It took me a while to read this
just couldn't take it all at once.
I shed some tears reading this
'Are you guys okay?' - 25 years later,
Thurman Munson's last words remain a symbol of his life
By WAYNE COFFEY
Thurman Munson died 25 years ago when his plane crashed on Greensburg Road in Canton, Ohio, just 600 feet from the airport runway.
Jerry Anderson, who survived crash that killed Thurman Munson, says Yankee captain saved his life.
CANTON, Ohio - Six hundred feet short of the runway and decades before his time, Thurman Lee Munson died a quarter of a century ago in the fiery wreckage of a blue pinstriped jet. He was 32 years old.
Munson was not planning to fly that day. He was not even going to keep the jet, a $1.4 million Cessna Citation he'd bought three weeks earlier so he could spend more time with his family. It was too powerful, too sophisticated, too much plane for him. "People who know anything about flying and aviation knew this was nuts," Diana Munson says.
She is sitting in a booth in a Bob Evans restaurant, drinking an ice tea, talking about the catcher who was the Yankee captain, the scruffy and gruff and squat-bodied anchor of back-to-back world championship clubs, and about the man of much more enduring achievement, the husband who made sure he gave his children tenderness and love, because his own childhood included neither.
Thurman Munson made a series of fatal mistakes in the last moments of his life; so says the accident report from the National Transportation Safety Board. He was also a hero in the last moments of his life, says Jerry Anderson, who survived the crash and believes he owes his life to Munson's poise and tenacity.
"He flew that plane right to the ground," Anderson says. "He never gave up. The same attitude that he took to the plate in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game is what saved my life."
The afternoon of Aug. 2, 1979 brought cool air and broken clouds, and the most jarring tragedy in the 101-year history of baseball's most fabled franchise. It was an off-day, a Thursday. This is the story of Thurman Munson's last hour, and of the man he was.
3:00 p.m. Thurman Munson is back at Akron Canton Regional Airport, after having lunch with his father-in-law, Tony Dominick. Munson had flown in the night before from Chicago, following a game with the White Sox. He drives over in his Mercedes 450, a cigar in his mouth and John Denver - not the usual Neil Diamond tape - rocking in the cassette player. It will be a short stay; he doesn't even lock the car. He and Diana are scheduled to meet around 4 p.m. at the office of a business associate who wants to dedicate a new road in Munson's honor. Munson tells Diana he's just going to check out a few things with the plane.
* * *
Munson has been flying for about 18 months, and is completely smitten with it. He loves the peace and solitude of flight, the lightness that comes with lifting off the ground. He is a private man, fiercely loyal to family and friends, but one who barricades himself from most of the world, with his gruffness and wariness. When you grow up in a home where there's no Christmas and no toys but a lot of criticism, you learn to build walls fast. Darrell Munson, Thurman's father, was a long-distance trucker. Thurman was the youngest of four kids, the family poor, the deprivation far beyond material goods. Before writing his autobiography, Munson hooked up with a prospective writer and asked him, "Do we have to get personal in this book?"
"If Thurman went four-for-five and had a passed ball, his father would want to know how he could let that ball go by him," Diana Munson says. Darrell Munson was a physically powerful man. Sometimes he'd drop down and show people how he could do one-arm pushups. Instead of being proud of his son's success, he often seemed jealous of it.
Diana Munson is absolutely against her husband's flying, but she lets it go: it's not a battle she can win. The previous Christmas, Diana had opened a gift from him to find a photograph of the instrument panel of a Cessna Citation. Usually his humor worked with her. This time it didn't.
"You know I'd never take a chance on anything as precious as life," he tells her that day.
* * *
Diana Dominick and Thurman Munson were childhood sweethearts and that never changed. She was signing her name Mrs. Thurman Munson when she was in sixth grade. They had a paper route together and played catch together. Even after 11 years of marriage and three kids, she says her heart would go pitter-patter when she'd hear Thurman come in the house after being away. As a girl she'd tell her father, "I'm going to marry Thurman Munson," and he'd say, 'What's a Thurman Munson?'" Diana didn't just love him. She felt secure and safe and whole whenever she was with him. It was a wonderful way to feel.
* * *
3:10 p.m. Munson sits in the cockpit of his new twin-engine jet, a seven-seat aircraft wth N15NY written on both sides, along with David Hall, his flight instructor, and Jerry Anderson, a real-estate associate and friend he met playing handball at the Canton YMCA. The 5-11, 195-pound Munson liked to call the 5-7, 155-pound Anderson "Munchkin." Anderson has just returned from a flight of his own when Munson asks if he wants to see his new jet. Anderson says sure. Hall is scheduled to take a student up at 3 o'clock but changes plans after Munson asks if he'd like to go up and see how the Citation flies. They sit in the plane, on the ground, for close to a half hour. Munson enjoys educating Hall and Anderson about the plane, and how it differs from turbo-prop aircraft. It is Munson's fourth airplane in not even 18 months, a rapid climb by any standard. He has logged 516 hours of flying time in all, 33 of them in a Citation.
* * *
Thurman Munson never wanted to be famous, or special. One of the reasons he didn't want to live in north Jersey anymore during the season is that the celebrity got to be too much. He just wanted to be the boy from Canton. Once in Manhattan, he stopped for gas with the family. He was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt and no socks.
Munson almost never wore socks. He pumped his own gas and cleaned his windshield and when he was done a guy pulled in and said, "Hey, buddy, can you fill me up?" Munson filled him up. Diana had to push him like crazy before he called Neil Diamond's people to see if he could meet the singer after a concert in Cleveland. Munson didn't want to be a green fly - his term for hanger-ons and celebrity worshippers.
When he traveled with Munson, Jerry Anderson was struck at how many ballplayers would hook up with women - and how faithful Munson was to Diana and the kids.
Munson never really wanted to talk about baseball with Anderson; he'd much rather talk about where a new office park might go, or just joke around. When Anderson, a pilot himself, flew with Munson to Toronto for a Yankees-Blue Jays series, a man at the terminal greeted Munson, who introduced him to Anderson by saying, "I'd like you to meet my friend, Willie Randolph."
Anderson and the guy shook hands, Anderson trying to suppress his laughter. Munson had a straight face. As they walked away, Anderson said, "Thurman, Willie's black."
"These guys up here are all hockey fans," Munson said. "They won't know the difference."
* * *
3:35 p.m. Engines on, headset in place, secured with a seat belt but not a shoulder harness, Munson taxis N15NY from the private-aviation terminal toward Runway 23. Hall is in the co-pilot's seat, Anderson behind him in a rear-facing seat. Munson marvels at how smoothly the plane taxis and lets Hall take the controls briefly.
Neither passenger knows what Munson's plans are until he contacts the tower and says he would like to stay in the local traffic pattern and do a series of touch-and-go landings. He will be flying the plane to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey the next day for the Yankees' weekend series. He has had his jet rating for the Citation for just 16 days. "From the onset to completion of training Mr. Munson displayed well above average skills and judgment as a pilot," his instructor with Flight Safety International wrote in his evaluation.
* * *
Michael Munson, the youngest of the Munson's three children, celebrated his fourth birthday on July 29, 1979. Now 28, he has grown up into a 5-10, 240-pounder with slabs of muscles, a serious weight-lifting habit and a dream of going into the restaurant business. He played four years of pro ball and always wore No. 15 and always played his father's position. He was signed by the Yankees organization in 1995, playing three years and then spending a final year playing AA ball with the Giants.
"It felt like I was competing against a ghost, because I didn't know if he would've been proud of what I'd done," Michael Munson says. "Nothing people said affected me, and the comparisons didn't affect me, because the pressure I put on myself was more than any pressure other people put on me."
Michael was hyperactive as a little boy, and often woke up five or six times a night. His father insisted on being the one to get up to comfort him. Michael seemed to do better when his father was home. It was one more reason to get the plane.
* * *
3:41 p.m. N15NY is cleared for takeoff on Runway 23 by air-traffic controller George F. Ackley. The temperature is 76 degrees, visibility 10 miles. N15NY accelerates down Runway 23 and takes off. The Citation climbs into the sky over northeast Ohio, where Thurman was born and raised and had just built his dream house, a sprawling brick colonial with tall columns in front.
"Do you know who's flying that N15NY?" a fellow controller asks Ackley.
Ackley shakes his head.
"That's Thurman Munson." Ackley didn't know Munson had a Citation. Twenty-five years later, Diana is convinced he would not have had it much longer. "He was coming around, I know he was," she says. "I am 100% sure he was going to sell it."
* * *
Munson was a savvy play-caller, a manager of games behind the plate, a mustachioed man of supreme confidence who reassured his pitchers by his strong, squatty presence and a grit that moved Lou Piniella to call him "the greatest competitor I've ever seen." All the pitchers had to do was follow his lead, throw the pitch he wanted, and they would be fine. He could see things unfolding before him. He was the same way in handball, playing a couple of shots ahead, and in business. "He had this knack for looking at a vacant piece of property and saying, 'Some day there's going to be a shopping center on this land,'" Anderson says.
Anderson had invested in a string of racketball clubs. "Why don't you get in on it?" Anderson said to Munson. "It's going to make me a zillionaire."
Munson didn't like the racketball business. He was sure it would be a passing fad.
Days before the flight, Munson agreed to form a real-estate partnership with Anderson - on the condition that Anderson sell off his racketball holdings. Anderson complied, reluctantly. He had the partnership papers with him in the Citation that day. The racketball clubs all went belly up. "Thurman saved me from going bankrupt," Anderson says.
* * *
3:50 p.m. As it reaches an altitude of about 2,800 feet (the airport is 1,217 feet above sea level), Munson, heeding the tower's instructions, follows a left-traffic pattern, essentially making a big left-handed loop, coming around and landing on the same Runway 23 he took off on. N15NY lowers its landing gear and extends the approach flaps and touches down uneventfully, and then Munson raises the flaps for takeoff and applies the thrust and is aloft again, beginning a second left-hand circuit. Munson retracts the landing gear and flaps and pulls back the right throttle to demonstrate how the plane can climb with a single engine. This time he reaches 3,000 feet. He applies the speed brakes to slow the aircraft to below the maximum gear-lowering speed of 174 KIAS (knots indicated air speed).
Again, he puts down the gear and extends the flaps and makes another touch-and-go landing. The landing is a little bit hard.
* * *
Bill Crocker is a restaurateur in Akron. He opened his first restaurant on Munson's birthday - June 7 - in 1979, and still has an item on the menu called "Frog Legs Thurman Munson." Munson loved them, and it was a way to say thank you to Munson for loaning him $10,000 to get started. Crocker had little money behind him; his father worked in the rubber industry for 50 years. "That $10,000 was like $100,000 to me," says Crocker. He met Munson on the handball courts at the Canton YMCA - the same place Munson met Jerry Anderson. Munson wrote the check with a note that said, simply, "Good luck. Thurm."
Munson was always doing things like that, Crocker says, extending kindnesses to people, without fanfare. When Munson found out about a New York writer who was missing his wife and children during spring training but couldn't afford to fly them down, he wrote him a check and insisted he not tell anyone. He would show up at dinners and fund-raisers, with one condition: no publicity. Munson's attitude about public-relations was simple: he didn't give a darn about it. He was who he was. He could no more spin an image or affect an air than he could keep his uniform clean. Or as former Yankee GM Gabe Paul once said, "Thurman Munson is a nice guy who doesn't want anyone to know it."
* * *
3:56 p.m. On the third touch-and-go takeoff, Munson pushes the throttles forward and the jet takes off again and as they veer crosswind in another circuit, Munson invites David Hall, in the passenger seat, to take the controls and see how responsive the plane is and to make a no-flaps landing. Hall takes over, Munson working the throttles. Hall loops around and reaches 170 KIAS and then brings it in long, landing about the midway point of the runway. Munson immediately lowers the flaps to takeoff position, applies thrust and goes up for a fourth pass.
From the tower, Ackley advises N15NY to change course this time and follow a right pattern for Runway 19. There is other traffic in the area. It means Munson must make right turns instead of left, a slightly more demanding approach because the pilot must look across the cockpit and visibility is not as good.
* * *
Two nights earlier, Thurman is in Chicago, staying at Bobby and Kay Murcer's place. After the kids are in bed, Diana watches "A Star Is Born" on TV. When Kris Kristoffersson's character dies in the end, Diana, a woman who lives life with her feelings out front, finds herself sobbing. She begins to think about what life would be like if anything ever happened to Thurman. She cries some more. When they speak on the phone that night, she is still upset and she tells him how scared she is. Thurman tells Diana she is his best friend and always will be, how privileged he is to share his life with her.
"I love you very much," he says. He assures her everything will be fine, that they will always have each other. His words are a great comfort.
* * *
3:59 p.m. Circling back toward the end of 19, Munson is at 3,500 feet and flying at 200 KIAS. He throttles back to lower the speed and altitude, pulling back so far that the landing-gear horn sounds. The horn alerts the pilot if the aircraft doesn't have sufficient speed for landing and if the gear is not down and locked. Munson manually flicks the horn off. Ackley, who is a minute away from the end of his shift, tells N15NY to fly another mile downwind - parallel to the runway, away from the airport - because of traffic. At 3:59:55, the controller advises N15NY to begin its base turn, beginning the loop back to the runway "anytime now."
Munson turns the aircraft to the right immediately, with about a 30-degree bank and the nose slightly low. He has neither extended the flaps nor put the landing gear down.
* * *
Diana and the kids - Tracy, 9, Kelly, 7, and Michael, 4 - have just returned home from the store. They were going out to eat that night but decided to stay home and let their dad barbecue some chicken instead. They bought about seven pounds of chocolate, too. Thurman Munson loved his chocolate, dunking his chocolate cookies in milk. Munson - irascible, cantankerous Thurman Munson - was a complete mushball with his kids. Discipline and punishment were Diana's departments.
Time and again, she thinks about how happy they are in their home. Earlier that summer, as dusk began to fall and she was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, Diana looked out the window to see Thurman on the patio, sitting in a chair, smoking a cigar, a look of softness and contentment on his face. She asked him what he was thinking about. He lifted his arm and surveyed their home, their abundant life, and asked Diana, "Can you believe we've done it?"
* * *
4:01 p.m. A pre-landing checklist - a way to make sure everything is properly configured for the approach - is standard operating procedure for all pilots; Munson does not use the checklist. "I don't think you want to land this airplane with the gear up," Hall tells Munson on their final approach. Munson puts the gear down. The plane has slipped below the glide slope - an electronic display that is basically a banister down to the runway. Follow the glide slope and you are fine. N15NY is at about 1,700 feet - 500 feet over the ground - when the gear goes down, but now the increased drag from the gear steepens the descent.
"We're sinking," Hall tells Munson. He warns Munson about possible downdrafts on the approach to Runway 19. Munson inches the throttle forward. Anderson feels the left wing dip. Nobody is talking much. Propeller planes respond almost instantaneously when they are powered up; jet engines are more powerful, but they take three to four seconds to spool up. Airplanes get their lift from air rushing over the wings. If you are going too slow, the plane "stalls" and loses its lift and begins to sink.
This is what happens to N15NY. The plane keeps sinking. Munson never puts the flaps down, which would give the plane additional lift. The NTSB report would state that Munson was flying an estimated 20 knots too slow for a no-flaps-down landing (about 93 KIAS), creating an excessive sink rate. "The added drag of the gear, the reduced power and the reduced lift available without flaps extended placed the aircraft in a dangerous situation," the report would state. The pilot failed "to recognize the need for, and to take action to maintain, sufficient air speed to prevent a stall during an attempted landing."
Munson digs, seat all the way forward, determined to arrest the descent. He thrusts the throttles all the way forward to try to pull his jet out of it.
"I could sense from his face that something was wrong and the airplane was out of control," Anderson says.
Says Bill Crocker, Munson's friend: "Knowing his personality, he was going to fly that thing himself. He was going to do everything himself."
The plane is maybe 300 feet off the ground when Munson pushes the throttle all the way forward. Witnesses on nearby Interstate 77 are alarmed by the dangerously low-flying aircraft, the runway still a couple of thousand feet away. In his rear-facing seat, Anderson has turned around and faces forward so he can help. Now he faces toward the rear and kneels down and braces for the crash he knows is coming.
* * *
During his stay with the Murcers in Chicago, Munson finds a small airport to fly in and out of. Lou and Anita Piniella are also staying with the Murcers. Munson wants Bobby and Kay to fly back to Canton with him Wednesday night after the game. "You don't have enough hours in that thing for me to fly with you," Murcer tells him, only half-joking.
The Murcers and their two children all go to the airport and sit with Munson in the Citation before he takes off. The interior is Yankee blue. It's a beautiful new plane and Munson seems very proud of it.
"Why don't you go down to the end of the runway and watch me take off? Munson says.
The Murcers drive down the runway, and soon Thurman Munson and N15NY are zooming toward them, sleek and fast and with a rush of full-throttle roar. Bobby Murcer turns to Kay: "I cannot believe that Thurman is up there in that powerful machine all by himself."
"And then the plane disappeared into the night," says Murcer. "It was the last time I saw him."
* * *
4:02 p.m. The cockpit is quiet as N15Ny keeps going down. Munson keeps on flying, hoping for lift that doesn't come. "He went too slow and basically dropped out of the sky," George Ackley says. The plane rips into treetops and Munson stays steady, and even as a wing is ripped off he tries to ease it down. N15NY hits the ground 870 feet from Runway 19, and skids through the low brush of a sloping, uncultivated field. It careens into a ditch, ripping off the nose gear and through small trees and then slams into a massive tree stump, spinning around and kicking forward and coming to rest on Greensburg Road, a two-lane strip of asphalt just outside the airport fence. Runway 19 is still 600 feet away, at the top of a 50-foot embankment.
N15NY is stopped, at last. Hall and Anderson each have the same incredulous thought: "We're on the ground. We're still alive. We actually are going to survive this."
Says Anderson, "Thurman flew that airplane to the last nanosecond. He kept it under control and brought us down. He never panicked. He saved our lives."
Munson's legs are pinned by the crushed fuselage. The main cabin door is jammed shut and his seat is loose, smashed off its track. His face is bleeding from slamming into the panel. Thurman Munson can't free himself. Any moment the plane is going to go up. The pilot is worried about his friends.
"Are you guys okay?" he asks. They are the last words he will ever speak.
Hall leans over and tries to free Munson, but can't, and Anderson tries to open the door right behind the pilot's seat, but it won't budge.
"Thurman was unconscious," Anderson says. "We just couldn't get him out of there. We tried, but we just couldn't budge him. Smoke and fire were entering the cabin, and when I opened the emergency door, flames shot in and it was so intense we didn't have any choice."
Anderson dives through the flames to the ground, and Hall follows.
"We had to leave that airplane knowing that Thurman was not coming with us," Anderson says.
He and Hall are taken to area hospitals, suffering from second- and third-degree burns.
Fire and rescue trucks arrive within minutes. It takes 30-40 seconds for the flames to be doused. It is too late for the Yankee captain, who is overcome by smoke and heat at the controls of N15NY. He likely would've been fine if the plane had not hit the stump. He is pronounced dead at the scene by the Summit County coroner.
According to the NTSB report, "the pilot died from the effects of fire." There has not been a fatality at Akron Canton Regional Airport since that day.
* * *
4:45 p.m. The doorbell rings at the Munson home in North Canton. The kids come running. "Daddy's home!" they yell. Diana Munson looks quickly through the door before she opens it. It is Don Armen, the head of the flying school at the airport, along with two colleagues. She knows right away this is not good. She figures Thurman might've been hurt. That must be it.
"There's been an accident at the airport, and Thurman is gone," he says. Diana Munson collapses to her knees on the front lawn. A few moments later, she goes inside and gathers Tracy and Kelly and Michael and tells them that Daddy has gone to heaven, because God must've wanted to have more good people there.
* * *
Bobby Murcer hears the news from the Yankees and he and Kay fly straight to Canton and spend the night with Diana and the kids. Other friends and family members are around, 20 people in all. They stay up all night, talking around a big round kitchen table, a night of tears and reminiscence and questioning and devastation.
"It was just the worst day of all of our lives," Diana Munson says. "It doesn't get any easier. It just gets different."
Almost immediately, people begin leaving memorials by the burned blacktop of Greensburg Road, and by the tree stump maybe 75 feet away. George Ackley would drive by it every day and get chills. Diana Munson saw a psychiatrist after the accident and he told her she eventually would need to go to the crash site and feel all her pain and anger. Two years later, she did just that. She drove the 10 miles or so from her dream house to Greensburg Road and walked the pavement and the gnarly field, and down the little dip toward the stump. She went everywhere, every last stinking spot. She hated every moment. It almost made her physically sick. "If I was ever going to really heal, I had to do this," she says.
Every year on Aug. 2, seemingly without fail, Diana Munson notices when it's 4:02 p.m. She'll see it on a bank sign or hear it announced on the radio, or see it in the house. It isn't what she needs, but she does what she has done for a quarter-century. She gets past her pain, and lives her life, with strength and grace. She has five grandchildren, and Kelly Munson, the middle child, is a few weeks away from having No. 6. They are a blessing beyond all measure.
She was angry at God for a long time, but that has passed. She has deep faith. She says she knows he had a plan. There were signs. Why was John Denver, who died in a plane crash, in his cassette player? How could she and Thurman have had that touching phone conversation after she watched "A Star Is Born?" It was a chance to say goodbye.
"I'm never going to have happiness the way I had it with Thurman," she says now. "It was the happiest I've ever been in my life, being married to him and raising our children. I can sit around and complain about how I missed out and the kids missed out, or I can choose to say, 'How blessed are we? We had Dad for the years we had him. We're healthy. We have wonderful children and grandchildren. We have way more than most people ever have as far as love and good memories, and isn't that what it's all about?"
* * *
2:45 p.m., June 25, 2004. The trees have been taken out of the field just north of the runway that Thurman Munson crashed into, and the bluff the runway rests atop has been regraded so it's not so steep. The field is a patchwork of weeds and wildflowers, eerie in its stillness. The stump is long gone. "I've been here 20 years and the stump hasn't been here since then," says Todd Laps, airport operations supervisor, as he drives down Runway 19 toward Greensburg Road in his red pickup. It is a cool day with a light breeze, not unlike the conditions of Aug. 2, 1979. Along the wall of the operations office, surrounded by fat reference manuals, is a black three-ring binder, thick and well-worn, with an index card taped to the cover. It reads, "Munson Crash, AUG. 2, 1979"
It's full of details, depositions, photos, a compendium of tragedy on a metal shelf, with everything but the heartache.
"He was a living legend around here," Todd Laps says.
* * *
Along the far back wall of the Yankee clubhouse, next to Derek Jeter, is the locker of the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig. It has No. 15 on the top and has a catcher's mask and chest protector and Jeter makes sure everyone knows this is sacred space, a place belonging to Thurman Munson. Diana Munson has never been in the clubhouse to see it. Next Saturday is Old Timers Day, and she and Tracy, Kelly and Michael will be part of it. Kelly remembers playing in the clubhouse as a little girl with her sister, eating candy bars and being with their dad. She loves the smell of the Stadium. It smells like no other place and she loves being there, and yet when she walks in and hears Bob Sheppard's voice, well ... How are you supposed to feel? "There's probably nowhere that it hits you worse," she says.
Still, it will be great to be back. Diana Munson doesn't like to ask for special favors, but she's thinking if she can work it out she would like to have a quiet moment in the locker room, with the kids, a moment to see her husband's locker and look into it and even though she knows she'll be crying, it will feel really nice to remember the good times once more.
Originally published on July 4, 2004