of runway 1-9 in a field dotted with small trees.

    "I felt the fuselage just taking the pounding, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!" Anderson claps as he accentuates the recollection of each impact.

    After skidding through the field and slamming into an immense tree stump, the plane came to rest atop a two-lane road, some 600 feet short of runway 1-9. Munson's legs were pinned. He was bloody, but conscious.

    "I realized, as we came to a stop, that I was still intact. I mean, unbelievable as it might seem, I thought, 'My God, I have survived this,' Anderson said. "I looked up to the cockpit, David was moving, and Thurman's head was twisted a little bit. I thought, 'This is unbelievable. We are going to walk away from this airplane. We have just crashed an airplane, and we have all survived.'

    "Things didn't quite go like my mind had initially thought. The right side of the aircraft was engulfed in flames, but I was feeling pretty good about it, because the right side of the aircraft was not the side of the aircraft we needed to go out. The door was on the left side. And the left side was relatively clear. I didn't see any smoke or flames there."

    The left side, with the accessible door, was Anderson's side.

    "What I quickly realized is, I could not get it open. The door had jammed. David came back, and he gave it a try, and he couldn't get it open either. I took a good solid kick at it. And now, as I think about it, it was probably ridiculous that I thought I should have been able to kick open that door.

    "At that point, the aircraft has started to fill with smoke.

    "I will hang on this for a long time ... Thurman mumbled to us. He said, 'Are you guys OK?' At this point, he said, 'Are you guys OK?' We said, 'Yeah.' I don't remember whether David said it, or I said it. But one of us said, 'How about you?' He said, 'I don't know. I can't move. I can't move.' "

    Those were the final words of Munson's life. But Anderson, of course, did not know it.

    "Almost instinctively, David and I split up the responsibilities. I was closest to the door. Obviously, I needed to get us out of there. He was closest to Thurman, he was going to lift Thurman up. We felt that we could probably collectively get him out of there.

    "The communication that we had -- and this is all in seconds -- was let's go, let's get us all out of here."

    With the main door jammed, the only escape route was an emergency exit on the right.

    "When I cracked the emergency door, flames shot in and above our heads into the cockpit," said Anderson of an area that's only about four feet wide.

    There was still hope for the passengers to rescue the pilot.

    "We are going to get him out of there. We are just going to haul him out. I mean, it's no big deal. There are two of us, there is one of him," Anderson said. "But what I quickly realized was, when the flames came into the cockpit, and started to catch fire in the air, the black smoke was so overtaking, we couldn't really breathe. At that point, we didn't have a choice."

    Munson was unconscious. Just minutes after the crash, time was running out on the efforts to move him toward the emergency exit.

    Without discussion, a decision: Escape.

    "Unspoken word. I pulled the emergency door into the cockpit ... and pretty much dove into the puddle of fuel that was on fire on the right side.

    "As I was departing the aircraft, David gave one last tug on Thurman, and he couldn't move him. Neither one of us could move him. David followed me, right outside that door. I rolled around on the ground for a moment, and then was unconscious. I don't really remember anything after that, until waking up in the hospital.

    "The hard part of that, of course, is that there was a point in time that I knew that I was going to leave that airplane, and that my friend was not. And that was a terrible feeling."

    Munson, his neck broken from the impact of the crash, overcome by heat and smoke, was pronounced dead at the scene.

    'Thurman always seemed bigger than life'
    A mother of three young children, Diana Munson was suddenly a widow at 31.

    "The fact that Thurman was gone, and that the two other fellows were in an airplane, but they were still here, seemed impossible for me to believe. Because Thurman always seemed bigger than life to me," Diana said.

    She sought out Anderson and Hall, both of whom were in the hospital with severe burns, to check on their condition, and ease their burden.

    "I wanted them to know that I wasn't placing blame, and that I was not sitting in judgment in any way because I knew they had to go on with their lives, too."

    Munson: A look back
    ESPN Classic tribute:
    Monday, Aug 2 (all times Eastern)
    --1977 World Series, Game 6, 4 p.m.
    --1976 World Series highlights, 6 p.m.
    --Sports Challenge, 6:30 p.m.
    --SportsCentury: Yankees Part I, 7 p.m.
    --SportsCentury: Yankees Part II, 8 p.m.
    --1979 tribute game, 9 p.m.
    --'77 World Series highlights, 11 p.m.
    --'78 World Series highlights, 11:30 p.m.
    --1979 tribute game, midnight

    Anderson's eyes moisten with the memory.

    "When I met with Diana, after the accident, it was so hard to look her in the eye, and say, 'You know, Diana, we did what we could, to get Thurman out of there. And we just couldn't do it.' And that was, that was tough then. That was really tough."

    Still a pilot, Anderson continues to fly over the runway he never reached in N15NY, 25 years ago.

    What is it like to land on runway 1-9?

    "The first time that I flew after the accident, I was perspiring so profusely, that I thought I had wet myself," Anderson said. "I was that nervous.

    "Every time I fly on the final approach to 1-9, I have to look down at that terrible place where we had crashed. Of course, now it's all grown over, and all the trees are gone, and the stump is removed."

    As Anderson came to learn, the stump was of great significance in the tragedy.

    "Our aircraft hit that stump, right on the pilot side. I now know that's why the door wouldn't open.

    "Had that stump hit on the right side of the aircraft, I suspect David would have probably had the same outcome as Thurman. And I suspect Thurman and I would have gone out the entrance door. Fate is something one can't explain."

    The NTSB explanation for the fatal crash was pilot error.

    Among Munson's mistakes, he failed to maintain sufficient air speed for landing and lowered the landing gear too late.

    "When you read that NTSB report, what you realize is that Thurman was a well-trained, competent pilot, who made a mistake, a couple of pilot errors that day," Anderson said. "Pilots are human and when pilots make errors, aviation is not very forgiving."

    Right up to the crash, Anderson said, Munson was battling to right the course.

    "Thurman was doing everything possible, as a pilot, to put that aircraft on the ground safely. He did what he was trained to do. He had full throttles. He was trying to accelerate and get the airplane climbing again. That day, it was not to be, though. It was simply not to be."

    Anderson repeats the memory that is his greatest tribute to Munson, of a pilot's dying concern for his friends.

    "He said to both David and I, 'Are you guys all right?' He was worried about us. Imagine that. He's worried about us. Now when I think back on that, it makes my heart heavy."

    Years after the accident, Diana Munson settled a lawsuit charging the plane's manufacturer and a flight school with inadequate pilot training for her late husband.

    The kids are grown, and she is now considering moving from the Canton home bought not long before the crash. In part to raise college funds for her grandchildren, she is selling some of the Yankee captain's artifacts through the new "Memorabilia Roadshow" run by former players.

    On this summer Saturday, the Munson family is back at Yankee Stadium.

    With Piniella, Murcer and many of her husband's teammates from 25 years ago at her side, Diana Munson throws the ceremonial first pitch to a spot just in front of home plate.

    Hours before, in Monument Park, another Munson made a different pitch.

    Beneath a plaque honoring his father, the legendary catcher, Michael Munson knelt to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Michelle Bruey. She accepted.

    "He wanted his dad to be a part of it," Diana Munson said, this Old-Timers Day.

    ESPN TV reporter Tom Rinaldi contributed to this story. Willie Weinbaum is a producer for ESPN.

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